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Those old trying-to-tell-the-truth-in-a-one-paper-town blues

Saskatoon, Regina and most of the smaller Saskatchewan cities have been one-paper towns forever. From time to time enterprising journalists have recognized that this was a problem and started alternative papers, some of which have survived for a few years at a time but eventually they have all died from lack of sustenance.

I don't even know who owns the StarPhoenix right now -- when Hollinger was selling off its papers, no one was interested in buying it. Now it is on the Canada Now website and I don't know what that means, either. It's hard to keep track of who's who, especially when you rely on the Internet as your news source.

And I do. Life in Saskatoon has become so constrictive -- and downright dangerous -- that it's just safer to stay inside.

I do talk to people, though. On the phone and sometimes I go out -- to court, mostly -- and people do drop by. That's how I know that there was a lively discussion in the coffee room at the StarPhoenix about whether or not Darrell Night deserved any compensation for being dropped at the edge of town. This discussion was carried on with politically correct language and typically Saskatchewan racist overtones.

Saskatchewan is so racist, it doesn't even know it's racist!

To its credit, the StarPhoenix covered the trial of Hatchen and Munson fairly enough and we covered it, also. I know Lori Coolican read what we wrote because she sent me an e-mail correcting the use of the lily-white press corps, pointing out that a First Nations reporter from a radio station and Craig Wong from CP were there. Point well taken. I fixed the report and thanked her. I am hopeful about Coolican and many of the other SP reporters who are at the great disadvantage of being young and lacking experience. We are particularly impressed with Doug Cuthand's most recent commentary on the racism in the RCMP.

Kevin O'Connor

I was young, once, too and in 1961-62 I worked for the Regina Leader Post. It was during the time when the doctors were going on strike and the Leader-Post was backing them up in an all out fight to keep medicare out of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan was divided and the fights were vicious. After the fiftieth time of being told to "go back to Russia" for holding pro-medicare views, I quit the Leader Post and I did go to Russia, if only for a couple weeks. I certainly didn't like it much there, but I did not return to Saskatchewan, the place of my birth for almost ten years.

So here we are again. Saskatchewan, once priding itself as the "breadbasket of the world" has become garbage bin. The divisions between rich and poor have become so pronounced that a university sociologist (one of the bright ones, I think) warned last fall that unless we turned things around, we could expect to see race riots within ten years -- and that even if we started right now it would take five years.

Regina has its own set of problems. I used to drive regularly to Regina, but I haven't been down for a year or two -- a city for which I have great fondness. Friends who live there tell me it's not as much fun as it used to be, either.

Good for the reporters at the Leader Post. We'll do everything we can to make sure their story gets told. And maybe give them courage to write the stories which need to be told!


This is the text of a letter to the editor of the Regina Leader-Post sent by Halifax Daily News editor Bill Turpin:

To the editor, The Leader-Post

There are facts. There is truth. All journalists know they don't always coincide.

In his March 7 letter to The Leader-Post, Murdoch Davis states that the infamous column by Stephen Kimber was "declined by management" of The Daily News in Halifax.

This is factual, in that I am a manager at The Daily News and I did spike the column. However, it is also factual that I and other editors had been urged repeatedly by Mr. Davis to get his advice on any prospective commentary that might run contrary to Southam Publications' rapidly changing editorial policies.

To my profound regret, I did so in Mr. Kimber's case. Mr. Davis told me in colourful terms that publishing the piece would be a career disaster, at least as far as Southam was concerned.

Those are the facts. I'll leave the determination of the truth where it belongs, with your readers.

Bill Turpin, Editor, The Daily News, Halifax


CanWest censorship is shameful

Its media often critical of Arabs who practise censorship but they do the same here in Canada

The University of Regina holds an annual James Minifie Lecture, named after one of Canada's most courageous journalists.

A Saskatchewan native, he covered World War II and later served as the CBC's correspondent in Washington.

Past Minifie lecturers have included Knowlton Nash, June Callwood, Lloyd Robertson, Peter Mansbridge and Adrienne Clarkson.

When I delivered this year's lecture Monday, editors at the Regina Leader-Post changed a story on it filed by their own reporter; they toned down the critical references to the paper's owner, CanWest Global. In protest, the paper's writers withdrew their bylines. Here's a condensed version of the talk, entitled:
Are media living up to their mission?


I want to talk about the four Cs of Canadian journalism - corporatization, concentration, convergence and creeping censorship - and then about some media shortcomings. But, first, a few statements of the obvious, to clarify the confusions that often clutter debate on the media.

  • Media are a business, except for the CBC, which I support wholeheartedly.
  • But media are more than the business of manufacturing widgets. Being in the business of news and opinion, they play a crucial role in a democracy. Indeed, they proclaim just such a role.
  • As a business, media must make money. They do so delivering audiences to advertisers.
  • Media do have the choice to aim for the lowest common denominator or aim for the highest common factor

    It is but human that some advertisers would be tempted to penalize the medium that may bite the hand that feeds it. The bigger and the more economically stable the medium, the more likely it is to resist such pressures and be editorially independent, if it is so inclined, i.e. if its owner is so inclined. But with the owners' right to own the press comes the obligation to guard the freedom of the press.
  • Being a business, media are not in the business of offending clients to the point of driving them away. Media cannot get too out of sync with majority tastes and values. But they do have the choice to cater to the lowest common denominator or aim for the highest common factor. Some follow public opinion, even pander to prejudices. Others lead, at the risk of angering those who may not want to hear the truth.
  • The notion of journalistic objectivity has been oversold. Journalism is subjective, hopefully practised fairly, based on news value. There are guidelines on what constitutes news. But news judgments reflect the biases of the editors, who reflect the biases of the owner. But good journalists always fight for fairness.

None of this is as scandalously new as we might think.

It has always been so, dating back to Confederation, when we had Grit newspapers and Tory newspapers. In the decades since, the Thomsons, the Bassetts, the Southams, the Siftons, the Irvings and the Honderichs have never really hidden their hobbyhorses.

So, what is new?

Concentration of ownership: It, along with the changing economics of newspapers, gave us one-newspaper towns. But that was mitigated by the ethos that if you ran the only daily in town, you had an extra obligation to reflect the diversity of opinion in your market. When Conrad Black bought the Southam chain, he ended up owning 58 of 105 dailies - the highest ever level of concentration. He was ideologically driven, something he made no secret of. He was also involved with the content of his newspapers, as he was entitled to be.

Conrad Black maintains there is really no danger posed by concentration of media ownership

For his critics, he had a rejoinder: After "the virtual monopoly of the soft left," he had injected some conservative balance into the media.

Black had another argument for critics of concentration of ownership, one that has been picked up by his successors at the National Post and Southam, the Aspers: Given the proliferation of radio and TV stations in most cities, and the advent of the Internet, there really is no danger posed by concentration of ownership.

It is a slick argument, except that it does not address concerns over the lack of diversity of views in print in cities with only one newspaper, especially one owned by an ideologue.

It must be noted that with the sale of the Southam papers to CanWest, concentration of newspaper ownership has decreased. The Aspers own only 27 dailies. The fear of the 1990s that we may end up with one or two owners has dissipated. Ownership of dailies is more fragmented and there are more buyers than newspapers for sale. This is a healthy development.

Yet, there is cause for concern, since CanWest also owns 120 community papers and a national TV network. I read the other day that it owns 60% of newspapers and TV media.

Corporatization: Whereas private owners may live with smaller profits to produce a good journalistic product, a market-driven newspaper is obligated to provide decent returns for investors. Shareholder-driven newsrooms are generally smaller newsrooms; they have fewer resources to cover their communities well.

Convergence: Buyers pay inflated prices to achieve convergence. Then they nickel and dime the companies they have bought. The presumed savings rarely materialize. The synergies are not what they are cracked up to be.

The benefits lie in the opportunities for cross-promotion of a company's various media holdings and cross-platform selling of advertising. But the question remains: At what cost? The market provides one answer. CanWest stock went down following the purchase of the Post and the Southam chain.

The question is: Which is the bigger threat - concentration or convergence?

Whatever the answer, there is no will in Ottawa, perhaps rightly so, to undo what has already happened. On convergence, there's a half-hearted attempt by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to build "a firewall" between TV and newspaper newsrooms in the case of common ownership.

But it is, I am afraid, the wrong way to go, for it compromises editorial independence. In the long run, it may also be unenforceable.

Creeping censorship: The National Post appeared as an unapologetic right-wing paper. It was a welcome foil to the liberal Toronto Star in a city with four dailies. But in other cities, views different than Black's had trouble being heard, beyond letters to the editors.

With the advent of CanWest, the situation has worsened. The Aspers decreed in December that editorials written in their head office - on property rights, Triple-E Senate, military spending, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. - must be run in all their major papers.

Among those who did not like it was Stephen Kimber, a columnist for their Halifax Daily News, and director of journalism at King's College. His column was killed. He quit in protest. When Stephanie Domet criticized it in her column, it was canned. She quit, too.

When Peter Worthington, of the Sun chain, wrote against all this, his syndicated column got canned from the Asper-owned Windsor Star. "They are trying to eliminate another point of view in other papers," he said.

Among those protesting were the Canadian Association of Journalists, Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists, Canadian University Press, PEN Canada and the National Conference of Editorial Writers of North America, as well as 55 writers at the Aspers' Montreal Gazette who withheld their bylines.

Another Halifax columnist, Peter March, a professor at St. Mary's University, got canned after writing for the Daily News for 10 years, he said, because he had been critical of Israel.

Doug Cuthand, a columnist for the Leader-Post in Regina and the Star-Phoenix in Saskatoon, compared the plight of Palestinians to that of aboriginals here. His column was killed, the first to meet such a fate in 10 years.

All this is chilling.

The Montreal Gazette's veteran reporter Bill Marsden was quoted as saying of his bosses: "They do not want any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it's doing."

There is an irony here. CanWest media are often critical, rightly so, of undemocratic Arabs who practise censorship against democratic Israel. Yet here we are in Canada witnessing creeping censorship against the Arabs.

The Aspers have argued they have a right to their views. But that was never the real issue. Rather, it was their censorship of other views.

To sum up: One ventures to say that under CanWest, all the four Cs have come together.

I want to move on to some other shortcomings of the media.

Neither private broadcasters nor CBC reflect our growing diversity - nor our demography

Despite the declarative demands of the Broadcast Act and CRTC guidelines, that the regulated media reflect our multicultural reality, neither private broadcasters nor the CBC reflect our growing diversity. They and our newspapers do not reflect our demography. This is bad journalism.

The point is best made in the Prairies, the cradle of immigration and multiculturalism. Canada today is more immigrant than the United States. Yet you would not know that from our media. An anti-immigrant narrative continues to dominate their content.

There are about 4.5 million visible minorities in Canada. That's larger than the population of Atlantic Canada. Yet these visible minorities are largely invisible in our media.

Even the original inhabitants of our land do not make it to mainstream media, except when they fit the stereotype and conservative commentators can heap some more abuse on them.

The aboriginal population of Saskatchewan is 10%, about half of whom live in urban areas. Yet when I looked at a whole week's worth of the Leader-Post recently, the only photograph of an aboriginal was that of Grand Chief Ted Moses of the Cree in Quebec. No Saskatchewan aboriginal person had been allowed into the domain of the Leader-Post.

This is shameful.

There's no other way to say it.

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at hsiddiq@thestar.ca


Leader-Post reporters suspended over censorship protest

REGINA - The Regina Leader Post is disciplining reporters after they protested against the newspaper's handling of a story earlier this week.

Four reporters suspended, 6 get letters of reprimand Ten journalists withheld their names from bylines in Wednesday's edition of the paper. They were upset because an editor had changed a story which was highly critical of the newspaper's owner, CanWest Global. Four of the reporters who spoke out about the issue were informed last night they are suspended for five days. The other 6 are being given letters of reprimand.

The journalists are represented by the The Newspaper Guild. A guild official, Dan Ziedler, says they will fight the action. "These people have intestinal fortitude to stand up and say censorship is wrong, and in doing so, they get slapped down again. I think that's wrong on the part of the company."

Zeidler says the Guild will file grievances on behalf of the reporters on Monday.

The managing editor of the Leader Post, Janice Dockham, has not returned our calls.


Reporters penalized over protest

Ten reporters at the Regina Leader-Post have been reprimanded - and four of them suspended as well - for withdrawing bylines and speaking to the media over management-directed changes to a story.

Staff who received the notices Friday signed by Leader-Post publisher Greg McLean were also told they'd face harsher penalties if they continued commenting publicly.

"Basically we were threatened," said one reporter, who asked not to be named. "They're hinting they are going to fire us."

The byline strike was in response to the way editors rewrote a story on a speech delivered last week to University of Regina journalism students by Haroon Siddiqui, The Toronto Star's editorial page editor emeritus.

A Leader-Post reporter initially referred to Siddiqui as saying "CanWest Global performed `chilling' acts of censorship, when it refused to publish several columns containing viewpoints other than those held by the media empire."

Management changed that lead paragraph to read: "A Toronto Star columnist says it's okay for CanWest Global to publish its owners' views, as long as the company is prepared to give equal play to opposing opinions."

A number of reporters at the CanWest-Global-owned newspaper withdrew bylines from stories in protest.

An official at Southam News, the newspaper chain owned by CanWest Global, has said Siddiqui spoke without reviewing the range of opinion in the newspaper.

Dan Zeidler, a national representative for the Newspaper Guild of Canada, said the union will try tomorrow to arrange a meeting with management.

"We will fight this as vigorously as we possibly can," he said.

Management told reporters it was improper to withdraw bylines or to do media interviews. One reporter said the matter had virtually died down until they were called in Friday and handed letters of reprimand. Four reporters who spoke to the media were given five-day suspensions.

The Leader-Post carried an article by Murdoch Davis, editor-in-chief of Southam News, criticizing Siddiqui.

"Siddiqui made his speech without a single effort to speak to anyone within Southam Publications or CanWest Global Communications to determine our actual policy or practices, or to review the range of views published in our newspapers," Davis wrote.

"Instead, he relied on false reports in competing media (including his newspaper) and a few loopy rumours circulating in journalistic circles."

Janice Dockham, editor-in-chief at the Leader-Post, refused to comment when contacted by The Star.


Sometimes we have got really angry with the local media. Last summer was one such time: SP and CBC coverage and injusticebusters' accusation of pandering | The Martensville nightmare | Mad again: Who's in charge of Saskatoon Police? | While preparing this page, we found the Get Dan Forbes story from two years ago. | Our copyright stories