Even though it's Canada's largest and most influential media conglomerate, it's likely that some staffers at The New Republic are still only vaguely aware of CanWest Global Communications, the Great North media giant that announced it had purchased the 93-year-old Beltway opinion journal.
The good news is that CanWest, run by the Asper family, is expected to beef up TNR's resources both in print and online. Yes, the magazine, whose circulation has cratered in recent years, is scaling back to just twice a month. But CanWest promises to redesign the magazine, introduce more illustrations, and try to make TNR look like a real consumer magazine. (TNR is the only stand-alone magazine amidst the multibillion-dollar media behemoth that's brimming with more than 100 Canadian newspapers and dozens of television and radio properties worldwide.)
That's the good news. The bad news for TNR staffers is that CanWest's recent history is littered with lawsuits, gag orders, and byline strikes, buffered by a steady stream of columnists, reporters, and editors who complain CanWest actively censors its employees who stray from the company's conservative, pro-war, pro-Israel blueprint. On paper, that's not a problem for The New Republic, since it was proudly pro-war and pro-Israel under its previous ownership. But TNR editor Franklin Foer told The New York Times that the CanWest deal cements the magazine's "center-left" philosophy. And more importantly TNR remains, in theory, a publication dedicated to open debate and would likely recoil at any kind of top-down editorial litmus test. Yet that's precisely what Canadian journalists have been complaining about for years with CanWest.
"The Asper family of Winnipeg is violating Canada's cherished tradition of a free media," wrote Haroon Siddiqui, a columnist for the Toronto Star, in 2002. "CanWest has spawned a culture of fear and self-censorship among journalists."
Writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005, columnist Joel Connelly, looking across the border, noted that CanWest's "news coverage has been so slanted that Vancouver's daily papers should be read at a 45-degree angle. ... With its blatant biases and recent cuts in staffing, CanWest demonstrates the perils of having a daily paper monopoly in Seattle."
It will be curious to see how TNR, particularly during the upcoming election cycle, fares under the traditionally heavy-handed ownership of CanWest. Here's a look at the laundry list of conflicts that have arisen in recent years as CanWest tried to muzzle its own journalists:
- In December 2001, CanWest's Winnipeg headquarters announced the chain's 14 daily metropolitan newspapers were to begin running the same unsigned "national editorials." CanWest prohibited the publication of conflicting local editorials. Turmoil ensued when furious journalists at the Montreal Gazette launched a two-day byline strike in protest of the new policy. CanWest executive David Asper then attacked Gazette staffers as "bleeding hearts" and "riff-raff" who engaged in "pathetic politics" and a "childish protest." CanWest quickly imposed a gag order on all its Gazette employees.
- Months later, employees at CanWest's The Regina Leader-Post in Ottawa began their own byline strike after editors there rewrote a news article about speech given by a media critic who claimed CanWest censored free speech. Ten participating journalists were reprimanded with suspensions and pay cuts. "I will not tolerate an employee who is not loyal to his employer," said CanWest founder Izzy Asper. (Izzy died in 2003; his son, Leonard, now serves as president.) "I happen to think the sanction should be much more strong." CanWest extended its Gazette gag order to include all of its news outlets.
- Stephen Kimber quit his job as a columnist for The Halifax Daily News in 2002 after being censored by his CanWest editors: "It was very direct, [they said] 'You can't say anything that would not be supportive of the government of Israel, that might be supportive of the Palestinians, you can't say anything that would reflect badly on CanWest, and you can't talk about [then-Canadian Prime Minister] Jean Chrétien.' " (The Aspers were close political allies of Chrétien.)
- Montreal Gazette columnist Lyle Stewart quit the newspaper in 2002 after three of his weekly columns were spiked. Stewart publicly complained about the "thought police in the CanWest ministry of truth." He also bemoaned "the atmosphere of censorship and intolerance that the Aspers have encouraged throughout the [CanWest] chain."
- In June 2002, Russell Mills, longtime publisher of The Ottawa Citizen, was fired after his paper ran an editorial calling for the resignation of Chrétien for his role in a conflict-of-interest scandal. Mills claimed that CanWest executives resented the fact Mills failed to submit the critical editorial to company headquarters prior to publishing it. Mills later filed legal notice, insisting he was libeled by CanWest president Leonard Asper in the wake of the firing. (Mills later settled for an undisclosed amount of money.) In response to Mills' firing, more than 40 ex-publishers and executives of CanWest's Southam Newspapers chain took out a full-page newspaper ad accusing CanWest of limiting freedom of the press by forcing centralized editorials to run in its daily newspapers.
- In October 2003, a Quebec arbitrator ruled against CanWest by finding that Montreal Gazette journalists had the right to withhold their bylines "as they see fit."
- In February 2004, CanWest was forced to un-gag the Montreal Gazette journalists who had protested the company's central editorial policy. The arbitration settlement reaffirmed the journalists' freedom of speech and their right to "contribute to and participate in open public debate" over the paper's policies.
Unfortunately, when it comes to reporting on the Middle East, CanWest outlets seem averse to "open public debate," with the Asper family often demanding editorial purity on the topic. CanWest is "unabashedly" pro-Israel, company executive Murdoch Davis once famously announced.
Following a deadly, anti-Israeli terrorist attack in Jerusalem in 2001, a CanWest chain-wide editorial announced "Howsoever the Israeli government chooses to respond to this barbaric atrocity should have the unequivocal support of the Canadian government" [emphasis added]. CanWest deplored "the usual hand-wringing criticism about 'excessive force' " and declared, "Nothing is excessive." (Papers were instructed not to publish columns or letters to the editor taking issue with that editorial.)
During an October 2002 speech, Izzy Asper eviscerated media coverage of the Middle East, complaining that "lazy," "sloppy," "stupid," and "anti-Semitic" reporters suffer from a pro-Palestinian bias. "'They have adopted Palestinian propaganda as the context of their stories. They have become partisans in, and not providers of, knowledge about this war against Israel," said Asper.
Montreal Gazette TV critic Peggy Curran was forced to appeal to union officials to get her review of a Middle East documentary critical of Israeli forces for targeting media working on the Palestinian side published. CanWest editors objected to her conclusions. Said Curran: "Usually [television] criticism is criticism, and you're allowed to say what you want. I can't think of another occasion when this has happened to me. Whether you know it or not, you start censoring yourself." Curran soon gave up her critic's job.
Meanwhile, Halifax Daily News columnist Peter March was fired, he said, because he had been critical of Israel. When Doug Cuthand, a columnist for the Leader-Post in Regina and the Star-Phoenix in Saskatoon, compared the plight of Palestinians to that of Canadian aboriginals, his column was spiked, a first in his 10 years with the newspapers. And Montreal Gazette's veteran reporter Bill Marsden once complained that CanWest bosses "do not want any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it's doing."
In 2004, Reuters, the worldwide news agency, asked CanWest to drop the Reuters byline from some articles the chain published because CanWest editors were rewriting copy originating from the Middle East and inserting the word "terrorist" for phrases such as ''insurgents'' and ''rebels.'' CanWest though, had to publish one correction after it erroneously labeled several Palestinian killed by Israeli troops to be "terrorists" when in fact they were "fugitives." CanWest had to publish another correction after it inserted "terrorist" more than half-a-dozen times in an article describing fighting between Iraqis and United States forces in Fallujah.
In a statement following the announcement of the TNR purchase, CanWest declared, "In today's media environment, we need to place a priority on delivering quality content to readers when, where and how they want it. The New Republic is well positioned to do just that."
The question remains: Will CanWest owners allow The New Republic to do just that?