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When right is wrong: Postmedia's clumsy ideological shift

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Image: screenshot/Vancouver Sun

Perhaps we ought to call it the "Full Right Rudder" problem.

When a ship makes a turn like that, the vessel is engineered to execute the radical change in direction safely. Everything is welded together, and the captain has his hands firmly on the tiller. But when such a manoeuvre is attempted at an organization with a lot more independently moving parts -- like Canada's largest newspaper chain -- it had better do so with great care and collaboration, or it can end up on the rocks.

As anyone who knows Canadian newspapers can appreciate, they may be in the business of communications but that doesn't mean they're always good communicators.

That's what appears to have gone wrong at Postmedia Network last weekend. Following an online backlash from readers and its own reporters, the Vancouver Sun was forced to publish an unusual and embarrassing apology entitled: "The Vancouver Sun is committed to promoting and celebrating diversity, tolerance and inclusion." In it, editor-in-chief Harold Munro apologized for running a column urging Canada to do away with just that.

In Vancouver, one of Canada's most diverse cities, no less. Wow.

The column "Can social trust and diversity co-exist?" was published on the websites of the Vancouver Sun and The Province on the evening of Friday, September 6, quickly sparking a firestorm of criticism. The op-ed was taken offline, but ran in Saturday's print edition.

The column was written by Mark Hecht, an instructor at Calgary's Mount Royal University, and used data from an American conservative think tank to argue that diversity, tolerance and inclusion are not in Canada's best interest.

Readers condemned it as racist and inaccurate. Even reporters for the Sun and the Province blasted it on Twitter, one calling it "a complete pile of absolute garbage."

The Sun quickly commissioned a rebuttal column, which it published Monday, and Munro promised to review "our local workflow and editorial processes to ensure greater oversight and accountability so that this does not happen again."

The embarrassment and confusion at the Sun are just the latest fallout from a change of direction at Postmedia, where CEO Andrew MacLeod apparently has ordered the chain's 36 daily newspapers to shift farther to the political right in an unprecedented, centralized fashion. This was documented in a well-researched investigative report published recently by Canadaland.

One of Andrew MacLeod's most controversial steps was to put Kevin Libin, one of Postmedia's most far-right columnists, in charge of all of their newspapers' federal and provincial political commentary. The move does not appear to have been properly explained down the line. When the editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun raised concerns about Libin's new authority, he was quickly removed from his job.

Even though Hecht's column questioning multiculturalism and Canada's immigration system would fit anyone's definition of "harder right," everyone in a position of authority at Postmedia is distancing himself from it. Editor Munro, while saying the column should have raised "red flags," emphasized that "this was published before I had a chance to read it." Even Libin, who has written columns expressing doubt about climate change, said he wouldn't have published it.

Presumably the only person on the spot here is the Sun's editorial page editor Gordon Clark -- whose "Gordzilla in the City" column for The Province observed during the 2015 Canadian election that women who wear niqabs in this country are "kind of being jerks." He was put in charge of the Sun's commentary last year.

The lesson: Put whackos in charge of the zoo, and the animals will run amok.

The fallout from the Vancouver Sun fiasco is that the paper has alienated both its hoped-for right-wing constituency and more liberal readers who are now questioning the paper's credibility.

Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, who researches the rise of hate groups and rhetoric in the country, called Hecht's column "just basically white supremacist screed" that any competent editor should have rejected. The largest issue, he said, is not just that it was "socially regressive," but that it misrepresents an entire body of literature on the topic of diversity and immigration. Hecht relied heavily on a report from the Gatestone Institute, a think tank that has published disinformation and anti-Muslim content.

Hecht also used Scandinavian examples and applied them as lessons for Canada, ignoring the very different pace of immigration change and acceptance of difference in the two regions.

One of the letters the Sun published was from "Erika Honisch, PhD," who wrote that "as a Canadian of mixed race, I know all too well what it is like to have to deal with the Mark Hechts of Canada: the people who move through their lives with the privilege that comes with accent-free whiteness, and who cannot (help) but recognize that as demographics change, their privilege will erode. Equality and equity are scary if they mean you might be just like everyone else."

She added: "What is shocking is that a paper of record would publish the ignorant rantings of someone who simply cannot countenance a country in which his own ethnicity or skin colour does not dominate. Please do better."

Another example of the reaction: "I honestly can't believe that this blatantly racist and offensive screed could find its way into a major newspaper, and in the city of Vancouver no less. I found myself choking back bafflement and rage over what I was reading."

Hecht appears to have no academic expertise in either demographics or immigration policy. He specializes in studying biogeography -- or the distribution of flora and fauna -- according to his bio on the university's website. He's taught at the university for 11 years, but even his dean at Mount Royal University distanced himself from his views amid the controversy over the column.

Looks like Postmedia is facing a few icebergs in its turn into choppier waters. Either that, or it's got mutineers among its crew who want their own hands on the tiller and think right is might, even when it's plain wrong.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog

Image: screenshot/Vancouver Sun

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