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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fox News North?: A Canadian perspective on the partisan press

wall of TVs at Newseum

Photo by Carolyn Williams/Creative Commons

There are many things that Canadians find puzzling about our neighbours to the south: like why you don’t appreciate the joy of pouring vinegar on French fries, or why all your money is the same colour?

But in the past few years, there has been something else that many Canadians have been puzzled about; namely, what’s up with the American press? Or to be more precise, what’s behind the enormous popularity of the hyper-partisan, factually challenged programming presented by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News?

Most Canadians have never actually seen Fox News. It is not carried on basic cable, and even people who can watch it, rarely do. But we do get Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It is carried on both cable and network television, and regularly attracts double the audience of the all-Canadian talk show that runs opposite it.

And it is primarily through Stewart’s nightly evisceration of Fox News that Canadians have come to know and fear Rupert Murdoch’s latest contribution to TV journalism.

A Canadian Fox?

Which is why the possibility of a Fox News-like TV network coming to Canada has gotten many people stirred up.

This spring, a new Canadian station, Sun-TV News, will hit Canadian airwaves. The station is owned by a giant media corporation which publishes a number of right-wing newspapers.

The people behind the new station have close ties to the conservative wing of one of the national political parties, and they promise to counter the purported left wing bias of existing TV news outlets. Does any of this sound familiar?

A partisan press

It’s not as if Canada has no history of a partisan press. Like their American counterparts, early Canadian newspapers were vehicles of commercial and partisan interests. Both the editorial slant of the paper and the way that political news was reported were dictated by whichever party was paying the bills. Readers knew exactly what they were getting.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the American economy had matured to the point where a new advertising-based business model for newspapers could replace one that relied on handouts from political parties. That transition took longer in Canada.

As late as 1902, John Willison, the editor of the Toronto Globe, the pre-cursor to today’s Globe and Mail, was complaining to a member of the Liberal government of the day about the party’s tight control over his paper. “There is not another civilized country in the world,” he wrote, “where newspapers venture to discriminate in their news columns in favour of one party or the other.”

Within a few years, Willison’s nonpartisan dream had come true, and Canadian papers no longer needed money from political patrons to survive. Like newspapers everywhere, they continued to support candidates editorially, but their partisan leanings were not supposed to leach into their news coverage.

Conrad Black and the National Post

Fast forward to 1998. That’s when the now disgraced media baron Conrad Black started a new national newspaper called the National Post. Black wanted to shake up what he believed was the complacent, left-leaning world of Canadian journalism. And, he was looking for a vehicle to promote his various conservative hobby horses; smaller government, lower taxes, de-regulation, privatization, etc.

He also had an abiding hatred for the Liberal Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and was determined to use the Post to help defeat the Liberals at the polls.

The Post’s editorial policy may have echoed the Wall Street Journal, but its style most closely resembled newspapers in the U.K., which have long worn their partisanship as a badge of honour. In Britain, press barons like Rupert Murdoch openly use their papers to advance their political agendas, and the wall between opinion and reporting is much more porous than in North America.

Black was relentless in his pursuit of Liberal malfeasance, real or imagined, and while the Post was a lively addition to Canadian journalism, and the competition provided by the Post forced other publishers to invest more in their own newspapers, the paper never found a substantial audience.

Most Canadian readers continued to choose the duller, more centrist, and less obviously partisan Globe and Mail. Black lost tens of millions of dollars on his newspaper venture before bailing out in 2001.

The reality is that neither social nor fiscal conservatism are winning tickets in Canada. In national elections, between 60 and 65% of voters cast their ballots for centre-left parties. But because that vote is split amongst three parties, the centre-right Conservative party can maintain power while only winning about 35% of the popular vote.

Enter Quebecor

Which is why the decision by another Canadian media baron to launch a new TV station to promote his right wing agenda seems a curious choice. This time, the man with the money is Pierre Karl Peladeau, president and CEO of Montreal-based Quebecor.

Peladeau’s company dominates Quebec media. It owns several successful French-language newspapers, TV, and radio stations in the province, as well as five local “Sun” tabloid papers in English Canada.

Like Conrad Black, Peladeau believes Canadians are ill-served by the news choices that are currently available to them. Canadian TV news is dominated by the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, and CTV, the country’s largest private network. Both operate 24 hour all-news cable stations that go to great lengths to avoid taking a stand on any issue, and generating controversy of any kind.

Balancing public broadcasting

That is especially true of the CBC. The public broadcaster receives about two-thirds of its money from Parliament, and is acutely sensitive to charges of bias. “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate,” the CBC policy book declares. “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.”

Public broadcasting in the U.S. receives almost no government money, but still keeps its employees on a tight leash. Juan Williams’ status at National Public Radio was changed from news correspondent to news analyst in 2008, but that didn’t prevent him from being fired in 2010 after making remarks about Muslims on Fox News that his public radio bosses found offensive.

“News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues,” wrote NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller, even when those positions are taken somewhere other than on NPR.

Canada’s Broadcasting Act

But while public broadcasters in the U.S. and Canada work under similar restraints, there are significant differences when it comes to the regulation of private commercial broadcasters.

In Canada, radio and television in is governed by a piece of legislation called the Broadcasting Act.

It stipulates that programming in Canada must “provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern,” and “serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society.”

In other words, the central liberal values of Canadian society are not up for discussion by Canadian broadcasters.

The Fairness Doctrine

In the U.S., the road to Fox News began with the repeal of the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine was first adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949. It arose out of a long-standing concern in Congress over the enormous power that would be concentrated in the hands of the individuals and corporations that owned the airwaves.

“American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations,” warned Texas congressman Luther Johnson back in 1927. “It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American public.”

The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing matters of public concern, and to present conflicting views about those issues. It did not require a 50/50 balance on every story. It did prohibit stations from broadcasting from a single perspective day after day, without presenting conflicting opinions.

But by the 1980’s, any kind of government regulation of the airwaves had fallen out of favour. President Ronald Reagan filled federal regulatory agencies with people who were fundamentally opposed to regulation, and the FCC was no exception. Reagan named Mark Fowler, a former broadcast industry lawyer, to head the agency.

Fowler had no use for the idea that broadcasters were “community trustees.” He believed they were simply “marketplace participants.” “Television,” Fowler famously declared, was “just another appliance. It’s a toaster with pictures.”

In 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine. An attempt by Congress to reinstate it the following year was vetoed by President Reagan.

Fox News North?

Canada’s newest all-news TV station is scheduled to begin broadcasting in March 2011, but in the past few months, it has already generated more controversy than its counterparts on CBC and CTV have in decades.

The problem began when Quebecor took the unusual step of asking the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which regulates broadcasting in Canada, to grant a special license for Sun-TV News that would have forced cable and satellite providers to take the station as part of their basic cable package. That would have meant the station could attract more money in subscription fees and advertising.

In August, Quebecor hired Kory Teneycke, a former communications director to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to help lobby the CRTC and get Sun-TV News off the ground. And Teneycke had the mainstream media squarely in his cross-hairs.

“Unapologetically patriotic”

“We’re taking on smug, condescending, often irrelevant journalism, we’re taking on political correctness,” Teneycke declared. “We will be unapologetically patriotic, we will offer the type of raw debate that Canadians only find today in coffee shops and around the dinner table. Canadian TV news today is narrow, it’s complacent and it’s politically correct. It’s bland and boring. Our aim is not to bore people to death, we’ll leave that to the CBC.”

That kind of rhetoric coming from someone with close ties to the Prime Minister set off alarm bells for many people on the left of the political spectrum. They worried the Conservative government would lean on the CRTC to grant Sun-TV News the special broadcast license it was looking for.

And despite the assurances from Peladeau and Teneycke that the new station would not be “Fox News North,” there were some worrisome signs. Sun-TV News’s plan was to offer “hard news” during the day, and “straight talk” opinion at night, the same format as Fox.

In its submission to the CRTC, Sun declared that its “straight talk” opinion journalism “will challenge viewers to think – and decide – for themselves,” echoing Fox’s slogan of “we report, you decide.”   And there was some unease when one of the “straight talk” hosts hailed Kory Teneycke as “our Roger Ailes.”

“Hate-filled propaganda”

Opponents of the Sun-TV News bid quickly organized a petition on Avaaz.org, an online activist site. The petition accused Prime Minister Harper of “trying to push American-style hate media onto our airwaves, and make us all pay for it. His plan is to create a ‘Fox News North’ to mimic the kind of hate-filled propaganda with which Fox News has poisoned U.S. politics.”

According to Avaaz, 83,000 people signed the petition, including Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood, 25,000 people sent submissions to the CRTC, and 4000 people donated more than $115,000 to the campaign.

As the opposition to its bid grew, Quebecor decided to pull back. In September, Teneycke resigned in order to “lower the temperature” of the debate. He was also implicated in a scheme to discredit the online petition by stuffing it with hundreds of phony names. In October, the company withdrew its request for special consideration from the regulator.

In late November, the CRTC granted Sun-TV News a standard broadcast license, saying it welcomed “a diversity of voices” in Canadian news. It will now be up to cable and satellite operators to determine how the station will be packaged to its subscribers. And with its license secure, in early January, Quebecor announced that Kory Teneycke was back on board and would be in charge of running Sun-TV News after all.

Can it work?

The new network is still months away from going on air, but few people expect it will be able to duplicate the enormous success of Fox News.

There are questions about whether Quebecor’s pockets are deep enough to finance a national and international TV news-gathering operation.

And the constituency for right-wing media opinion in Canada is not as large as in the U.S., The new network may have limit appeal to advertisers.

It also appears that Canadians aren’t really all that unhappy with their existing news choices. Anger with the “left-leaning elites” in the mainstream media helps energize the Fox News audience, and Sun-TV News is clearly trying to capitalize on that. But that anger may not be shared by Canadian audiences.

One recent survey found that only 9% of English Canadians polled were dissatisfied with their existing news coverage, and only 7% agreed with the statement that TV news reporters were self-interested “elites.”

Finally, the controversy that has accompanied the birth of Sun-TV News indicates that in Canada, Fox News, or at least Canadians’ understanding of Fox News, has turned many people against the idea of a hyper-partisan press.

Fox does not spew “hate-filled propaganda,” as the anti-Sun petition claimed. And the people behind Sun-TV News are probably correct when they argue that their station will not be “Fox News North.” For one thing, their programming will be obliged to live within the constraints imposed by the Broadcasting Act.

But when Canadians look at an American media today that seems more about scoring political points and advancing partisan agendas than seeking truth, and a political system that appears increasingly hyper-partisan and dysfunctional, it is probably not surprising that so many people are worried about taking even a few steps down that road.

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photo of Ira Basen

Ira Basen began his career at CBC Radio in 1984. He was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He has been involved in the creation of three network programs; The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997), and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including “Spin Cycles,” an award winning six part look at PR and the media, that was broadcast on CBC Radio One in January/February 2007, and “News 2.0,” a two part exploration of news in the age of social media that aired in June 2009.

Ira has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and the Canadian Journal of Communication.  He writes a column on media for cbc.ca, and is a contributing editor at J.Source.ca.

Ira is currently teaching at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is the co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf Canada, 2005).

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