Monday, November 16, 2009

The letter the Vancouver Sun won't publish

A few weeks ago, Vancouver Sun columnist Don Cayo wrote a column headlined "Broadcasters have right to carriage fees." I could not believe that this once-fine newspaper (which I once delivered) would run such a piece of propaganda that so blatantly favors the financial interests of its owner, Canwest Global Communications. I felt compelled to point out not only the newspaper's conflict of interest, but also the flaws in the columnist's argument. When my letter did not run, I wrote to Sun letters editor Rebecca Wigod to ask why not, pointing out that while I teach in Texas (because I can't get a job in Canada), I have some expertise on the subject of "fee for carriage" because I presented a paper on the topic at a conference just last week. She informed me that my letter had been scheduled to run, but that it was pulled by Editorial Page Editor Fizal Mihlar. My letter follows.
Re: Broadcasters have right to carriage fees, Oct. 29
Don Cayo argues that the free market should decide the “fee for carriage” dispute, in which Canada’s television networks want the CRTC to order cable companies to pay them to distribute content they broadcast over the air for free. I agree, but in a free market the cable companies should also be free to decline to pay and to carry the network signals. The CRTC currently requires cable companies to carry network feeds, which results in their advertising being disseminated to many more Canadians than it would through broadcasting alone. That makes the advertising sold by the networks more valuable. The Vancouver Sun (which is owned by one of the television networks seeking fee for carriage, incidentally) pays a trucking company to distribute the hundreds of thousands of copies of its newspaper that it prints daily. Only that way does the advertising it sells become of any value. From that perspective, perhaps the television networks should be paying the cable companies for creating value. Izzy Asper, the founder of Canwest Global Communications (which owns the Vancouver Sun), refused while he was alive to pay one nickel more than he was forced to by the CRTC to support Canadian content when network television was a thriving industry. Now that it is less profitable, his heirs are asking for a regulatory redistribution of profits from another media sector. That hardly sounds like free market economics. The hypocrisy is naked, and the argument is only given credibility by the newspapers the Aspers acquired, as Peter Worthington once noted, “to support their bids before the CRTC.”
Marc Edge
Huntsville, TX

Monday, July 6, 2009

How much did the Aspers pay Peter C. Newman?

The Dean of Canadian Journalism is a plagiarist. There, I said it. That's what I couldn't say in this review.

I found it a surreal experience to read Peter C. Newman’s 2008 book Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul. My book Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company had been published just a year earlier, so I was familiar with just about everything that had ever been written about the late founder of Canwest Global Communications. I fully expected Newman to retell many of the rollicking tales of Asper infamy that had circulated the corporate world for years, and he did not disappoint. My book focused more on the antecedents and consequences of Asper family domination of Canada’s news media, so I cut many of those anecdotes short. I knew there was a lot of fertile yarn-spinning ground out there to be ploughed, however, and Newman made the most of it.

As I read the book, I began to wonder if I might be allowed to review it somewhere. After all, I had just written a similar book, so I could hardly be considered unbiased. It seemed to me an obvious conflict of interest, but I sounded my publisher out on the subject. He disagreed, arguing that my expertise in the subject would make me well qualified to review such a similar book. I pitched the idea to several publications without success. One editor turned me down because he was in a conflict. Another declined because under their guidelines I was in a conflict. Another said it didn’t fit their format, but I suspected there were other reasons. I finally found a taker, or so I thought, in the Vancouver Review. By the time I had finished reading the book and writing my review, however, it was too hot for them to handle, and they dropped it. Here’s why. Much of Izzy rang familiar. Some, it seemed, I had even written myself. Take this passage on page 357.

Edward Greenspon, later the Globe’s editor-in-chief, was enthralled by the gregarious Winnipegger, whom he described as “overloaded with energy, charm and brains.” Trevor Cole labelled him “a work of entrepreneurial art” and commented on his pitiless work ethic: “He will work until the dark and corrugated lids of his eyes leave him slits to see through and his voice seems to rise from the centre of the earth.” Gordon Pitts portrayed him in his 2002 book Kings of Convergence as a man of contradictions–worldly yet firmly grounded by his Manitoba roots. “He is very smart but defensive, carrying a two-by-four on his shoulder about being a Westerner and, some say, a Jewish outsider.”

Compare it to this heavily-footnoted passage on pp. 9-10 of Asper Nation:

Greenspon was obviously turned on by the gregarious Winnipegger. He described him in a magazine cover story the next year as “overloaded with energy, charm and brains.” Trevor Cole labelled him “a work of entrepreneurial art” in 1991. . . . According to Cole, Asper was “driven by the legacy of a workaholic father . . . who was never satisfied with himself or his sons.” The result was a “pitiless” work ethic. “He will work until the dark and corrugated lids of his eyes leave him slits to see through and his voice seems to rise from the centre of the earth,” wrote Cole. “Then he’ll sleep for a day or more.” . . . Gordon Pitts portrayed him in his 2002 book Kings of Convergence as a man of contradictions — worldly yet firmly grounded by his Manitoba roots. “He is very smart but defensive, carrying a two-by-four on his shoulder about being a Westerner and, some say, a Jewish outsider.”

That was OK with me. Even if he did excise the embarrassing part about Asper’s alcoholic father, I actually took it as a compliment that a legend of Canadian journalism would borrow a few sentences from a scribe with only three books to his credit. (Compared to 17 for the former editor of Maclean’s and the Toronto Star.) And while he did not provide references to the page numbers or dates of publication should a reader wish to look up the originals and learn more, at least he credited the authors and plugged one excellent book. But I kept encountering instances where he didn’t even bother to mention the original author of an anecdote or reporter of a quote. I was careful to credit Naomi Lakritz for the yarn about Leonard Asper’s childhood lemonade stand, Ric Dolphin for the one about how his older siblings David and Gail stole crabapples, and Katherine Macklem for telling how Leonard was reading the Wall Street Journal and carrying around the Canadian Securities Handbook as a child. As an historian, I am duty-bound to cite the original sources that comprise the patchwork quilt of my work, just in case anyone cares to look up the originals. Failing to do so, or even to misdocument a reference, can have serious consequences for a scholar’s tenure and promotion hopes.

As a biographer, questions were raised about Newman's standards of research in 2007. “All my books are peppered with footnotes,” he responded. But there are no footnotes or parenthetical references in Izzy, or even a bibliography of sources, so any pretense of scholarship is abandoned and the book qualifies as journalism at best. Journalism, as I point out in my review for, the website of the Canadian Journalism Project, does not adhere to such strict standards of documentation. A certain amount of “borrowing” from the work of others can be acceptable, even unsourced. There is no professional duty on journalists to credit work done earlier by others, and in practice they steal from each other all the time. But is there a line that should not be crossed even in journalism? Surely there is, and if so, Newman clearly steps over it several times in Izzy. On page 213, for example, he sets out Asper’s initial opposition to keeping management of Canwest in the family.
"I never trained my children, or caused them to be trained, to run this company," he insisted. "I trained them to own the company. There's a huge difference. I would have been quite content if Canwest was professionally run by disinterested parties, which is where I predict it will go eventually. You don't get friction when three owners are sitting in a room, it's only when one of them is CEO and he gets defensive about what he did last week or why dividends had to be cut because we bought Company X, and your sister or brother or your nieces and nephews are mad at you."
That sounded awfully familiar, so I highlighted the passage. Alarm bells did not start going off in earnest, however, until after I had written my review and was preparing to submit it for publication. Then I read Newman’s feature on Canwest’s financial woes in the May 4 issue of Maclean’s, where he repeated the quote. He went farther in Canada’s national news magazine, however, claiming the passage was something Asper told him "when I was researching a book about him that was published last year." It was enough to arouse my old reporter’s curiosity, because the sequence didn’t add up – Asper died in 2003 and Newman says he began work on Izzy two years later. A search of my hard drive took only a moment to discover it came from a National Post profile of Asper by Rod McQueen that was published on April 15, 2000. The only difference was omission of the fact that Asper would have been “quite content if none of the children were running this company.” Here’s McQueen’s original version of the quote.
"I never trained my children, or caused them to be trained, to run this company. I trained them to own the company. There's a huge difference. I would be quite content if none of the children were running this company and it was professionally run by disinterested parties, which is where I predict it will go eventually. You don't get friction when three owners are sitting in a room, it's only when one of them is CEO and he gets defensive about what he did last week or dividends have to be cut because we bought Company X and your sister or brother or your nieces and nephews are mad at you."
Reading the next page brought on another episode of déjà vu. By then Asper had agreed to allow his three children into the management of Canwest.
"I didn't encourage it," he said at the time. "In fact, I was vaguely in opposition to any of the kids coming into the business. They were all practising lawyers and were doing very nicely on their own. It was they who got this dynastic glaze in their eyes–which I generally discouraged."
Newman also repeats that quote in Maclean’s, adding some circumstances that suggest he obtained it personally. It was, Newman reported, something Asper had "emphasized in a later interview, when all three of his offspring had joined the company in executive positions." Actually, the passage – even older than the first lifted quote – comes from a 1995 Canadian Business feature by David Berman, who now writes for the Globe and Mail. Newman – or his research assistant, Winnipeg historian Allan Levine – merely reversed the last two words. Here’s the original:
"I didn't encourage it. In fact, I was vaguely in opposition to any of the kids coming into the business. They were all practising lawyers and they were all doing very nicely on their own. It was they who got this dynastic glaze in their eyes – which I discouraged, generally."
Had the quotes not been repeated in Maclean’s, allowing me to download them and do an electronic search, the duplication might have escaped my attention. My reporter’s antennae actually began twitching, however, when I read Newman’s mention in his Acknowledgements, which curiously follow the text rather than precede it, that he received a “research grant” from the charitable Asper Foundation, the terms of which he declared confidential. I got curious and went to the website of the Canada Revenue Agency, where the annual reports of charitable foundations can be found. While he is not listed as a grant recipient, Newman is likely not a registered charity. Examining other lines in the reports, as mentioned in my review, may give some hint of his remuneration, however. Expenditures for “professional and consulting fees” are listed below for recent years.
The spike in 2005 coincides with when Newman says he started working on Izzy. For those without a calculator handy, that’s an increase of $838,257. How much of that, if any, went to Newman is of course unclear. Perhaps he would care to enlighten us on that. As mentioned in my review, paying a legend of Canadian journalism to author a glowing tribute with personal or even corporate money would be bad enough, but using charitable funds means it was subsidized by all tax-paying Canadians.

My last beef involves a charge of anti-Semitism against the Griffiths family for refusing to sell Canwest their B.C.-based Western International Communications. WIC owned not only the provincial superstation BCTV but also some Alberta television stations Asper coveted. Through Newman, Asper alleges that the reason they wouldn’t sell to him was prejudice. His evidence? Nothing, just a gut feeling he got upon approaching Frank and Emily Griffiths. Here’s Newman’s account of the incident.

There was no reply, except for the flash of a meaningful glance between the two WASP owners. Like a guard dog arching its tail in the presence of danger, Izzy could sense something disturbing in his viscera. Then he put a name to what he felt it was. He felt suddenly as if he were back in [his hometown of] Minnedosa, being taunted for being Jewish.
The only justification Newman provides for the charge of prejudice is that Asper said he was “not made to feel welcome” by the Griffithses and that “Frank couldn’t bring himself to treat us as peers.” If Frank and/or Emily Griffiths had contempt for Izzy Asper, there are other possible explanations than prejudice. They had, after all, built Western International Communications through quality programming, as both BCTV and CKNW radio once boasted formidable news divisions. Perhaps that was instead the reason for the cold shoulder.

Asper got his revenge after the WIC patriarch died in 1995, buying up shares in the company in a long-running takeover battle. Ever the lawyer, he also launched a lawsuit over the company’s two-tiered ownership structure that had allowed the Griffiths family to retain control of WIC though their multi-voting preferred shares. In the end, Emily Griffiths sold them to the Shaw family of Calgary, but even that didn’t stop Asper, who forced a stalemate and took WIC’s television stations in a carve-up of the company. Ironically, it is the Asper family’s monopoly on preferred shares of Canwest Global that has allowed his heirs to hang onto control of the mess they have made of the company, and much of Canada’s media.

It’s quite a different story than the one Newman tells.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Maclean’s is the real threat

Having just heard from newly-neocon Maclean’s magazine that they are declining to publish my response to a particularly execrable opinion piece by Andrew Coyne, I suppose I will have to publish it myself. Thanks heavens for the blogosphere. Now, will anyone notice?

Dear Editor,

Andrew Coyne sets up a classic false dichotomy in arguing against broadcasting regulation in the age of the Internet. ("The CRTC isn’t just a nuisance now, it’s a real threat," Feb. 25.) By framing the "conundrum at the heart of CanCon" as between two alternatives only – "was it about art, or was it about politics?" – he conveniently omits a third possibility that better justifies what he would remove. Canadian content regulations have always been more about preserving our culture, which is continuously at risk of being drowned out by the cacaphonous American media machine next door. Of course Canadians have no valid claim to producing better art than anyone else, but we do by definition produce better Canadian culture. Or, at least, we will as long as Canadian artists are allowed to flourish without being subjected to the type of deregulation Coyne urges. As for his contention that politics are behind CanCon, Coyne might be right. The
historical motive he ascribes to Canadian artists – "to instill the proper feelings of loyalty to the Canadian nation-state in its citizens . . . because that was where the money was" – is cynical in the extreme, however.

Marc Edge
Department of Mass Communication
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, Texas

A, E! IOU? Call their bluff!

A couple of commentators with considerable insight into the Canadian television industry recently hit the nail right on the head about the CTV and CanWest Global networks cutting back at and threatening to close down local stations. According to Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle, the moves are “part of a strategy to force a radical redrawing of the Canadian TV landscape.” People still watch TV, noted Doyle – lots of them. It’s just that in an economic downturn advertising revenues drop, making for a short-term imbalance with expenses. In good times, to paraphrase Lord Thomson, TV stations are a licence to print money. “The television industry is not in crisis,” Doyle pointed out. “The economy is in crisis.” Retired BCTV reporter Harvey Oberfeld agreed in a particularly pointed blog post, equating the local programming cuts and threats to close stations with “blackmail attempts or extortion theatrics.”

What CTV and CanWest have done is equivalent to cutting off a hostage’s ear or finger and sending it to the CRTC as a message, warning that unless they get what they want, the hostage takers will exact even more . . . maybe kill off their captives. In this case the captives are their Canadian television channels. They would never do it. It’s all a farce aimed at scaring the CRTC into acquiescence.
The networks, MEthinks, want to take full advantage of their short-term pain to ensure even more long-term gain once the economy recovers. They would like nothing more than to have their obligations to provide Canadian content reduced so they could spend even more on Hollywood programming already carried on the U.S. networks. That’s the part of the Canadian television model that’s “broken.” Our domestic networks (with the obvious exception of the CBC) don’t even want it to be Canadian. At least the CRTC has apparently cottoned on to that fact and has even bruited forcing the networks to spend as much on Cancon as they do on Americon.

The networks also want the CRTC to reconsider (for yet a THIRD time) its plea for money from the cable companies to carry their signals. The CRTC has twice nixed this boondoggle, known as “fee for carriage,” which would see the networks add 50 cents to cable bills for each over-the-air channel carried on cable, which could add up to about $10 for some subscribers. But with their licence renewal hearings upcoming, the networks are pulling out all the stops in pleading poverty and cutting back on local programming to put political pressure on the CRTC.

Last but not least, CTV and CanWest Global are hoping to use this opportunity to also revisit the CRTC’s refusal to allow them to merge their newspaper and television newsrooms in order to save more money by cutting even more jobs. The CRTC drew the line at this aspect of “convergence” at the last licence renewal hearings in 2001, shortly after CTV partnered with the Globe and Mail and CanWest Global gobbled up the Southam newspaper chain from now-jailbird Conrad Black. The feds insisted the networks maintain separate “news management structures” in their print and TV operations, but now the networks want to also have that requirement overturned on the basis of economic necessity.

CanWest CEO Leonard Asper himself admitted recently in a memo to employees that the company is still very profitable. Its problem is its heavy debt load assumed in acquiring the Southam chain and, more recently, a baker’s dozen specialty cable channels from Alliance Atlantis. With the recession, not only have revenues dropped, but so has the company’s stock price (I know, because I’m now a CanWest shareholder), boosting its debt-to-equity ratio above acceptable levels and making its lenders nervous. “These businesses are strong,” Asper assured CanWest staff as media reports of its imminent demise swirled. “They will continue to operate.”
In all the media coverage what is often overlooked is that Canwest's businesses are highly profitable and generate well over $500-million a year in operating profits. Our issue is that in this recession, those profits have been reduced by a serious downturn in revenue so our "mortgage" is too high for our lenders liking.
I always tell my students that the stock market is less a thermometer that takes the temperature of a company than a barometer that responds to indications of what might happen to it in the future. Media companies always get hit first and hardest in a recession because investors realize that advertising is the first discretionary expense to go. They’re always the first to bounce back at any sign of recovery, too. CanWest is in a double bind because the market seems to strongly disapprove of the Asper heirs expensively using the media empire left to them by their late father Izzy to further his political agenda and extend it globally. They not only prompted a public relations disaster by imposing a strong neoliberal and pro-Israel viewpoint on their Canadian media holdings, they have also invested in dubious foreign adventures. They bought the hawkish but money-losing New Republic magazine in the U.S. a couple of years ago (which they recently sold back to its former owner at an undisclosed but doubtless bargain price) and have also expanded into the Middle East by acquiring radio stations in Turkey. With economic storm clouds on the horizon, CanWest also declined recently to unload its majority ownership of Network TEN in Australia, which may turn out to be the misstep that takes CanWest down, or at least Asper family control of it.

CTV and CanWest are threatening to close down their subsidiary networks, alphabetized respectively as A and E!, if the CRTC does not give in to their demands. I say the CRTC should call their bluff. If the big networks don’t want those station licences any more or are not prepared to live up to the promises they made to get them, let them turn them back in. I’m sure the CRTC would find more than a few willing takers at their usual price. Which is, of course, free.