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The Asper Slam on News Media

'Lazy, dishonest, biased, Marxists' and more accusations from Izzy and son Leonard.

Marc Edge 23 Nov

Marc Edge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He is also the author of Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly (Vancouver: New Star Books), 2001. Visit him online at

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CanWest CEO Leonard Asper.

[Editor's note: This is the last of four excerpts from Marc Edge's new book 'Asper Nation: Canada's Most Dangerous Media Company.']

While not a follower of Judaism, Israel Asper admitted an affinity with his namesake Jewish homeland established in Palestine after World War II, which displaced indigenous Arabs. "I'm what you would call a secular Jew," he told the Toronto Star in 2000. "I do consider myself quite Jewish in cultural terms. Very early on, I became a Zionist. It's been a lifelong pursuit of mine." After the 1973Yom Kippur War, Asper was instrumental in raising money and political support for Israel. He helped found an informal organization that evolved into the Winnipeg Jewish community's lobbying arm, the Canada-Israel Committee. Over the years, he had been a sharp critic of Canada's foreign policy toward Israel. After CanWest acquired the Southam newspapers, he often made his views known in print.

In a June 2001 speech in Jerusalem, Asper described Canada's UN record of voting to condemn Israel's actions against the Palestinians as "shameful." The speech was given on accepting an honorary doctorate after he contributed $5 million to help establish a business school at the Hebrew University. It was excerpted in the National Post and other CanWest newspapers. In it, Asper blamed most of the Western world for allowing the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews. "Britain welching on its word, duplicitously shut down Jewish immigration, and countries like Canada refused to accept fleeing European Jews as immigrants, all combining to trap Europe's Jewish community and leave it intact for Hitler's inferno."

In September of 2002, the Asper Foundation co-hosted a four-city speaking tour in Canada by former hard-line Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After 200 window-smashing protesters disrupted Netanyahu's speech at Montreal's Concordia University, forcing its cancellation, Asper accused them of Nazi tactics. "The minority of a rabble, a rioting group of essentially thugs [and] lawbreakers employed the techniques introduced 70 years ago by Adolf Hitler and his Brown Shirts," he said after five arrests were made. The incident was made into a CanWest Global film the following spring, Confrontation at Concordia, by Middle East correspondent Martin Himel. It compared the window smashing at Concordia to the 1938 Kristallnacht that saw Jewish shop windows smashed across Germany and presaged the Holocaust. Numerous groups, including those representing Muslims and Palestinians, complained to the CRTC and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council that the film defamed them. Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle described it as "absurdly pointed" and an "outrageously aggressive" point-of-view documentary. The film did not mention the Asper Foundation's role in sponsoring Netanyahu's tour.

'Lazy, biased journalism'

A month after the Concordia incident, Asper made his strongest criticism yet of the news media and those who did not support Israel. In a Montreal speech, he attacked journalists in Canada and around the world for their coverage of the Middle East conflict. The speech was excerpted in the National Post and other Southam newspapers. "Both Israel and the honour of the news media are under grievous assault," he told a dinner hosted by the fundraising group Israel Bonds. "Dishonest reporting is destroying the trust in and credibility of the media and the journalists, and the same dishonest reporting is biased against Israel, thus destroying the world's favourable disposition toward it."

The first and worst lie is what this war is all about. Dishonest reporting tells you that it's about territory, and Jerusalem, and Palestinian statehood, and alleged refugees. Honest reporting would tell you that it is a war to destroy Israel and kill or expel or subjugate all the Jews. That is proved by the words and deeds of all the key Arab Palestinian leaders. But the media has bought and reported dishonestly and relentlessly the big lie. That big lie is that this war could be ended by Israeli land concessions.

Asper named many international media outlets, including CNN, the BBC and the New York Times, in providing examples of alleged bias. He promised he would not mention Canadian media outlets by name because they were competitors to CanWest, with one exception. "That exception is the CBC," he said, "because all Canadians own it and the governments we elect are responsible to us and it for its quality, and integrity." He singled out the CBC's Middle East correspondent, Neil Macdonald, for incorrectly portraying Palestinian suicide bombers. "The CBC, along with . . . other left-wing media, will still not label the Palestinian murderers as terrorists. By any world recognized definition of terrorism, they are terrorists, but the CBC, particularly in the person of Neil Macdonald, simply refers to them as 'militants.'" Reasons for the biased media coverage, according to Asper, ranged from negligence to malice. "Firstly, too many of the journalists are lazy, or sloppy, or stupid. They are ignorant of the history of the subject on which they are writing. Others are, plain and simple, biased, or anti-Semitic, or are taken captive by a simplistic ideology." Asper announced he had a remedy for the problem, however. "The solution starts on the campus, and in the journalism schools, then it goes to the boardrooms of the media owners, and finally, and most importantly, with the public."

He urged his audience to take action to influence not only media coverage, but also the education of journalists. "You, the public, must take action against the media wrongdoers," he said, suggesting the cancellation of subscriptions and the withholding of advertising from media guilty of "dishonest" reporting. He urged the formation of "honest reporting response groups" to call offending media to account. He advocated political activism to influence government policy in favor of Israel, which he called "the only beacon of democracy in a swamp of hate, violence and terrorism." One way of helping to change media coverage of the Middle East, he told his audience, was for them to join the boards of universities. Once in a position of influence, he added, they should "demand that the administrators of higher education retake control of the teaching process."

We must demand that the journalism schools do a better job of teaching integrity more forcibly. Then, we must demand that our media owners invest more money in educating their journalists, and media operators. . . . And we should withhold our financial support from those institutions that fail this obligation of educational integrity.

Asper even issued a warning to the journalists he employed. "If any CanWest media outlets happen to fall within this indictment, then they, too, should take notice that I will always do all in my power to stamp out dishonest reporting, and biased reporting on any subject." Honest reporting, he said, included fulfilling certain responsibilities. "The responsibility to report everything that the public needs to know about a given matter and not just selectively, so that the public may be fully informed; to report everything honestly and not slant the news, biased toward their own point of view. That is, news is news, and should appear as such, and opinion is opinion, and must be clearly designated as such." Dishonest reporting, on the other hand, came in several forms, according to Asper, including the use of misleading terminology. "The term 'terror' has been well defined by major recognized laws," he said. "But many biased media describe the Palestinian perpetrators of clear acts of terror against Israel, merely as 'militants,' 'resistance fighters,' 'gunmen,' 'extremists.'" A blatant example of this type of dishonest reporting, he added, was a report on National Public Radio in the U.S. According to Asper, it described "a group of Arab murderers who crept into an Israeli home, at night, and murdered a mother and her children, as 'commandos!'" Similar terms, such as "cycle of violence," "moderate Arab states," "peace process," "occupied territories," and "illegal settlements," he said, had become tools. They were used by "journalistic propagandists in their desire to create undeserved sympathy for the Palestinians and opprobrium for Israel."

His father's son

Although he was Izzy Asper's youngest child, Leonard showed at an early age the affinity for business that would make him the logical successor to his father as CanWest CEO. According to his sister Gail, Leonard was reading the Wall Street Journal and carrying around the Canadian securities handbook in pre-adolescence. His brazen nature was demonstrated by the story she told about how, when Leonard was three, he picked flowers from a neighbor's front yard and tried to sell them back to the owner. The inclination toward larceny, reported Ric Dolphin of the Calgary Herald, ran in the family. "She and David used to do the same thing with crabapples." One of Leonard's earliest lessons in business, he told another Herald reporter, came after he hurried home with $6 in revenue from a lemonade stand he set up at age four. "Dad said, 'What did the gas cost for your Mom to go to the store to buy lemonade? What did the lemonade cost? What did you pay for the Dixie cups? How much was the wagon and how about that little tray you used for a cash register?'" The realities of entrepreneurship thus sank in at an early age. "By the time he'd finished," Leonard recalled, "I'd lost $600 and was a puddle of tears."

Named CanWest CEO in 1999 at age 35, Leonard's youthful looks and pleasant disposition often led business associates to find him out of place in the cutthroat corporate world. "Leonard lacks the imposing presence, the growl and glare, of his . . . father; in its place is an apparent willingness to please," noted Report on Business magazine in 2000. "A dimpled grin and a boyish enthusiasm gives the young CEO a somewhat merry air that, were he anyone else, might make it difficult for him to gain serious attention in a boardroom." Those who made the mistake of under-estimating him, however, were missing some important traits Leonard inherited from his father, noted Maclean's. "People talk so much about Izzy Asper's smarts that they miss or ignore similar qualities in Leonard, whose polite, soft-spoken manner and enormous devotion to his family belie his toughness."

Of all the Asper offspring, Leonard took after his father most of all in the public arena, proving to be almost as prodigious and pugnacious. "He has his father's quick tongue and love of a good fight," noted Gordon Pitts in Kings of Convergence. According to business writer David Olive, Leonard also had "his litigious father's intolerance for dissenters, both in and outside the camp." His verbal fractiousness was evidenced by the insults he often dispensed toward critics of CanWest. He seemed to love the public pulpit as much as his father did, and he used it often to dispense his opinions. In appearing before the Lincoln Committee hearings on broadcasting policy in 2002, for example, he ridiculed critics of media concentration. "Canadian media are more fragmented and less concentrated than ever before," he testified. "I submit that people who believe otherwise are not looking at the facts and they also probably believe Elvis is still alive." In 2003, while announcing changes at the National Post, he derided the Post's competition as an "axis of snivel."

In his father's mold

Like his father, Leonard Asper reserved his strongest attacks for the CBC. He echoed his father's argument that the CBC should not be competing with private networks by airing popular programming such as news and sports. "Because private broadcasters can now afford to, and are showing a willingness to, invest in news and information programming, the CBC should produce only that kind of programming that is not commercial," he said in 2003. "That's why we say they shouldn't carry Hockey Night in Canada using your money, my money, taxpayers' money to outbid private broadcasters for something that private broadcasters would do just as well." Hockey Night in Canada was one of the few programmes that actually earned a profit for the CBC. Asper argued, however, that the public broadcaster should instead spend taxpayer dollars on unpopular programming. "Where it's uneconomic to invest is [in] what they call indigenous drama: kinds of things that don't unfortunately get the ratings but are deemed to contribute to Canadian culture or help Canadian artists," he said. "That's what the CBC should do though, is try new programs, try the drama, the variety programming and the arts programming that doesn't make it on an unsubsidized broadcaster."

Leonard Asper also saved his harshest criticism of the CBC for its coverage of the Middle East, in particular correspondent Neil Macdonald. In a speech in September of 2003, Asper reprised his father's attack on the world media, accusing them of bias against Israel. He went one step farther, however, and attributed the bias to racism. "Racism is very difficult to prove, particularly when the accused do not openly state the reason for their attacks or their bias," he told an audience at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg. "No reporter screams: 'I hate Jews.'" The racism of news media was instead an "institutionalized" bias against Israel, according to Asper. "Knowingly or not, the media who cover Israel do not recognize it as either a homeland or a fortress for the protection of Jews both within Israel and for Jews living everywhere." He saw the reporting as resistance to making Israel a Jewish homeland. "Therefore to them Zionism is racism," noted Asper, "and some reporters condemn all Jews for the existence of what they deem to be a racist state." Terrorism in support of displaced Palestinians, he pointed out, had resulted in wild conspiracy theories.

The reversion to the "blame the Jews" solution for terrorism everywhere is prevalent among the intelligentsia, including journalists. The Jews and therefore Israel are to blame for 9/11; they are to blame for the attacks on the United States and UN installations; they are to blame for the war in Iraq, and even economic decline.

Attacking the media

Asper's speech, which was excerpted in the National Post and other CanWest newspapers, echoed his father's attack on lazy, stupid, ignorant journalists for dishonest reporting. Part of the problem, he said, was that unlike its early underdog years, Israel had come to be seen as the aggressor in the conflict. "Many news journalists are either doctrinaire socialists or hold political views left of center," he said. "They are generally supportive of anyone who they deem to be oppressed, victimized or otherwise aggrieved by a stronger party." The problem was made worse, he added, by the fact that Israel was "unprepared for propaganda wars." It was thus losing the battle for hearts and minds in the television age. "Journalists, some of whom are even Jewish, complain openly that they generally receive only an official government statement from Israel, often post-deadline, while from the Arabs they are granted interviews with whomever they want -- Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Aqsa or Islamic Jihad."

They get instant access to wild funerals, replete with bug-eyed youths chanting "death to Israel and America" and they are given packaged home videos from Arabs. These home video shots are either fabricated or edited to paint Israelis in the worst possible light. Professional ethics have fallen by the wayside in the interests of good raw video and deadlines.

Some reporters covering the Middle East, he added, were "fooled by the openness of Israeli society" and the debate in that country over treatment of the Palestinians. Disagreement between politicians from the Labour and Likud parties, he said, as well as by journalists from Israeli newspapers, led many journalists to an incorrect conclusion. "The raging debate," he said, "confirms in many journalists' minds that Israel does bear at least some blame for the deaths that occur on both sides of the conflict." The biggest problem, he added, was that many journalists covering the Middle East simply lacked the background to do so competently. "Many reporters sent to the Middle East are unqualified for complex war coverage," he said. "They know nothing about the history but worse, they do not bother to make their own inquiries." Most journalists, he said, did not know that "the terrorist and weapons-infested Jenin refugee camp is run by the United Nations and has been for more than 50 years." Sympathy for Palestinian refugees seemed to Asper undeserved and mostly due to the ignorance of journalists. "Most do not have any clue that the so-called Arab refugees became refugees because they were urged to leave by Arab leaders when they were attacking Israel in 1948." Asper singled out only one media outlet and one journalist by name in charging "hints of anti-Semitism" in the Canadian media.

When Hezbollah, the well-known terrorist group, was finally banned in Canada, Neil Macdonald of the CBC pompously, but dangerously, suggested Hezbollah was a "national liberation movement victimized by unfair smears cast around by supporters of the Jewish state." No reference to Israel, just "the Jewish state."

Pointing out that while some journalists were "neither Marxists nor anti-Semites," Asper lamented that "they have little help." Fortunately, he told his audience, CanWest had been working toward a solution. "There is some hope, as we have found in observing the results of various programs to educate journalists," Asper continued. "With fair-minded journalists, who actually do care more about the truth than their own ideologies, there has been a positive response once the hard facts are known. But for some, their work must be done for them." In addition to training programs, proper media hiring practices were important to ensure the correct coverage of news, he added. "Media proprietors and managers must ensure that the people they hire do not bring their ideology into their newsrooms, and that journalists do proper research before filing stories." He echoed his father's call to action by urging his audience to hold the media's feet to the fire and point out anti-Israel bias where they detected it. "The media must be held accountable, just as they purport to hold others accountable. Respond to bias when you see it. Demand informed, objective and accurate reporting."

Some in the media were outraged that Asper had spoken out on such contentious issues. Christopher Dornan, then director of Carleton University's journalism school, thought it was entirely appropriate for Asper to give his opinion on an issue of concern to journalists, however. After all, he was the CEO of Canada's largest private-sector news media company. "No, the problem is not that he spoke out," wrote Dornan in the Globe and Mail. "It is what he said." The CanWest leader's criticism of Canadian journalists, according to Dornan, was not only ill-advised and ill-founded, but worse. "Here's what's wrong with Mr. Asper's position: It's dumb as all get out." While Asper had prefaced his remarks by stressing they were his personal views and not CanWest editorial policy, Dornan found his disclaimer "either disingenuous or naive." The resulting influence on CanWest journalists was unavoidable, he noted. "When the person in charge of a national media corporation offers his deep-down opinion on what he hopes for in news coverage, the people who work for him cannot help but take notice." The extreme nature of Asper's comments betrayed his own ideology, noted Dornan.

Journalists are all too often constitutionally Jew-hating Marxists who are intellectually dishonest and therefore morally bankrupt? Pardon? Mr. Asper takes a complicated matter that merits serious attention and reduces it to baiting and name-calling. He should know better, but apparently, he doesn't. This guy hasn't the foggiest idea how journalism works, but for the moment, much of Canadian journalism works for him.

Izzy Asper died of a heart attack a week later, leaving Leonard as "Canada's most important media magnate," according to the Globe and Mail. Gordon Pitts had already deemed him the country's most important media executive because "unlike his rivals at BCE and Bell Globemedia, Leonard actually owns the shop." The CanWest founder's funeral in Winnipeg drew a crowd of 1,600 mourners, including Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper. Leonard Asper, his voice breaking with emotion, eulogized his father. "Thank you for what you gave to the world and to your family," he said. "We have your checklist. We know what's left to be done. We will not let you down."

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