Dwayne Winseck is a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. His invaluable insight and expert analysis will periodically be cross-posted from his blog. (Sun) Media Watch is pleased to share his knowledge with our readers! You can read Winseck's full bio here.
The following was originally posted the day before the election, throwing cold water on the idea of Canadian media having a "liberal bias."
Politics, the Press and Bad News for Democracy: Newspaper Endorsements Update on Last Day Before Election
For the last three days we've been playing the politics and the press game, counting up the editorial endorsements for prime minister made by the major daily newspapers across the country.
I've been focusing on 61 daily newspapers that belong to one of the nine main newspaper ownership groups in Canada that account for roughly 95 per cent of the newspaper industry revenues. Today I added another newspaper to the list, the Winnipeg Free Press.
This means that we now can speak of the 10 largest newspaper groups in Canada. Our "sample," in other words, now accounts for roughly 97 per cent of the newspaper business in Canada.
The basic idea behind the free press is that it is supposed to reflect a plurality of a society's voices and political forces. If that is true, shouldn't the range of editorial opinion in the press come at least somewhat close to matching up with public opinion?
The news that I've delivered so far has not been good. On day one, I showed that out of the four editorial endorsements made by that time -- one by the Globe and Mail and three others by members of the Post Media Group (National Post, Times Colonist and the The Province) -- all picked Harper as their man. By yesterday, the number of endorsements had grown to 13, with 12 plunking down four-square behind Harper.
In other words, despite only having support of roughly a third of Canadian citizens, 92 per cent of editorial opinion in the press in Canada were stumping for Harper. Something was definitely out of whack, but perhaps there was hope because conceivably the remaining papers could come along to save the day, singing the praises of Ignatieff, Layton, Duceppe or May in some way that roughly corresponded with the distribution of votes and voices in Canada.
Sorry, that hasn't happened. For those hoping that somehow the editorial pages might finally line up with popular sensibilities and the disparate political forces that make up the fabric and culture of democracy in Canada, the bad news is now really bad news.
By today, the Sunday before the election, the number of endorsements has leapt to 31. If the "editorial voices" of Canada's main daily newspapers roughly corresponded to people's views (based on a mixture of current opinion polls and the last election), then we would expect something like, give or take a few, 10 to 12 endorsements for the CPC and Harper, just under a quarter to line up behind either Layton and the NDP or Ignatieff and the Liberals, and the remainder to be split across the Greens and Bloc.
So, where do things now stand? This table shows the results.
Layton luckily picked up an endorsement from the Toronto Star. He and the NDP also got some mixed blessings among the papers of the La Presse group -- which stands out as the most representative among the papers across the country, with papers in its group such as La Presse, Le Soleil and Le Droit backing a mix of candidates from all of the parties.
Counting just the endorsements of specific candidates for PM (Harper, Layton, Ignatieff, Duceppe, May), we find a stunning 21 out of 22 backing Harper. In other words, 95 per cent of editorial opinion has solidified behind Harper. This is almost three times his standing in the public mind, and the last election.
The newspapers aligned with the Sun Media Group (Quebecor Media Inc, or QMI) and the re-incarnated Post Media Group have engaged in "bloc endorsements." That they have done so is an indictment of editors who have sold their souls, shilling for owners one by one right across the country rather than exercising any editorial autonomy and freedom of their own minds. Instead, they take their marching orders from Montreal and Toronto. Readers deserve better.
This is also an indictment of the heavily concentrated nature of the newspaper and media business in Canada, with just two entities -- QMI and Post Media -- accounting for over half of the newspaper industry.
To be sure, their grip is not iron clad, and within both groups a few smaller papers like QMI's Barrie Examiner, The Brockville Recorder and Times and The St. Catharines Standard as well as the Post Media's Regina Leader-Post, appear to have been not quite so willing to swallow their master's line. Instead, each of these small town papers has chosen to write "get out and vote for somebody," civic-duty editorials. More than half of the small city newspapers in places like Nainamo, Sault St. Marie, Kenora, Dawson Creek, and so on offered no editorial endorsements at all.
The editorials of the small city papers listed above and others like them are so important because at least they express an independent local editorial voice, and are more varied than the unison of voices that has been strung through most of the big city papers.
But make no mistake that these are minor papers in the QMI and Post Media stables. In Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto, Montreal (but not Halifax and much of the Maritimes) and other major cities right across the country where these groups have dailies, editors are stumping for Harper. Even single major newspapers such at the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press have weighed in strongly on the CPC side of the scale in Canada's biggest cities and nation-wide.
This is not a free press. This is bad for democracy. The fact that a shackled press now stands to an extraordinary degree singing their praises for Dear Leader S. Harper from the same hymn sheet should give us pause for thought and reflection.
Even though I think that this is a problem of the highest order, let me close with three caveats that I think might lead us to a somewhat happier place:
First, opinions pronounced from the bully pulpit of the editorial page on behalf of media owners comes across as much more of phalanx of congealed opinion than the rest of the pages of the press. In other words, the solidity of editorial opinion is not matched to the same degree by journalistic opinion which, while still constrained, is of a broader range.
Second, journalists, and maybe even editors, are people too. The Globe and Mail, to its credit, seems to be doing some soul searching around these issues. Yesterday it published an exceptionally strong condemnation of its own editorial endorsement by Concordia University journalism professor Matthew Hays.
Today, it has also opened up the pages as well to deeper reflections from readers, while acknowledging the dominantly negative response to its choice. Despite looking like the press of a banana republic from some angles, the editorial pages at the overwhelming majority of Canada's newspapers that are now serving as the mouthpiece of the CPC -- Conservative Party of Canada -- are not the same as the Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party of China.
Third, the fact that editorial opinion is so out-of-step with popular opinion reveals the tenacity and autonomy of the public mind. Our minds are not blank sheets upon which editors stamp their views. That, however, does not excuse the gap one wit, but rather should make us wonder what a real free press would look like, one that actually did simultaneously draw from the public well while also contributing to it.
Tomorrow's a big day. Let's change things around so that we can address some of the bigger issues at hand, including some of those relayed here in the past three days.
Oh yes, for the super-duper, updated paper-by-paper breakdown of each newspaper's editorial stance (with links to the editorial), please see Editorial endorsements Updated (May 1).