On April 27th Sun Media newspapers across the country dutifully printed an article written by their President and CEO, Pierre Peladeau. It was a curious piece – half news story and half promo for Sun TV, entitled “All’s not fair in war.” And it raises more troubling questions than it tries to lay to rest.
First the news: the former Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Harper, Patrick Muttart tried to flog a grainy photo to the Sun Media chain. Ostensibly, it was of Michael Ignatieff on the front lines of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – exactly when and where Mr Ignatieff had claimed he was not. Accompanying the photo was a report that referred to the picture and a clip of an American Colonel praising Mr Ignatieff for his help in preparing the military for the invasion.
Apparently Mr Muttart didn’t approach just anyone at Sun Media. He approached Kory Teneycke, the Vice-President for Sun News. Nevertheless, Mr Teneycke did his due diligence and discovered “without a doubt that the man in question could not be the Liberal leader.”
Now, the Commentary: Mr Peladeau praised his Vice President as a hero in the political battles raging around the election for doing what any good journalist should do as a matter of course – checking the facts. Then he went on to say, “If any proof is needed to dispel the false yet still prevalent notion that Sun Media and the Sun News Network are the official organs of the Conservative Party of Canada, I offer this unfortunate episode as Exhibit A.”
Was that Mr Peladeau’s point in writing his article? To establish Sun Media’s creds in the world of journalism? Or was the episode too tempting to resist a little public boasting? After all, it was essentially a news story. Why wasn’t it simply given to a reporter to report?
To his credit, Mr Peladeau also said, “But it is the ultimate source of this material that is profoundly troubling to me, my colleagues and, I think, should be of concern to all Canadians.”
And he is right. Who was the mysterious American source and why did he or she have an interest in injecting smear and innuendo into a Canadian electoral campaign? For that matter, what is a former deputy chief of staff to a Prime Minister doing flogging half-baked smears to the media?
But wait, that is not why Mr Peladeau is profoundly troubled. In his next sentence he says, “It is my belief that this planted information was intended to first and foremost seriously damage Michael Ignatieff’s campaign but in the process to damage the integrity and credibility of Sun Media and, more pointedly, that of our new television operation, Sun News.”
He seems to think it was a plot of some sort to damage his company. Now we are moving from boast to hubris and that is a place serious journalists should never go. For if they do, they tend to want to become the story rather than the reporter of the story. News (and reality, of which news is just the tip of an iceberg) becomes filtered through their view of the world and their own place in it.
A simpler explanation would be that Patrick Muttart thought he had an uncritical ally in the Sun Media and that its brass would run with the story without asking too many questions.
It’s easy to see where he might have got that idea. As Mr. Peladeau himself says in his missive: “This chain of newspapers had historically and will continue to stand for true, Canadian conservatism – with a small “c” … We are against political correctness.”
If you’ve spent any time with Sun TV, you will see Mr Peladeau’s mission statement in action. I spent an hour or so on the Sun News website with Brian Lilley, host of Byline. The most critical thing I heard about Mr Harper was that he shouldn’t be offering tax cuts for piano lessons and gym memberships.
Then John Robson, a columnist with Sun Media, joined in and was soon giving us his ideas on good government: “It’s not the job of government to tell us to exercise or eat properly.” This without so much as a nod to the fact that the government pays for our poor health habits when they put us in the doctor’s office.
“Government,” continued Mr Robson, “is that entity in society to which we delegate some of our powers of self-defence to exercise them for collective purposes – to combat an invasion, to combat force and fraud and build infrastructure that can’t be built privately.” All this was delivered under a cut line that read, “Too much Government. We pay taxes, leave us alone.” I tell you what guys, you give me your health care insurance and CPP benefits and I’ll make you a cup of tea.
You have to hand it to them though, they work very hard at being politically incorrect.
And that begs the question, what if what is politically correct is also true? What if the facts show that being tough on crime does not reduce crime rates, for example; or that safe injection sites save taxpayer dollars and cut down on related criminal activity? How will the story be told then?
The spin Sun TV commentary gives to the news is about as unsympathetic to an NDP platform as you can get, although I have to admit, their interview with Jack Layton was fair and respectful. Sun TV may not be the official organ for the Conservative Party but, filtered through its small “c” values and the hubris of its commentators, it does a pretty good job of favourably framing the Conservative narrative.
Mr. Peladeau reassures us that, “We are in the news business and what we care about more than anything else is the truth.” But a point of departure that filters your view of things plus the hubris of thinking that you are the story are not qualities that make for truthful story telling.
When governments do that, it’s very dangerous as the world saw when British and American intelligence shaped the facts (that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) around US policy (that there were WMD and we need to invade Iraq ASAP). When the media do that, it’s dangerous too, because then the news becomes propaganda.
Let’s be clear (as Mr Harper likes to say) it’s not just a failing of the right. I can still remember being chided by one prominent lefty for talking about free trade with the CBC, as if the CBC was too main-stream to be credible. And I don’t want to talk about the reaction I got when I turned up for a meeting with MPs in a business suit. Honestly, I didn’t get the memo that the dress code of the day was jeans and corduroy jackets.
But the left doesn’t own chains of newspapers that dominate the press of rural communities across the country. Unwittingly perhaps, Mr Peladeau, in his April 27th missive, has put his finger on precisely the problem with his own corporation.
An inside look at this story
John Miller, “The Journalism Doctor” who has received a number of awards for investigative journalism, reveals that this story is even sleazier than I imagined. It seems the Sun Media chain did run the photo and the story before Sun executives did their “due diligence.” There is also some circumstantial evidence indicating that Muttart (who was, his firm said, doing pro bono work for Sun Media at the time) knew that the photo was bogus. Go here for the full story: http://www.thejournalismdoctor.ca/Blog.php/sunburned.