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The National Post should be the last to lecture anyone about media bias

Edge: The extreme level of ownership concentration in Canada has resulted in a correspondingly extreme conservative media bias

Media Canadian Business

There is something profoundly ironic about the National Post lecturing anyone about media bias, as it did on Saturday in a package complete with a distorted front-page picture of Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre under the headline “A more damaging media bias.” Its teaser to the story inside read “Why conservatives think distortion is baked into news coverage,” and pointed to an article by Stuart Thomson, its parliamentary bureau chief. The irony is that the National Post was founded in 1998 by Conrad Black as an overtly partisan publication whose mission was to help “Unite the Right” of Canada’s then-fractured conservative parties. It not only succeeded spectacularly but took great pride in it recently upon its 25th anniversary. It also recently achieved the shameful distinction of being found by an international study of newspapers to have had the least accurate coverage of climate change.

The National Post bedeviled the Liberals from its debut issue, hounding then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien much as it now hounds current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Attempts by Black to impose his neo-conservatism on the Southam dailies he acquired in 1996, however, met with much resistance since their staffs were traditionally more liberal and had previously enjoyed local autonomy. Izzy Asper, whose Canwest Global Communications owned Global Television, made a mess of trying to impose his anti-CBC, pro-Israel and flat-tax agenda on the Southam dailies a few years later after he bought them from Black. Asper’s clumsy attempt to mandate national editorials, with which the newspapers were not allowed to disagree, was met with nothing less than an uprising, most notably at the Montréal Gazette, where it became a byline strike by a self-styled intifada. The US hedge funds that scooped up the Southam papers out of Canwest’s 2009 bankruptcy have been more successful, first adding the right-wing Sun Media chain of tabloids to its renamed Postmedia Network in 2014. Postmedia’s CEO, Andrew MacLeod, has worked hard to steer the newspapers even farther right, issuing an edict in 2018 for them to become more “reliably” conservative. “We looked at the media landscape in Canada and we found there was a shortage of viewpoints that come from a pro-innovation, pro-free-market, smaller-tax, smaller-government perspective,” MacLeod admitted. “We saw an opportunity to fill that from a strategic point of view.”

The ultimate irony is that almost all of Canada’s largest dailies are now solidly conservative, while the most conservative of all laments liberal bias in the media, so this is a classic Big Lie. Thomson points to “boisterous complaints about ‘Justin journos’ sucking up to the government, purveying ‘fake news’ and peddling lies for partisan and ideological purposes.” The charge arises from the ongoing $595 million news media bailout, which provides yet more irony since it was masterminded by former Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey and campaigned for relentlessly by Postmedia’s newspapers. Thomson is on more solid ground when he points to the one truism about media bias, which is that most individual journalists are undeniably more liberal in their viewpoints that the average citizen due to demographic factors such as age, income, education and urbanism. This has been proven repeatedly over the decades, dating back to a 1937 survey of Washington correspondents which showed that 64 percent had voted Democrat in the previous election, while another six percent supported the Socialist candidate (yes, the US actually had a Socialist Party back then). Media bias has been studied to death ever since, with a spate of books on the subject at the millennium led by former CBS News reporter Bernard Goldberg’s best-seller Bias, which claimed that most news coverage was designed to make Democrats look good and Republicans look bad.

In Canada, the 2003 book Hidden Agendas claimed that news here tended to be left-biased because it focused on whatever reflected poorly on the capitalist system, for example increased unemployment, while ignoring stories about things like increased employment. Like other conservative-authored research at the millennium, it attempted to deflect growing concern over the ever-increasing consolidation of Canadian media ownership onto individual journalists. “Because journalism is in essence a human endeavour, it must reflect the values and political orientations of those who do it,” argued Barry Cooper and Lydia Miljan. “The issue of who owns the company, or how large those holdings may be, does not have a large—or even small—impact.” Instead, the extreme level of ownership concentration in Canada has since resulted in a correspondingly extreme conservative media bias.

Yet Thomson somehow sees an increase in liberal media bias. “The perceived bias can be so subtle that it can be difficult to articulate,” he writes. “Sometimes it’s in the magnitude of the coverage given to progressive issues over others (think: climate versus the economy), and the type of sources that are chosen to comment on the stories.” The surge in media liberalism, he says, has been largely a result of the recent social justice movement inspired by the public murder of George Floyd in the US. “Institutions from retailers to museums began explicitly espousing or supporting views associated with left-wing ideology, like critical race theory,” argues Thomson. “Newsrooms were not immune to the pull.” While there has undoubtedly been increased advocacy for social justice issues among young people recently, Postmedia’s papers seem to have been largely immune from it. To add further irony, the National Post proved so set in its racist, sexist, climate-denying ways that it was recently unionized after a certification drive led by some of its disaffected younger staff members.

The issue of media bias is as complex as it is undeniable and results from numerous factors, of which ideology and ownership are just two of many. A brilliant compendium of the influences on media content, which also include advertising, work routines, government and public relations, can be found in the 1991 book Mediating the Message. Sociologist Herbert Gans found in his classic 1979 book Deciding What’s News that media outlets tend to be neither liberal nor conservative but instead “reformist,” and that ownership’s “virtually unlimited power” over content was countered by various constraints in what amounted to a tug-of-war with journalists.

It’s a pendulum that swings slowly but swings to this day. Partisanship was overt in the 19th century “party press,” which saw most newspapers founded as political party organs. As they increasingly consolidated into local monopolies driven instead by the profit motive in the 20th century, they began to eschew partisanship under the paradigm of “objectivity” in order to attract as large a readership as possible and thus maximize their advertising revenues. Now that Canada’s mainstream news media is about as concentrated—and conservative—as possible, the pendulum is swinging back the other way with young journalists enabled by disruptive technology breaking that monopoly with a more progressive journalism, as exemplified by the recently-founded Unrigged network.

The important thing about media bias is to recognize that, whether overt or covert, it is inevitable and undeniable. Attempts by the National Post to turn the problem of rampant conservative media bias in Canada into one of growing liberal bias can only be scoffed at.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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