I’ve decided to do something about the often-repeated claim that the English Canadian media is dominated by right-wing voices (or, according to right-wing Canadians, that it is dominated by left-wing voices). With the election over, it’s time to get back to my usual business of exploring political and corporate influence in the media and the damaging effects this has on democracy, vital Canadian institutions, and especially environment and climate change policy. But I’ve decided to do something a little more systematic, too. I’m going to track the types of people who get to write op-eds in the country’s major papers, aside from the regular in-house columnists. I think this is a useful proxy for assessing the bias of the editorial boards who make those decisions.
Another way of estimating newspaper bias are the endorsements they make in each election campaign. These are ostensibly geared towards picking out the most promising and visionary party in the campaign, not just the winner, but somehow the major papers manage to be very consistent in their endorsements across elections. This time, about 30 papers endorsed the Conservatives, 2 endorsed the NDP, and Le Devoir endorsed the Bloc. On May 2, just under 40% of Canadians endorsed the Conservatives, but they won around 90% of newspaper endorsements. This is an astounding credibility gap, and the implications of a “democracy” where 60% of the public is represented by only 10% of the media are very serious:
|Globe & Mail||Conservative||Conservative||Conservative||Liberal|
But I want to go further. I am under no illusions about what I’m doing here. Even if it was published with the appropriate fanfare by a reputable organization, my results will be unsurprising to one demographic, and dismissed out of hand by another. It’s called confirmation bias — we tend to accept new information that jives with our existing beliefs and assumptions much more easily than information that challenges it. And it’s especially a problem where politics is concerned. Still, at the very least it should give people a useful talking point.
Because we do need something more solid to work with. The newspapers argue that they endorse parties because of the strength of their campaign and the persuasiveness of the vision for the country they put forward during the campaign, not because of any particular underlying ideology. Of course I doubt this. But there’s an easy way to prove it, and it’s to point out where the newspapers’ priorities lie outside the election campaign. You know. Just like I keep saying politicians should be judged.
This project is solely concerned with newspapers, although I realize that this leaves sources like CBC (supposedly left-wing) and Sun TV (openly right-wing) unrepresented. Also, obviously, one unpaid blogger can’t track every op-ed in every newspaper a mari usque ad mare. So I’ve simplified the project. I’ve started by eliminating the outliers: the Sun chain, which is unabashedly right-wing and also more specifically anti-tree. I don’t think anyone seriously believes Sun isn’t conservative. So there’s hardly any point proving that.
According to Canadian newspaper circulation figures, the Star may be the largest paper in Canada (thanks to its local following in the GTA), but the Big Ten English-language papers also include six Postmedia papers (including the National Post), the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Sun, and the Winnipeg Free Press, which does not appear to publish op-eds online. On the whole, Postmedia sells 5.5 million of its major papers (and numerous smaller ones), the Star sells 2.2 million papers, the Globe sells 1.9 million papers, the Toronto Sun sells 1 million copies and the Free Press moves just shy of 900 000 papers. Put another way, Postmedia alone accounts for around half the major papers sold in this country. So really the question of whether the Canadian print media is conservative or liberal largely comes down to how you want to classify Postmedia.
For my study, I’ll take four representatives of Postmedia (the Vancouver Sun for the west, the Ottawa Citizen for Ontario, the Montreal Gazette for Quebec, and the National Post for the nation), and the Globe & Mail, and the Toronto Star as my sample. Starting on May 1 and continuing for 366 days, I am monitoring the opinion pages on the websites of the following newspapers in search of commentary from external writers, as described above:
- Globe & Mail (and G&M Business Commentary)
- Montreal Gazette
- National Post
- Ottawa Citizen
- Toronto Star
- Vancouver Sun
As I said, I began monitoring on May 1. Here’s a taste of what this country has been treated to since that date. To qualify as a member of a particular group, a writer must have a specific institutional connection. A Liberal riding association executive counts as a Liberal writer, but not someone who just happened to donate or vote for the Conservatives, for instance. “Margaret Wente is a Liberal” doesn’t count for anything here. So all of the party numbers may be undercounts. Nonetheless, there’s a clear trend:
Globe & Mail
|Trade Associations and Lobbyists||1||1||2||1||1||2||8|
|Executives and Directors||1||1||1||0||2||3||8|
|Free Market Think Tanks||2||0||11||1||1||0||15|
|Social Conservative Think Tanks||0||0||1||1||0||0||2|
|Progressive Think Tanks and Networks||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
Now, this should be the most diverse part of the news cycle: post-election, when there’s plenty of lively speculation about the future of the unexpectedly high-performing NDP and the unexpectedly poorly-performing Liberal Party. However, even here, the Star accounted for one of the three NDP pieces permitted into the papers, and four of the seven Liberal pieces. And one of the NDP people was a Bob Rae advisor; Rae is now a Liberal, and she’s now a professional lobbyist, so her loyalties to the orange flag are suspect at best.
More importantly, out of a total of 50 entries on that chart which had clear connections to any political, economic, or ideological agenda, 31 — more than half — went to business executives, trade associations, business lobbyists, and free market think tanks, the Fraser Institute and Energy Probe chief among them. Zero columns were published by progressives currently working in think tanks or in trade unions. Social conservatives don’t do well, either, by the way — only two publications went to conservative-leaning think tanks that weren’t mostly or purely business-oriented think tanks.
If we combine the free market conservatives, the social conservatives, and their most staunch advocate in government, the Conservative Party, we see that out of 52 openly partisan or ideological connections of authors published in these newspapers since May 1, around 80% went to conservative organizations. Note that a handful of individuals get counted twice — for instance, Robin Sears is listed both as an NDP loyalist (his previous job) and as a lobbyist (his current job). Overall their impact on the total numbers is not large.
The massive “Other” category contains academics and other NGOs, mostly international development ones, without a clear position in the Canadian political debate. Some of those academics, like Jack Granatstein or Jack Mintz, might be given a political party label by some people, but in accordance with my above principle, here they are officially billed as non-partisans. Even if every single one of the “nonpartisan” mass was not conservative, which I assure you is not the case (it contains such people as Granatstein, L. Iain Macdonald, Bill Morrison, Eric Morse, and others, of a diverse range of viewpoints including conservative ones), they would still account for half, with more unidentified Conservatives (like Morrison) lurking in the wings.
I’ll continue charting the op-ed pages of the major papers over the coming months and see whether the situation changes. Unlike the Fraser Institute, I’ll immediately make my data fully available in a convenient format. Anyone who wants to take the time to peruse it is welcome to point out connections I should have included but missed.
Updated to correct a foolish pronoun error.Tweet