The Press Gets the Finger

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

I spent most of last week by a placid, shimmering lake in Ontario, Canada, far from the news, the bleating of Washington's talking heads, the drum of war, the full-throated pitches for Japanese cars.

The silence was heavenly. But I was jolted back to reality by the cover of a magazine in a small country store. It read, "The Death of Canadian Journalism."

The magazine, called Adbusters, detailed the internal malaise at the Vancouver Sun, that city's main daily newspaper, as emblematic of the larger ills affecting Canada's media, mostly because of rampant consolidation of ownership.

The magazine says that just four corporations distribute 70 percent of Canada's daily newspaper circulation, three corporations control most of the televised news market and one company owns most of the country's radio stations.

At the Vancouver Sun, a "dull suburban paper pretending to be a respected urban broadsheet," anyone who dares question the authority of editor-in-chief Patricia Graham "is bullied, isolated and forced out of the paper," according to the Adbusters reporter, Sean Condon.

It was not always so. When the Sun was part of the Southam chain, it was a respected paper that boasted some of the top journalists in the country and "consistently broke stories that changed the political landscape."

"But once CanWest Global Communications got its hands on the Sun in 2000, it slashed funding, silenced writers and allowed an inexperienced, and strangely insecure, management to take control," Condon writes.

The corporation, based in Winnipeg, now owns both of Vancouver's daily newspapers, the city's top-rated TV station, 12 community papers, eight analog and digital TV stations, and one of two national newspapers.

"Cities stagnate in consolidated media markets," Condon writes. Vancouver, he says, is now a "throwback to the classic company town," the "single-most media concentrated city in the western world."

CanWest has tossed out the basic principle of journalistic autonomy and implemented a national editorial policy. It demands that its papers not run any editorial that runs counter to the company's "core positions," which focus on lowering taxes and supporting Israel. It also calls all Palestinian militants "terrorists."

Condon quotes Mark Edge, a former Vancouver journalist, as saying, "If you want to see the future of media, just look at Vancouver."

In the U.S., where the Federal Communications Commission is considering relaxing its rules on media ownership in single markets, "This is how it could end up," Edge said.

In another indication that Canadian media are being shaken by the same economic forces as the U.S., there's a chance that the Toronto Star, where Ernest Hemingway once worked as a reporter, could be put up for sale.

Its main competitor, the Globe and Mail, reported yesterday that one of the five families that control the holding company for The Star might sell some or all of its non-voting shares.

The news from the Thall family recalls the recent sale of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, by the Bancroft family, who have owned the company for 105 years.

"The Bancrofts, like the Thalls, once expressed deep commitment to a venerable newspaper property. But as the family became more scattered and less connected to its major asset, that commitment ebbed," the Globe and Mail story said.

Canadian journalism got another black eye recently when Conrad Black, once one of its biggest media moguls, was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice. At one time, he controlled more than 400 newspapers in North America. He owned the Chicago Sun-Times and the Jerusalem Post.

Strangely, for a man so involved with the press, Black doesn't think much of journalists. Earlier this year, while walking into a Chicago courthouse, he looked at the reporters covering his trial and gave them his middle finger.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan