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That Sun Column Was No Outlier. Postmedia Has Embraced Dishonest, Dangerous Propaganda

Journalism is essential to a functioning democracy, and it’s falling apart.

Sean Holman 9 Sep

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He produced Whipped, a documentary on the corrosive effects of party discipline, and is now writing a book on the history of freedom of information in Canada.

Canada should “say goodbye to diversity, tolerance and inclusion.”

Those words were printed by the Vancouver Sun on Saturday and delivered to thousands of readers across the city. They were part of an op-ed, written by Mount Royal University instructor Mark Hecht, that cited the Gatestone Institute, a New York-based group known for spreading fake news and anti-Muslim views.

The column, also published online, said nations that have increased their “ethnic and cultural diversity” through immigration have “ended up with a lot of arrogant people living in their countries with no intention of letting go of their previous cultures, animosities, preferences and pretensions.” If Canada wants to “rebuild the trust we used to have in one another,” it should “exclude certain people.”

Regardless of the author’s intentions, the argument stokes the flames of anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment, and gives intellectual comfort to xenophobes and bigots.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Harold Munro soon apologized for the column, which was removed from the websites of the Sun and Province. Kevin Libin, the executive editor of the Postmedia chain that owns the Sun, wrote he “wouldn’t have run that piece in the comment sections that I personally oversaw for many years.”

Despite the executives’ apologies, Hecht’s op-ed is just another example of Postmedia content that undermines journalism to propagandize for radicalized right causes.

It’s becoming clear that the mission of journalism and the values of contemporary conservatism are at odds with one another. And because of the protections against state interference that the news media have traditionally and justifiably enjoyed in democratic societies, we have few legal means of restraining such un-journalistic behaviour. And that may end up destroying democracy as we know it.

Fundamentally, journalism is about supplying the public with the truthful information they need to make the rational and empathetic decisions expected in a democratic society. That’s why journalists report on the effects of government and corporate decisions, as well as social and environmental conditions. That’s also why we pay particular attention to how those decisions and conditions impact vulnerable populations, spaces and places. And it’s why we attempt to expose secret government and corporate information that citizens and consumers have a right to know about.

This mission, embraced more widely in the 1970s, didn’t seem obviously or often inconsistent with conservatism, which was then defined by its desire to shrink the state.

True, some may have been concerned that smaller government could result in more abuses by corporations and capitalism. But those concerns were balanced by the belief that self-interested political and economic behaviour could be in the best interests of society. The critiques of big government in the postwar period also convinced many that the answer to the world’s problems could not be found in state programs and policies. And the mission of journalists and the values of conservatism occasionally even coincided in their common desire to hold government to account.

As we approach the end of the new millennium’s second decade, that’s all changed. The right is becoming radicalized. Many of the movement’s loudest leaders and members are strangers to truth, reason and empathy. U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republicans who support him are the most obvious examples, from their denial of climate change reality to their inhumane treatment of immigrants, refugees and other minorities. But right-wing commentators and parties across the world, including in Canada, have also demonstrated this irrationality and absence of empathy.

We can see it when Conservative leader Andrew Scheer claims the new Canada Food Guide, which promotes the scientifically proven benefits of a plant-based diet, is “ideologically driven.” We can see it when he announced a climate action plan that would mean inaction on the most pressing problem of our age. And we can see it when Scheer associates himself with misinformation and discrimination — from speaking to the yellow vest-tied “United We Roll” protest to making what a former Conservative government immigration minister described as “factually incorrect” statements about the United Nations Global Compact for Migration.

As a result of this irrationality and absence of empathy, journalists now find themselves in functional opposition to conservatism, an uncomfortable position given our desire to be seen as unbiased.

But one cannot be a journalist and be unbiased about the kind of decision-making we are supposed to support in a democracy. And that’s why it’s so alarming to see media organizations such as Postmedia publishing content that propagandizes for the radicalized right-wing causes. Not counting Hecht’s op-ed, the summer months have yielded a number of examples, including:

• A June 28 Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal column by former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith promoting the Climate Discussion Nexus, a website run by historian and National Post columnist John Robson that sows skepticism about the scientific certainty of climate change;

• A July 23 Vancouver Sun op-ed by University of Guelph economics professor Ross McKitrick arguing Vancouver isn’t experiencing a climate emergency because a handful of local conditions don’t indicate there is one — even though global heating is, by definition, a global phenomenon;

• A July 30 Financial Post op-ed by ex-Encana boss Gwyn Morgan understating Canada’s role as one of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters, while stating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “would have us believe that fossil fuel emissions are the sole reason for climate change” when it has never actually made such a claim;

• An Aug. 22 Calgary Herald column by Chris Nelson stating Canada increasingly “serves simply as a country of convenience” for “some immigrants,” without citing any data. Nelson then added “multiculturalism implies there’s really no Canadian culture at all, so feel free... import the very one you supposedly left behind;” and

• An Aug. 22 National Post article that added quotes from Breitbart and Kronen Zeitung to a New York Times story about violence in Germany. The article didn’t mention that the sources of those quotes publish fake news. After concerns were raised, the National Post removed that “potentially questionable” content.

Of course, that’s not to say Postmedia doesn’t also publish journalistic content. Every day its ever-shrinking roster of reporters struggles to cover their local communities and fill their newspapers.

However, at the same time, Postmedia’s editorial pages have also consistently campaigned for conservative parties that support irrational and unempathetic policies.

For example, prior to the Ontario provincial election, Canadaland reported the Postmedia-owned Toronto Sun apparently had an editorial plan to attack incumbent Liberals. Then, during the Alberta election, the company’s papers endorsed the United Conservative Party, with the Edmonton Journal trying to turn the allegations of impropriety made against Jason Kenney’s leadership campaign into a selling point for his premiership — something I’ve never before seen during my career as a journalist. And such support looks like it will only increase during the federal election campaign.

This is not the behaviour of an organization focused on providing truthful information, rationality and empathy. This is the behaviour of an organization acting out of ignorance at best and self-interest at worst.

But what can we do about it? Governments shouldn’t be able to decide what isn’t journalism and punish transgressors. That would be anathema to a free press.

In the past it has been up to the public to reject propaganda masquerading as journalism by refusing to be part of the offending outlet’s audience. In his 1961 book Crusade for Democracy, Virgil Miller Newton Jr., then managing editor of the Tampa Tribune, wrote: “The people, by the simple expedient of refusing to pay the subscription, hold a constant check upon the newspaper editor. And the history of our profession is strewn with the relics of those newspapers which failed in their responsibility to the people and crumbled under the force of that simple check.”

Sometimes that check still works. It did when the public, courageously joined by the Vancouver Sun’s reporters, took a stand against Hecht’s op-ed.

But, as the success of Fox News and similar groups has demonstrated, this safeguard isn’t foolproof. The Vancouver Sun still hasn’t withdrawn McKitrick’s climate op-ed, despite the outcry over it.

And the public check on the media is being weakened as a result of the Liberal government’s well-meaning plan to bail out the Canadian news industry, including Postmedia. Indeed, it’s ironic that a policy meant to protect democracy may be the very thing that further damages it.

Propaganda supporting undemocratic decision-making has often been the herald and handmaiden of dictatorships. And when that propaganda is being published by major newspapers, such a dictatorship may be closer than we think.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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