media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

30 Oct '08

Controversy Over Heather Mallick’s Sarah Palin Remarks Shows Media Bias

Apparently, it’s reprehensible for Canadian journalists to take shots at Gov. Sarah Palin, but right-wing mudslinging is A-OK.

Do Canadian commercial media operate on a double standard? It seems okay to trash Muslims because that’s in the Canadian tradition of free speech. But watch out if you go after Sarah Palin and old, white, male Republicans, because that’s just left-wing vitriol.

For evidence, you could look to the legion of Canadian media commentators who sprang to the defence of Mark Steyn when he baselessly and consistently attacked Muslims in the pages of Maclean’s. You could then compare Steyn’s adulatory treatment with the vicious attacks the same media commentators directed at former Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick for a piece she wrote for the CBC’s Web site.

Very different reactions to very similar words.

In a Maclean’s excerpt from his anti-Islamic screed America Alone, Steyn claimed that the Muslim world is plotting to take over the West and will accomplish this through jihad and sheer population growth as the number of Muslims expands “like mosquitoes”.

Steyn seems to be able to suggest racist ideas without actually uttering them. For instance, in one column he quotes the right-wing blog Dead Reckoning: “This is so Muslim. If you want to accuse somebody in an Islamic country of offending Islam, you go to an Imam and get him to issue a fatwa against the offender.” “There’s something in that,” Steyn offers. He makes his point, but the words are not his.

Mallick is not so subtle. In her offending column she writes that “it is possible that Republican men, sexual inadequates that they are, really believe that women will vote for a woman just because she’s a woman.”

And what kind of a woman is Palin? She “has a toned-down version of the porn actress look…the overtreated hair, puffy lips and permanently alarmed expression”.

And as for Palin’s family values, “what normal father would want Levi ‘I’m a fuckin’ redneck’ Johnson prodding his daughter?” she asks.

The double standard is illustrated by the Globe’s Margaret Wente. In Wente’s view, Steyn “has probably offended 99 percent of the readers at one time or another. That’s the kind of guy he is. The offending piece is vintage Steyn: provocative, highly coloured and wildly overdrawn.”

Sounds like a description of Mallick’s work, but Wente has different words for her: she is a “sour, narrow-minded writer” who produces simple “vitriolic drivel”. Mallick is a “racist”, presumably for dissing white Republicans. Steyn is not a racist even though he demonizes Muslims. Go figure! (as Wente herself exclaimed in another context).

The Globe’s editorial board continued the double standard. Steyn: “a brilliant writer who sometimes pushes the boundaries of mainstream opinion”; Mallick: a “grotesque attack” and “offensive left-wing drivel”.

And over at the National Post, comment-pages editor Jonathan Kay called Mallick’s work “over the top, hateful, anti-American speech” filled with “childish vulgarity” and “hypocrisy”. Steyn’s work, on the other hand, is simply “brilliant”.

Why the difference in treatment?

Commercial media in Canada are owned by a handful of very wealthy families who have shaped their media properties to reflect their conservative ideologies. When Conrad Black took over the Southam papers in the mid-’90s, he quickly swung the chain to the right by importing a host of libertarian and social-conservative commentators into his newsrooms. He launched the National Post—where Jonathan Kay writes—as a vanity conservative daily, with little regard for fairness, balance, and diversity. The Aspers continued this tradition. It’s also reflected at the nation’s second-largest chain, CTVglobemedia—Margaret Wente’s boss—where the largest ownership stake is held by the world’s 10th-wealthiest family, the Thomsons. Then there’s Ted Rogers and Maclean’s, which gave Mark Steyn a prominent podium. You get the idea.

The CBC, in contrast, is owned by the government of Canada and serves purposes other than returning the largest possible profits to the shareholders or expressing the owner’s views. Most important, it is supposed to reflect the “diversity” of Canada. So one would expect, given the fact that most Canadians vote for liberal-left parties, that the CBC would reflect this critical factor in the selection of opinions it posts on its Web site. The CBC needs to express the views of the majority because the commercial media rarely do.

But watch out if the CBC does the job it is mandated to do, because it makes the commercial media looked flawed by comparison. To mask their right-wing bias, commercial media consistently accuse the CBC of left-wing bias. As Kay wrote in his anti-Mallick screed: the CBC is guilty of “a subtle, pervasive left-wing tilt in news coverage”.

And, as the Globe and Mail explains: “Privately-run newspapers and broadcasters are free to run whatever points of view they wish, with or without balance. But the CBC has a privileged position in this country that it must not abuse with biased commentary.”

If anything, though, the commentators on CBCNews.ca’s Analysis and Viewpoints page, where Mallick’s column was posted, are middle-of-the-road, mostly current and former CBC producers. A few, like Mallick, have no CBC connection. Others with no CBC connection include Russell Storring, a sergeant with the Canadian army, whose columns put a human face on the Harper government’s Afghanistan adventure. And there is Patricia Pearson, a commentator for USA Today, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Maclean’s, who writes a column called A Little Good News because she is fed up with “reports of calamity and doom” from the “hand-wrenching [environmental] alarmists”.

At first, the CBC backed the column. Mallick is “an opinion columnist. She expresses her opinion,” CBC management declared.

But then the National Post’s Kay and, in the U.S., Fox News commentators exhorted the dittoheads in their audiences to take action: contact the CBC and raise hell. (The term dittohead was coined by talk-radio demagogue Rush Limbaugh to describe his legions of faithful listeners who mindlessly agree with his political views without any independent thought. They phone in to his show and say “Ditto, Rush.”)

Fox On the Record host Greta Van Susteren was particularly incensed by Mallick’s attack on Gov. Palin. “She sounds like a pig to me,” Van Susteren offered. And Fox anchor Brit Hume called the CBC “notoriously liberal”.

Van Susteren’s information on the Canadian situation was provided by the Ottawa Citizen’s social-conservative columnist David Warren, one of the people placed in newsrooms by Conrad Black and, bizarrely, kept there by the Aspers. Warren claimed that Mallick was saying what many in the Canadian mainstream media “are just thinking”, indicating a heretofore undisclosed ability to read thought waves. Meanwhile, Warren continued, almost all the conservative journalists “have been hauled before human-rights commissions…merely for discussing subjects like Islam”.

Warren provided not one fact to support his claims, but it was enough for Van Susteren. She urged her viewers to complain to the CBC about “pig” Mallick.

After the CBC’s ombudsman received 300 e-mails, management caved. CBC News publisher John Cruickshank weighed in with the judgment that Mallick’s column was “viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic, and intensely partisan” and announced that it had been pulled from the site. Moreover, Cruickshank offered, CBCNews.ca “displays a very narrow range on its pages…” and he assured readers that this problem “is being immediately addressed”. He promised his organization “will soon expand the diversity of voices and opinions and be home to a diverse group of writers with many perspectives”.

Cruickshank’s promise of greater diversity (bring in more right-wing writers) lends credence to the view he is a Trojan horse placed inside the Mother Corp’s walls by Stephen Harper to assist in undermining and marginalizing public broadcasting. Libertarians and social conservatives across the continent loathe the CBC. They want it gone. So do commercial-media owners. CanWest Global founder Izzy Asper made no secret of the fact he lusted after CBC Television’s $300 million in revenues.

Yet Cruickshank’s vow to expand diversity at the CBC is ironic, given that he was responsible for narrowing diversity after Conrad Black appointed him editor in chief of the Vancouver Sun 13 years ago. A 1998 study by Simon Fraser University’s NewsWatch Canada found that under Cruickshank’s watch, the leaky-condo crisis was censored from the Sun’s pages, perhaps in deference to the paper’s developer advertisers; advocacy and grassroots sources were provided less access to the paper; the amount and favourability of business coverage was greatly increased in comparison to labour coverage; stories about poverty declined in the paper even as poverty increased in the province; and Conrad Black and his company, Hollinger, were both covered less critically in the paper than before Black and Cruickshank took over.

With the CBC on the defensive, the enemy inside the gates, and the commercial media waging relentless warfare, it won’t be too long before the call goes out from the CBC’s Toronto bunker: “Mark Steyn, where are you?”

First published in The Georgia Straight.

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Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada

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Margaret Thatcher transformed British political life forever. So did Ronald Reagan in the United States. Now Canada has experienced a similar, dramatic shift to a new kind of politics, which author Donald Gutstein terms Harperism. Among its key tenets:

  • A weakened labour movement – and preferably the disappearance of unions – will contribute to Canada’s economic prosperity
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The success of Harperism is no accident. Donald Gutstein documents the links between the politicians, think tanks, journalists, academics, and researchers who nurture and promote each other’s neo-liberal ideas.