Glaring Canadian media bias is enforced at every level of the media, from editorial boards all the way to ownership. It remains untouchable.
By Davide Mastracci, reposted from Passage
Last year, I almost quit journalism. A major reason was an evolution in my perspective on the industry.
My first journalism experience was at the McGill Daily as an undergraduate student. The independent paper is explicitly leftist, so my understanding of journalism was built from a progressive perspective. As such, I didn’t think I had illusions about corporate media in Canada, especially as we had an antagonistic relationship with these outlets.
Regardless, when I decided to pursue journalism as a career, I thought I could carve out a niche in the industry for the sort of work I was inspired by. Yet after moving to Toronto for a journalism masters at Ryerson, I started to see things differently, realizing that you can’t be part of something but divorce yourself from the harms it perpetuates. I started to feel that I was complicit.
This change of heart was due to many factors, including a deeper understanding of one of the strongest biases the Canadian media has: pro-Israel and anti-Palestine.
I eventually decided I’d continue in journalism if I could do a few things differently than before, including proactively combating the pro-Israel bias.
With that in mind, I’m now going to explore the bias by offering my experiences with it, and then breaking down the various ways it is upheld, from the level of individual journalists all the way to outside interference on the media. As a whole, this process ensures Israel is rarely held to account for its actions.
My Experiences With The Bias
I’ve never had anything more than an entry-level position in corporate media. Those that have can give you more insightful anecdotes of the bias in action, and I’ll go into some of them later. Regardless, my experience, which has included roles at eight different publications and freelancing for dozens of others, is still useful to see how the bias works at a low level. Here are some examples.
A few years ago, I pitched an Israel/Palestine article to a publication I had little prior experience with. It was accepted, edited by a junior staff member, published and well-received. A day later, I was informed by a senior editor that the junior editor should have run the article by them before sending it to publication. I wasn’t made aware of this procedure beforehand, and didn’t understand why I, as a new writer, was being reprimanded. Then the editor casually added that their publication wasn’t sure of their editorial stance on Israel/Palestine, so it would be especially important to consult with them on this topic. I realized the issue wasn’t primarily about chain of command, but rather that I was critical of Israel. This sent me an implicit message: don’t tackle this subject again.
Another time, an article I wrote on Israel/Palestine was pushed out on social media late on a weekend night — a traffic graveyard — despite being published earlier. This seemed like an attempt to bury the story. I mentioned it to someone in that newsroom, and they told me the person responsible for the scheduling had interfered with other journalists’ critical work on Israel in the past, so it’s unlikely the scheduling was an oversight.
On another occasion a few years back, I was invited onto a radio show to discuss an Israel/Palestine issue. At the time, I was required to get approval from my employer to do any outside writing or appearances, so I asked. These appearances were typically quickly approved, and celebrated, because it meant people cared about our work. This time around, I had to follow up before being called into a meeting with a few people. I was told I could go on the radio show, but couldn’t give my opinion, and could only describe the events from an “objective” perspective. The reason offered was that the brand wasn’t sure about their stance on the “complicated” issue. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be speaking on behalf of the company or that I’d made other outside appearances offering views higher ups likely disagreed with. Something about this topic was special.
Finally, a few years back I tweeted a mild criticism of an Israeli official. It didn’t get any retweets, just a couple likes — hardly noteworthy. A few days later, I got a phone call from a higher up asking me to remove the tweet because someone had complained. They wouldn’t tell me who, or even if it came from within the company. They didn’t even seem to understand the alleged problem with the tweet. Regardless, they wanted it down. I was also asked to remove any mention of the company from my Twitter bio, which they claimed was standard procedure. Yet the timing made the real issue clear, especially given others in my position hadn’t been asked to do the same.
I’ve written about many “controversial” things over the years, and this is the only topic where I’ve faced this sort of interference. Others have dealt with more egregious experiences. I know from speaking with Arab journalists that many either avoid the subject, or have received so much hate when they do speak out — including either condemnation from higher ups or no support — that they don’t approach it again.
Yet when journalists refuse to shut up, the bias is enforced in different ways. I’m going to discuss a few now, to show how the bias thrives through individual journalists and editorial boards, corporate interference, journalism organizations and lobby groups, with the cumulative effect of a staunchly pro-Israel media landscape.
Personal and Editorial Views
The personal views of mid- to senior-level journalists can have a major impact on what gets published, in a few ways. One is that critical pitches on Israel/Palestine can be rejected regardless of quality, which, if done enough, tells journalists not to bother anymore. Another is stories in progress being killed, or edited beyond recognition, when the right people find out. Even just a couple of these individuals in the right positions can make a difference in upholding the bias.
The editorial pages of major newspapers in Canada are instructive in this regard. They aren’t representative of all journalists, but they do mark the publication’s official view. In 2018, I looked at the editorial stances the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post have taken on military conflicts between Israel and Palestinians. Below, I will quote heavily from the article.
In 2009, Israel launched a ground invasion into Gaza, killing more than 760 Palestinian civilians, including 345 minors. Israel violated international law, and used white phosphorus, a chemical smoke that burns people’s skin, in civilian areas.
Despite this, the Globe wrote that the invasion of Gaza, which they referred to as “Hamas’s ‘statelet,’” was “well justified,” with no mention of the destruction it caused. In a June 2010 editorial, they simply referred to the invasion as a “regrettable incident,” but claimed that the more important issue was turning Gaza into a territory that wouldn’t pose a threat to Israel.
In 2012, Israel rained missiles on Gaza, killing more than 100 Palestinians, including four children playing on a soccer field.
The Post published a pair of editorials in support of these strikes. They wrote, “Our view is that [prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu] waged this mini-war in exactly the right way,” and that, “Israel had no choice but to strike at Gaza.” They claimed Israel is a “civilized and humane nation” in contrast to Gaza, and argued Israel had been careful to limit rocket fire to “terrorists.” The Star applauded the bombardment, claiming Netanyahu couldn’t be “faulted” for his supposedly justified actions. No Palestinian civilian casualties were mentioned, and while they claimed that the “scope” of the airstrikes “raised a few eyebrows,” they concluded Netanyahu couldn’t seem soft on security in the upcoming elections.
In 2014, Israel launched its most destructive attack on Gaza yet. More than 1,460 Palestinian civilians were killed, compared to six Israeli civilians.
The Globe wrote, “It cannot be wrong for Israel to defend itself,” referring to this invasion as the “latest round of grass-mowing” in Gaza, where Israel supposedly “cut back the military capabilities of their enemies.” The Post described the conflict as a “fight between a Canadian ally and a vicious terrorist group,” failing to mention civilian casualties.
These are just a few examples, focusing on one aspect of the conflict, in just six years. The bias extends far beyond them. I chose to focus on military conflicts because they’re when the contradictions are most laid bare, and you see Canada’s major outlets cheering military efforts that result in mass civilian deaths.
While the views of journalists at the editorial level make a difference, upper-management and ownership can be more important, especially as the media becomes increasingly monopolized and centralized.
Before proceeding, it’s important to note that not all Jews are Zionists, most newspaper chains are not owned by Jewish people, not every owner of a paper interferes to the extent you’ll see, and when they do so, it is not always, or exclusively, on Israel, and often occurs on other issues as well. Support for Israel just so happens to be a uniting factor of a wide-range of right-wingers, from Hindutva extremists to American evangelicals. The idea that the media is owned by a secret Jewish cabal, as many anti-Semites believe, or some other Protocols of the Elders of Zion-esque conspiracy theory, is wrong and should be opposed.
Owners of news chains do, however, have a record of using them to advocate for their own financial interests and ideological beliefs, including, in some cases, support for Israel. The CanWest news chain — whose properties now belong to Postmedia — offers an illuminating case study of the pro-Israel bias because of how openly and proudly it was carried out, with countless employees testifying to its existence.
CanWest Global Communications was founded in 1974 by Israel Asper, a Winnipeg lawyer and self-declared Zionist who proudly declared an “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, which he saw as a “symbol and teacher of excellence for all of humankind.”
In July 2000, CanWest announced its $3.2 billion purchase of media properties from Hollinger Inc., a media company established by National Post founder Conrad Black in 1985. According to a CBC article that month, the deal meant, “CanWest picks up 136 daily and weekly newspapers, including half of The National Post, 13 large big-city dailies, 85 trade publications and directories … [and] all of the Hollinger and Southam Internet properties.”
In an October 2002 speech to the Israel Bonds Gala, which the National Post published, Asper described his disgust with Canadian media for supposedly “destroying the world’s favourable disposition toward” Israel. Asper claimed this is because journalists, including his own, are “lazy, or sloppy, or stupid” or “biased, or anti-Semitic.” Asper concluded the speech by stating all Canadians should “stand tall … for the right of Israel to exist and to take whatever actions it needs to battle its savage attackers, and to demand that our media and our politicians act with honour in this quest.”
Asper’s newspaper chain had already become a battleground for this war, with many journalists being censured or fired for being anything less than completely supportive of Israel.
In September 2001, Michael Goldbloom, the publisher of then-CanWest property the Montreal Gazette, quit, citing differences with the company. The Globe and Mail reported that this was due in part to “senior editors at the paper [being] told in August to run a strongly worded, pro-Israel editorial on a Saturday op-ed page.”
In December 2001, Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter at the Montreal Gazette, went on CBC’s “As It Happens” to discuss reporters pulling their byline from the publication after CanWest imposed a policy requiring all of its local papers to run editorials written by the chain’s editor-in-chief, Murdoch Davis. Marsden noted that this had resulted in a strong pro-Israel perspective.
Marsden told CBC that,
They do not want to see any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East. We do not have that free-wheeling debate that there should be about all these issues.
We even had an incident where a fellow, a professor at … the University of Waterloo, wrote an op-ed piece for us in which he was criticizing the anti-terrorism law and criticizing elements of civil rights. Now that professor happens to be a Muslim and happens to have an Arab name. We got a call from headquarters demanding to know why we had printed this. Now this kind of questioning goes on all the time.
CBC also interviewed Davis, asking him if a chain in the paper wanted to write an editorial regarding Israel that was “absolutely contrary to the editorial written from your office, would they be able to write that?” Davis said, “No. It is clearly the intent that the newspapers will speak with one voice on certain issues of overarching national or international importance.”
In November 2001, Peggy Curran, a TV critic at the Montreal Gazette, wrote a column on a CBC documentary, In the Line of Fire, that criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinian journalists. The column was initially held by editors, and it took Curran filing a union grievance, and then making a major change to the review, for it to be published. Curran quit her job soon thereafter in protest. In April 2002, Curran told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs that, “Usually criticism is criticism and you’re allowed to say what you want. I can’t think of another occasion when this has happened to me.” Curran added, “Whether you know it or not, you start censoring yourself.”
In January 2002, Doug Cuthand, a First Nations columnist for CanWest’s Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star Phoenix, wrote a column sympathizing with Palestinians. According to a Toronto Star article published that month, Cuthand wrote that “their loss of land, placement in camps and control by a more powerful force, made them similar to Canada’s aboriginal peoples.” The article was killed by editors, the first time that had happened to Cuthand in 10 years of writing for the publications. Cuthand said that some in the newsroom told him the column was too anti-Israel for CanWest. He stated, “Of course I’m going to carry on and continue writing. But it will never be the same … I’ll always be looking over my shoulder.”
In August 2002, shortly after Halifax Daily News was sold by CanWest, columnist David Swick wrote about the pro-Israel bias under their ownership. Swick said, “Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I wrote a few columns about that event. I was soon informed I was no longer allowed to write anything to do with the Middle East. The reason: I was not perceived to be adamantly pro-Israel. The Aspers are adamantly pro-Israel, and their papers must reflect this sentiment.”
Peter March, another Daily News columnist, said he was dropped from his position of 10 years because of a column he wrote criticizing Israel.
Describing this period, Charles Shannon, a copy editor at the Montreal Gazette, told the Nation in 2007 that, “One definite edict that came down was that there should be no criticism of Israel. And by that I mean not even a mild rapping of the wrist.”
This corporate-enforced bias wasn’t limited to editorials or opinion writing.
In 2006, the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada released a study looking at the National Post’s depiction of Palestinians in 2004. According to a 2008 Georgia Straight article, the report found that the “National Post was 83.3 times more likely to report an Israeli child’s death than a Palestinian child’s death in its news articles’ headlines or first paragraphs” which “made it appear that Israeli kids were killed at a rate four times higher than Palestinian children during 2004 when, in fact, 22 Palestinian children were killed for every Israeli child that year.”
That same year, the chain’s bias became so blatant that Reuters asked CanWest to remove the names of their reporters from wire stories before using them, or not include any connection with Reuters at all. The request came after CanWest implemented a policy to use the word “terrorist” more liberally, for example swapping out “rebel” in Reuters articles with “terrorist.” CanWest was also forced to issue multiple corrections after doing the same thing with Associated Press copy, including calling six Palestinians killed by Israeli troops “terrorists” when the original referred to them as “fugitives.”
The examples go on, stretching from Asper’s Hollinger takeover to the period after his 2003 death when his children ran the chain.
In 2010, the chain was sold and became the Postmedia Network. And yet, much remained the same.
In 2008, CanWest had appointed Paul Godfrey, then on the company’s board of directors, to the position of National Post president and CEO. Godfrey was the one to assemble the ownership group that purchased the CanWest media properties, and then became the CEO and president of the new Postmedia Network, a position he remained in until 2019. He is still the company’s executive chairman.
Centralization of the chain has also remained an issue. In 2015, for example, Godfrey ordered every major Postmedia publication to write an endorsement of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the upcoming election. (The endorsement claimed that Conservatives “kept Canada firmly on the right side of history in Ukraine, the Middle East and in North Africa.”) Moreover, according to a 2019 Canadaland article, “Postmedia has given a directive for all of its papers to shift to the political right, in an unprecedented, centralized fashion” that employees fear “will eradicate the local perspectives and political independence of some of Canada’s oldest and most important newspapers.”
While it may be tempting to write this off as the work of one newspaper chain, Postmedia is the largest in the country, controlling nearly 30 per cent of the Canadian newspaper market as of 2017. A maintenance of uncritical support for Israel as part of the paper’s continued rightward shift would be very dangerous.
Journalists scoff at the idea that higher ups tell them what to do, but the record proves it to often be true. To make matters worse, the sort of groups that used to call out corporate interference have become part of the problem.
Journalist Advocacy Groups
When the Asper family was pushing a pro-Israel line in their newspapers, journalism watch groups in Canada and abroad took notice and fought back. Now, however, some journalism groups have effectively worked to keep a pro-Israel bias in place.
A recent, and particularly galling, example came in April 2018 at the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), ostensibly a group that “defends and promotes free expression and access to information in Canada and internationally.” This incident, more than almost any other, was what damaged my faith in the profession.
On March 30, Palestinians took part in the first of a series of protests calling for the right of return to their land. Israel cracked down harshly. On the first day of protests, at least 17 Palestinians were killed, and more than 1,400 were injured, including 10 journalists.
On April 2, CJFE’s promotions and communications coordinator Kevin Metcalf put out a statement calling on the government to “condemn the one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza.” Despite the organization’s mission of protecting journalists, examples of similar statements the CJFE put out directed at other countries and the clear violation of press freedom and international law by the Israelis, this statement was publicly condemned by a range of journalists.
On April 8, two days after Israel killed a Palestinian journalist wearing a blue PRESS vest, the statement was removed from the website. That same day, Metcalf wrote, “I have learned that in the last week, a half-dozen resignations have been tendered on the organization’s executive committee and Gala committee, including the resignation of the acting Executive Director and President of the Board.” He added, “CBC employees who were powerful contributing members of the Gala fundraising committee resigned after they or their handlers at CBC disapproved of the statement.”
Metcalf, who would be fired a week later, also wrote, “It is troubling that pressure exerted by public employees at the state broadcaster has lead [sic] to the censorship of a protest letter by an advocacy organization. It is my opinion that this illustrates an attempt by public employees to exert undue influence over a civil society group, ostensibly on behalf of a foreign government.”
One of the CBC employees that resigned from the CJFE, “As It Happens” host Carol Off, told another CBC journalist, “I think Israel’s excesses should be treated differently than those of Saudi Arabia. Israel has democratic institutions, a free press and a claim to transparency. Saudi Arabia does not. And so I think the language is different, as it would be for the United States.”
The CJFE also released a statement, noting that, “This recent event at CJFE has made it clear that the Board needs to review its governance processes, but most importantly, it needs to focus its efforts on its core mandate and on securing adequate funding to carry on its work. … We will take the next few months to review, refocus, and ensure CJFE is an organization that continues long into the future.” This statement, and other CJFE employees, made it clear the mass resignations and donation withdrawals effectively forced the organization to close its doors.
Over the next few months, Israel killed more than 180 Palestinians in these protests, wounding more than 9,200. This included two journalists killed and at least 39 injured by live ammunition. A United Nations Human Rights Council commission report on the protests found “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such.”
The pro-Israel bias has become so entrenched in Canadian media that a journalism advocacy organization couldn’t stomach mild criticism of a government that likely intentionally killed journalists.
When anything remotely critical of Israel manages to slip into publication, lobby groups take over. To be clear, lobby groups exist for all sorts of causes. Yet those working on behalf of Israel are particularly well-funded and effective, as outlined in Al Jazeera’s series on the lobby in the United Kingdom and the United States, which was censored at Israel’s behest and is only available because it leaked. Many of these groups exist in Canada, but I’m going to focus on one in particular because it has a sole purpose of working to ‘defend’ Israel in the media.
HonestReporting Canada (HRC), founded in 2003, describes itself as an “independent grass-roots organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East.” The groups’ Endorsements page includes glowing praise from a former Israeli ambassador to Canada, the former consul general of Israel in Montreal and former CanWest president and CEO, Leonard Asper, son of Israel Asper. The HRC’s website boasts of having more than 45,000 subscribers, and of having “prompted hundreds of apologies, retractions, and revisions from news outlets,” efforts which they claim are “changing the face of the media and reporting of Israel throughout the world.”
Essentially, the way the HRC functions is that employees and subscribers scan Canadian media for things they don’t like. Then, HRC staff work to get corrections, retractions, apologies or the chance to have favourable rebuttals published, by leaning on relationships with compliant journalists or using their email list to flood targets with complaints.
A 2004 incident involving the British Medical Journal (BMJ) provides an insightful example, although it focuses on another HonestReporting initiative, which the one in Canada has been described as being affiliated, but not directly linked, with.
In October 2004, the BMJ published an article by senior lecturer Derek Summerfield critiquing “what he saw as systematic violations of the fourth Geneva Convention by the Israeli army in Gaza.” Then, as recounted in a 2009 BMJ article by Karl Sabbagh, the journal and its Arab editor were flooded with criticism, much of which, he claims, “resulted from a request from HonestReporting” for readers to send emails to the journal and its editor. More than 970 emails came in, including death threats against the editor, claims of bias because of his “mid-eastern name,” violent Islamophobia and praise for HonestReporting for attacking them.
Sabbagh writes these sort of campaigns focus on getting articles retracted and editors fired, unlike the “average heated but civilised debate one expects to find in a scientific or medical journal.” Crucially, Sabbagh also wrote that, “For that suppression to take place it has to be directed at people who are unfamiliar with the issues and who might be persuaded that they have somehow got it wrong. Reading through the emails sent to the BMJ, editors, and the people who manage and fund their publications, might well believe that a ghastly editorial mistake had been made. And creating that belief is, of course, the intention. If straying into the Israel-Palestinian conflict provokes such a large and hostile reaction, not to mention strident allegations that important details are wrong, then the temptation is quietly to avoid the topic in future.”
While this example deals with a medical journal, similar tactics are used for the media. As a 2002 post on the U.S. HonestReporting website quoting Jerusalem Post notes, “HonestReporting.com readers sent up to 6,000 e-mails a day to CNN executives, effectively paralyzing their internal e-mail system.” As an editor, I’ve been the recipient of these sorts of emails before, although nowhere near the extent of the BMJ or CNN.
The HRC website lists more than 75 Canadian publications they’ve successfully taken action against, providing details on each one. Some of the listed corrections are simple errors, such as a wrong date. However, many of their other “corrections,” or attempts to get them, are clearly examples of the HRC’s own bias.
For example, a June 5 “Media Alert” focuses on a tweet from Andray Domise reading, “Shout out to the Palestinian freedom fighters holding space in your hearts for Black folks in our shared struggle.” The HRC post states, “So much for objectify [sic] and political neutrality in Canadian media. HonestReporting Canada has alerted Macleans [sic] editors of this matter.” What crime is Domise, who writes opinion articles for Maclean’s, accused of here? Daring to express solidarity between Black people in North America and Palestinians?
Here is a recent successful example, at Radio-Canada. On April 24, they published an article by reporter Kamel Bouzeboudjen looking at how Israel has exacerbated the dangers Palestinians in Gaza face from COVID-19, featuring interviews with Gazans themselves. Four days later, the HRC sent a complaint to Radio-Canada Ombudsman Guy Gendron about the article, claiming it was “replete with errors.” Canadaland host Jesse Brown noted, “In fact, this list of ‘10 errors’ was not a list of 10 errors. It was a counterargument. Nine of the points were simply saying, ‘It’s not, in fact, Israel to blame. It’s Hamas.”
Despite this, on May 12, Gendron replied to HRC, letting them know that “we decided … to withdraw this article from our platforms,” and that, “Follow-up was done with Mr. Bouzeboudjen and the team to make them aware of this situation.” The article was then removed from the website, with a retraction notice published at another link.
As Brown pointed out, CBC and Radio-Canada’s editorial policies make this decision an incredible oddity. According to CBC/Radio-Canada’s “Journalistic Standards and Practices” on article deletion, “Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public’s trust in our journalism. There can be exceptions to this position– where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.” These exceptions clearly do not apply to this story.
In sum, the HRC was able to get Radio-Canada to violate their own standards to censor an article and scold an Arab reporter because he dared to speak to Gazans, who are rarely heard in the media. This is just one example, but there are hundreds of listed corrections on their website. As you can imagine, these add up to a restricted media, squashing much of the critical reporting on Israel that manages to evade other filters.
Most people see journalism as either having one, or both, of the following two functions: inform the public; comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The pro-Israel bias has certainly prevented journalists from properly informing the public, as even by the most elementary “two sides to every story” thinking, coverage is insufficient. Readers who rely solely on corporate media for coverage of Israel and Palestine would have a completely warped understanding of the conflict, understanding it along the lines of Israeli propaganda rather than the truth. This is a failure.
Yet the unwillingness to address power imbalances through coverage is even worse. Israel is a settler-colonial state built on the murder and dispossession of Palestinians, who are now subjected to an apartheid system. Israel is in flagrant violation of international law at many levels. It is set to annex major chunks of the West Bank, effectively completing the destruction of Palestine. The media working to enforce a pro-Israel bias now is the equivalent of them defending South African apartheid.
Crucially, the Canadian government is one of Israel’s major supporters on the international level. This means that journalists are failing to do justice by the oppressed, but also effectively falling in line with their government’s foreign policy stance, leading to an abdication of responsibility internationally and at home. This coverage also plays a role in dissuading the public from working to hold Israel to account.
I hope that this article will prove useful in contextualizing the state of Canadian media coverage of the conflict, and will give you the tools to combat the bias when you see it. Although I’m speaking up about the bias now, I’ve been silenced by it before. That won’t happen again.
Davide Mastracci is the managing editor of Passage. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his work through his website.
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