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Marc Edge on 'Asper Nation'

His new book traces 'dangerous' rise of CanWest Global.

David Beers 13 Nov

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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Edge: Diversity vital.

CanWest Global's slogan is "Inform, Enlighten, Entertain." Marc Edge frames it differently. "Canada's Most Dangerous Media Company" is the subtitle to Asper Nation, Edge's comprehensive, fast-paced, indispensable new book on CanWest Global and its founding family.

Beginning today, The Tyee is publishing four substantial excerpts from Asper Nation, tracing the Asper family's political agenda, their media empire's rise, and the power it wields as the biggest of just a few Big Media owners in Canada.

Edge, who worked as a reporter and editor for the Vancouver Province and Calgary Herald before earning a PhD in Mass Communication at Ohio University, carved out his reputation as an historian of Canadian media with his first book, Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly. He is today an associate professor of journalism at Sam Houston University in Huntvsille, Texas, and has spent five years researching and writing Asper Nation.

'End of the world'

When did it become clear to Edge that CanWest Global, founded by the late Izzy Asper and now run by his sons Leonard and David, is "dangerous" to Canada's democracy? He points to the end of 2001, when the Aspers, having recently bought the Southam newspaper chain from Conrad Black, ordered 13 of its 14 major dailies to march lockstep in publishing editorials emanating from headquarters. In the aftermath, Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills and others were fired for daring to put their own, contrary opinions in CanWest Global pages.

When reporters at the Asper-owned Montreal Gazette protested the top-down meddling by pulling bylines, David Asper famously told "the bleeding hearts of the journalist community that it's the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine."

But even if CanWest owns dozens of newspaper across the nation along with Global TV and other television stations reaching 94 per cent of all Canadians, and even if CEO Leonard Asper has said he aims to make his company one of the top five media companies on the planet, how much torque can the Aspers really put on our democratic process?

In responding, Edge touches on several media theories. One is "agenda setting." Research has shown again and again that "those election issues covered prominently in the news media tend to be perceived by the public as the most important election issues. Items buried tend not to make it on the agenda for public discussion." Edge says the message is clear: "While the media can not tell us what to think, they are very influential in telling us what to think about. The way these stories are covered not only tell us what to think about, but how we think about it."

'The Fox effect'

Other research shows that media instills cultural values within us. "People who watch more television tend to see the world the way it is portrayed on TV. But the violent content doesn't make them more violent. It makes them more fearful of violence. This has profound social and political implications, because people who are more fearful tend to be more accepting of repressive political measures to fight crime and terrorism."

Edge points to the so-called "Fox effect," which he says "is instilling a culture of fear in Americans." The popularity of Fox news jingoism jerked coverage from CNN and other competitors to the right. Edge notes that Conrad Black launched the National Post two years after Rupert Murdoch created Fox news. The Post, now owned by the Aspers, is "a similar attempt to influence the national political agenda in Canada."

Is it working?

"According to Izzy Asper it is working," says Edge. He cites the last interview Asper gave. To the Jerusalem Post, Asper bragged of the sway his media empire exerts over the Canadian government, and beyond.

Time for action

Edge believes it's time for the CRTC to step in and "look at regional media diversity, and act to increase it where necessary." The first place he'd recommend intervening: the Vancouver region, dominated by CanWest Global newspaper and television entities.

And he suggests that journalism schools, including UBC's, stop taking millions of dollars in funding from CanWest and other big media corporations. "The Aspers, in talking about their educational initiative, have been clear in saying they want to change Canadian minds not just through their news media, but by educating journalists the 'right' way," says Edge.

Edge finds hope in the U.S., where a vibrant media reform movement is mobilizing against yet another attempt by the Bush administration to allow more media mergers and cross ownership.

Asked what he hopes his book might achieve, Edge laughs and says: "A second printing." Then he turns a bit more serious. "Canadians should know what the facts are with their news media. They're certainly not going to get the facts about the news media from their news media."

Today's excerpt from Asper Nation will be followed by another Friday, and two more next Tuesday and Friday.

Find out more about Asper Nation.

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