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Cartoonist fired after Trump cartoon goes viral

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Pencil on paper. Image: madca7/Wikimedia Commons

You may have not heard of Michael de Adder, but you should.

He is one of North America's most accomplished and cutting-edge cartoonists, and last week he delivered one of his best -- a devastating juxtaposition of Donald Trump choosing to golf past the bodies of a migrant father and daughter who drowned trying to get into the United States.

Unfortunately, none of the readers of newspapers in the cartoonist's home province of New Brunswick got to see it. Not one editor ran it.

Twenty-four hours later, Brunswick News Inc. terminated the cartoonist's contract.

De Adder worked for the Irving newspaper chain for 17 years. Although he refuses to link his termination to that particular cartoon, the president of the Association of Canadian Cartoonists said "the timing was no coincidence."

Wes Tyrell said "Michael told me once that not only were the Irving-owned New Brunswick newspapers challenging to work for, but there were a series of taboo subjects he could not touch. One of these taboo subjects was Donald Trump."

So de Adder got used to Brunswick News, the newspaper monopoly privately owned by billionaire James K. Irving, censoring his Trump cartoons. The difference this time was that this particular cartoon went viral on the internet. It was shared by social media stars like George Takei. For a brief period de Adder was the poster boy for the anti-Trump movement -- "a good place to be if you're a cartoonist," said Tyrell, "but a bad place to be if you work for a foreign oil company with business ties to the United States."

Last week, de Adder said on Twitter that all major newspapers in New Brunswick, including the Telegraph JournalThe Daily Gleaner and The Times & Transcript, said they would no longer accept his work, but gave no reason for his dismissal.

Brunswick News Inc. said on Sunday that "it is entirely incorrect to suggest" that it canceled a freelance contract with de Adder over the Trump cartoon.

"This is a false narrative which has emerged carelessly and recklessly on social media," the publishing company wrote. It said that de Adder never offered the Trump cartoon to the company and "negotiations had been ongoing for weeks," to end his contract and "bring back" another cartoonist it said was popular with readers.

De Adder could not be reached for comment on this. But it seems like a tone-deaf statement from a company that should know its timing was bound to draw such conclusions.

It's one more example of the corrosive monopoly ownership of the Irvings, and how their stranglehold on news and opinion in New Brunswick needs to be challenged.

Besides owning all of the English-language daily newspapers in New Brunswick and 29 other publications, James Irving and his two brothers control more than 250 enterprises scattered across Canada and the northeastern United States. Together, the companies, spanning oil and gas, shipping and transportation, retail and media sectors, are worth an estimated $10 billion.

De Adder's June 26 cartoon was inspired by the shocking photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, who died attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico after fleeing El Salvador.

The two had travelled over 1,000 miles to seek asylum in the U.S., but were denied entry and were kept at a Mexican migrant detention centre. Critics used the tragedy to criticize the Trump administration for introducing border enforcement policies that caused deaths and humanitarian crises at the border. In particular, the practice of "metering," limiting the number of refugees who can legally seek asylum at the border every day, led to Martinez Ramirez and his family trying to swim to freedom across the Rio Grande.

The Irvings and their newspapers have been centred out for criticism before. They were investigated in Senator Keith Davey's report (1970) and the Kent royal commission on newspapers (1981) in an era before extensive media concentration took place across Canada. At that time, the Irving concentration in New Brunswick was considered unique. The Kent Commission recommended the break-up of regional monopolies, such as that of the Irving family, by prohibiting the ownership of two or more newspapers having 75 per cent or more of the circulation, in one language, in a defined geographical area.

A report from the Canadian Senate in 2006 on media control in Canada also singled out New Brunswick because of the Irving companies' ownership of all English-language daily newspapers in the province. Senator Joan Fraser, author of the Senate report, stated, "We didn't find anywhere else in the developed world a situation like the situation in New Brunswick." The senators heard evidence of Irving newspapers' lack of critical reporting on the family's influential businesses.

Yet the federal government took no action, and now its $600-million bailout of the newspaper industry seems certain to reward such abusive owners.

I say it's time to fight back against the Irving monopoly.

De Adder is a native New Brunswicker whose work appears regularly in the Hill TimesNational Post and Maclean's magazine and is syndicated elsewhere. He draws approximately 10 cartoons a week.

He was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in 2002 and won the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists' Golden Spike Award in 2006 for the best cartoon killed by an editor. That cartoon showed the National Rifle Association holding the Statue of Liberty hostage, with a gun to her temple.

He did not deserve the treatment he received and I hope he has grounds to fight it. Suing James Irving for wrongful dismissal would be a spectacle I'd pay to see.

Short of that, I hope one of the other newspapers that printed that cartoon nominate de Adder for a National Newspaper Award. His work is simply stunning, and such an honour would demonstrate to the Irvings that they are in the shameful business of censoring excellence.

Beyond that, I hope the federal government's newly formed Journalism and Written Media Independent Panel of Experts -- representing eight professional journalism associations and unions -- will decide the Irving monopolies do not qualify as "professional journalism organizations." Such a step would make the Irving newspapers ineligible for the federal government's $600-million assistance fund.

After all, any news organization that decides Trump isn't newsworthy, and is not fair game for an award-winning cartoonist, is clearly engaged in something that is very far from journalism.

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: madca7/Wikimedia Commons

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