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.
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.
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.”
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 J-source.ca, 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.
2004......$646,472The 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.