Under Pressure

How savvy, aggressive special-interest groups are exploiting people's distrust of journalists to slant the news their way

Shlomit Kriger
Summer, 2005 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Dov Smith leafs through a stack of newspapers. He stops and leans back in his black leather chair to read the articles that mention Israel or the Middle East. He clips a relevant story and stores it in a folder on his desk. Turning to his computer, the executive director of the pro-Israel media watchdog HonestReporting Canada reads his email. One is from another HRC member pointing to a backgrounder on the Middle East conflict on CBC's website. Smith clicks on the link and reads the introductory sentence: "Since May of 1948, when the modern state of Israel was proclaimed, the land has had two parallel histories, one for the Jews who control the state and one for the Palestinians whose homeland the nation was built on."

This is exactly the kind of statement HRC takes issue with. "The CBC is a taxpayer-funded national broadcaster with a mandate requiring it to have an unbiased position," Smith says. "But this first sentence alone promotes the perspective of one party over the other." He fires off a message to the 5,000 subscribers to HRC's email communiqués, detailing what he describes as CBC's "decidedly one-sided version of history," identifying several other inaccuracies he sees in the piece. "The Palestinians are the obvious owners of the land on which the Jews run the show," he argues the website suggests, and urges members to send a complaint to CBC.

Several days later, Smith returns to the site. Without admitting fault, CBC has altered the sentence. It now reads, "…and one for the Palestinians who say the nation was built on their homeland." CBC spokesperson Ruth-Ellen Soles says the broadcaster values audience response. "If something is brought to our attention, and we look into it and say, 'Perhaps there is a more accurate or better way to tell the story,' then of course we're going to change it."

HRC is just one example of dozens of watchdog organizations scrutinizing media coverage in Canada. When these groups don't like what they see, they're sure to let journalists know. Don Sellar, until recently the ombud for The Toronto Star, received about 5,000 complaints last year and wrote 274 corrections and clarifications in the paper within the first nine months of 2004 - a 10 per cent increase from 2003 for the same nine-month period. Complaints to CBC ombudsman David Bazay totalled 2,155 in 2003, including 1,590 about information programming, compared with 1,273 complaints about information programming in 2002. And according to the Canadian Media Research Consortium's 2004 Report Card on Canadian News Media, 31 per cent of Canadians think the news is inaccurate, 54 per cent believe the media try to cover up their mistakes, and a whopping 80 per cent think reporters' biases often influence the way they cover stories.

Pressure groups are gaining power over the media in this age of distrust. The Internet, in particular, is helping them orchestrate intricate campaigns that make them much harder to ignore. Like HRC, these groups often reflect only one side of a complex issue. The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), for example, looks out for the financial interests of major record labels by taking a hard line against music downloading. The Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank and perhaps the most influential pressure group in the country, has infiltrated mainstream media with its ideas for more than 30 years. The more money and support these groups gather, the more successful they become in reaching out to reporters - and the more control they have over the news in Canada.

HonestReporting is an American non-profit organization founded in 2000 by British students of Aish HaTorah, an international network of Jewish educational centres. The students were shaken by what they perceived to be media misrepresentations of Israel following the start of the second intifada. HR has since separated from Aish and now has affiliates in Canada (HRC), Brazil, Russia, Italy, and the United States, and 100,000 subscribers worldwide. All chapters espouse the HR mission to ensure "fair and accurate" coverage of Israel in the media. But while the organization expects journalists to be free of bias, it doesn't always apply the same rules to itself.

In 2003, the Canadian affiliate opened its doors in a one-room office rental on the 17th floor of a high-rise building in midtown Toronto. HRC is distinct from its parent organization, with its own board of directors, which includes York University history professor Irving Abella (husband of Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella) and the group's two founders, Ken Rotman, co-CEO of merchant bank Clairvest Group Inc., and Shmuel Veffer, associate rabbi of the Village Shul in Toronto.

Smith, who worked in public relations for clients including New York's Israeli consulate before joining HRC, reveals little about the organization and its members. In fact, over the course of several interviews, he begins to suspect where this story is heading. "I did not intend to grant this degree of access when you first contacted us," he tells me in an email. "In my experience, this degree of exposure - multiple visits, interviews, and exchanges - often results not in greater accuracy but rather in problematic/inaccurate coverage."

He admits HRC's subscribers are predominantly Jewish, though people of other faiths also subscribe. Smith won't divulge HRC's budget, but Veffer says it "isn't huge." The organization operates almost entirely online. It maintains archives on its website, which include essays and articles on the media's supposed support for the Palestinian side of the conflict, written mainly by Jewish sources; and tips on writing effective, professional letters to the media.

Israel shares democratic values with Canada, with a free judiciary and equal rights for women, yet many Canadians see it as an aggressor, says Smith, who blames reporters for not providing context in their stories. "Our work is about putting the media on notice that somebody is scrutinizing their work and is - in a very professional way - going to ensure that what they're doing conforms with what they're supposed to be doing," he says. "Our goal is not, as some allege, to defend Israel and all of its policies. That is a falsehood that is used to paint us with extreme colours and discredit the legitimate research that we do."

HRC has made a particular target of CBC Washington correspondent and former Middle East bureau chief Neil Macdonald. Last May, Macdonald reported on the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. In the piece, producers included a separate clip, a quote from Eugene Bird, president of the Council for the National Interest (CNI), an American organization promoting Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territory. Bird indirectly linked Israel to the torture, saying, "We know that the Israeli intelligence was operating in Baghdad after the war was over. The question should be, were there any foreign interrogators among those that were recommending very, very bad treatment for the prisoners?" Seventeen complainants, at least four citing an HRC email alert, wrote to the CBC ombudsman to express shock at Bird's suggestion.

Three days later, Brian Stewart (filling in for chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge) read an on-air correction, stating there was no evidence Israel was involved in the Abu Ghraib affair. "The comment from [Bird] should not have been included in the report, and we regret the error," Stewart said. But at least one complainant wasn't satisfied with CBC's response. He accused the corporation of showing deliberate bias in broadcasting the views of "a well-known anti-Israel propagandist" without informing the audience about his "known agenda," and requested Bazay conduct a review.

Bazay responded in July with a five-page letter, also posted to the ombudsman's website. He concluded that in broadcasting Bird's suggestion, The National "failed to meet the journalistic standards involved in dealing with an allegation" by not informing viewers of Bird's affiliation with CNI and not providing Israel the opportunity to respond to his claims. Bazay added, however, that the broadcast demonstrated negligence rather than deliberate bias, noting that on the eve of the segment, as part of CBC's continuing cost-cutting initiative, The National was working with three editors instead of four, while Mansbridge, who is normally involved in the editing process, was away.

It didn't take long before HRC was at it again. In December, it sent an email to members pointing to Macdonald's on-air report about that month's al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia. The email said Macdonald "went out of his way to find someone who would blame the U.S. relationship with Israel for the attack," in reference to Macdonald's only quoted source, Allen Keiswetter, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. It concluded with a demand that CBC maintain its promise to provide viewers with a higher standard of journalism and get rid of Macdonald.

Later that month, Smith spoke about HRC's campaign against Macdonald in an interview with Canada's Jewish Tribune, saying HRC'S latest email produced the most "intense, well-articulated and intelligent" response in the group's history. Many members who complained to CBC pointed out that they aren't even Jewish. He went on to say that HRC takes "pains to avoid extreme positions," but in cases where there is "obvious bias," the organization feels it has no choice but to ask news organizations to "drop the offenders." Smith soon took this position to the National Post. A week later, in an op-ed titled "Neil Macdonald must go," Smith said Macdonald was continuing "his apparent preoccupation with the Jewish state" and was "marring the credibility" of CBC.

News is like a commodity," Smith says. "For example, when I buy a car, I'm not concerned with what's in the heart of the people who built it, but the fact that [it] drives straight. Similarly, with the media… it's about the product." He maintains HRC is not trying to be antagonistic. "We don't set out to pick fights with the media. We try to have positive, constructive dialogue with them. It's part of a healthy exchange of ideas."

Of course, HRC isn't the only pressure group that wants a "constructive dialogue" with the media. But when money is involved, lawyers often are too - and that makes the conflict a more precarious one for journalists. So when Michael Geist began writing about the music industry's fight against illegal file-sharing services in 2003 in his "Law Bytes" column for the Star, CRIA, which represents Canadian companies that create, manufacture, and market sound recordings, was watching closely.

Geist began his August 9, 2004, column by describing CRIA's call for a system that would allow record labels to take down websites containing copyright-protected material. He compared the system with a hypothetical scenario in which the Ontario government would confiscate the car keys of drivers caught speeding. This "unfair and unworkable" solution is the "offline equivalent of the CRIA's latest proposal," he wrote, urging Canadian politicians to reject it. In another column on August 23, he discussed a new tariff to compensate music composers whose work is being used for cellphone ring tones. He said CRIA "raises doubts about whether the composers are entitled to any compensation at all." While the association usually attempts to protect artists' rights, Geist concluded that by "opposing payments to Canadian artists, the association provides ample evidence that creativity and artists' welfare play second fiddle to its members' fiscal bottom lines."

That week, Catherine Allman, president of Hawkestone Communications-Public Affairs, which handles PR for CRIA, phoned Kenneth Kidd, then the Star's business editor. She said there were numerous inaccuracies in Geist's column and that CRIA'S general counsel, Richard Pfohl, would write a complaint. Kidd was surprised at her belligerence. "I don't think I've ever encountered anybody quite so strident for a cause," he says. "It seemed clear that the only outcome that would satisfy [CRIA] was getting rid of Geist, which wasn't even remotely in the cards." He told her Pfohl could send a letter to the Star's ombud, and the organization could submit an opinion column and he would consider running it.

Sellar soon received Pfohl's 20-page, single-spaced, typed letter, but he didn't think Geist's column required correction. Several weeks later, Kidd received CRIA's opinion piece, written by then-president Brian Robertson. It appeared in the @Biz section on September 13. "The current economic climate," it read, "is clouded by grossly outdated copyright laws, widespread digital piracy, segments of the public feeding on the 'culture of free' and a handful of opportunistic commentators chasing media attention by fostering this misconception."

Allman, Pfohl, and CRIA's executives would not discuss the matter for this story, saying it is between CRIA and the Star. In fact, Allman was suspicious from the beginning. "I'm just wondering what your motivation is to do that story [about CRIA]," she said when asked for an interview. Later, she said, "CRIA made a complaint, the Star made a decision, and CRIA didn't complain [about the decision]. And then all of a sudden it becomes the subject of a story." She also emailed Sellar about the Star's policy on discussing complaints to the ombud. (The policy manual, he says, "in no way restricts the ombud's ability to investigate or respond to complaints publicly.")

Kidd calls CRIA the most aggressive lobby group he's ever encountered and says the paper doesn't allow everybody to vent in its pages. "It's a legitimate group and one of the more established players in the music downloading debate," he says. "I said I'd entertain running the article. I'm not on anybody's side." Sellar also defends the op-ed: "When somebody writes hundreds and hundreds of words about you, you should have a chance to take a good swipe back." Yet he knows some groups won't settle for less. "The debate is driven by lawyers who write lengthy briefs and never accept anything short of total victory," he says. "These aren't people who gently participate in mediation - they're warriors."

If CRIA is a warrior, then the Fraser Institute (FI) is a giant-slayer. The 30-year-old organization is one of the best at charming the media into almost blind acceptance of its main idea, which is to convince people to think more about corporate solutions to economic problems than government solutions. As one of about 30 Canadian think tanks, the institute, federally registered as a charity, has grown dramatically since 1974. With 65 members and revenue totalling $421,389 in its first year of operation, FI now boasts more than 3,500 members, a budget over $7 million, a 47-member board of trustees, and more than 40 administrative and research staff scattered throughout its Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver offices.

Much of the institute's success can be attributed to its several founders. The executive director, Michael Walker,was a consultant at the federal Department of Finance, and T. Patrick Boyle was vice president of financial planning for MacMillan Bloedel. It also receives the financial support of individuals, private foundations, and corporations, including Scotia Capital Inc., IPSCO Inc., Delta, and Hollinger Inc.

Like all pressure groups, FI has an ideological agenda, namely, to roll back the social and economic gains of the 20th century, explains Donald Gutstein, writer and senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University's School of Communications. He points to FI's consistent attempts to repackage American reactionary ideas for Canadian consumption. With the motto "If it matters, measure it," FI has influenced public policy and the news, despite ongoing doubts from outsiders. Many issues of public debate, incluing private health care and the supposed sin of government deficits, were never seriously considered until FI introduced them.

"If we're so biased, why do people keep reporting on what we're doing?" challenges Mark Mullins, director of FI's Ontario Policy Studies and former economic and fiscal advisor to the Canadian Alliance, the federal Progressive Conservatives, and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. In 2003, FI received about 4,500 Canadian media mentions. Its media success may have something to do with the fact that many media bigwigs have close ties to it. David Asper, executive vice president of CanWest Global Communications Corp., is a former FI board member (he even has a boardroom named after him at the Vancouver office). Neil Seeman, a founding member of the Post editorial board, is a former FI adjunct research fellow. Vancouver Sun editorial page editor Fazil Mihlar was an FI policy analyst. And Mullins wrote a regular column for The Globe and Mail until 2004.

Regardless of bias, some argue FI's ideas receive so much media coverage because its work is professional and people have come to respect it. "There are certainly lots of groups on the left that we don't ignore," says Ottawa Citizen executive editor Drew Gragg. But according to several NewsWatch Canada studies conducted by Simon Fraser University students from 1998 to 2002, FI's name appeared at least three times more frequently than that of the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Interest groups throw ideas, complaints, and data at media organizations, hoping something will stick. If that doesn't work, accusations of bias might achieve the desired affect. "They'll say you're biased," says Bazay, "and what they really mean is you haven't adopted their way of thinking as your own." That's why many journalists feel as long as they're hearing complaints from both sides, they're doing their job. But many also say the feedback does not influence them to change their coverage. Kelly McParland, the Post's foreign editor, says there will always be readers who are dissatisfied with the news. "All you can do is your best to be accurate and let people reach their own conclusions." Globe online editor Angus Frame agrees: "We're fairly independent-minded here," he says. "[The pressure] is there, but isn't a dominant part of our decision-making process at all."

Often, there isn't time to research a story from every angle, and consumers of news information sometimes need to be reminded of the deadline pressures involved. "News stories aren't like muffins," says Sellar. "They don't pop out of the oven in 30 minutes, fully baked with all the right ingredients." And simply insisting something is wrong, without evidence to back up the argument, won't do, says Bazay. Nor will criticizing reporters for not connecting yesterday's suicide bombing to a 10-year-old peace agreement. "We're not a history program," says Mark Bulgutch, senior executive producer of CBC News and CBC Newsworld. "It really isn't [CBC's] job to make people see anything - just to show them what happened and put it in some context."

Back at the HRC office, Smith's eyes fix on the silver television across from his desk. Host Lloyd Robertson's voice fades in and out as Smith scans through CTV News with a DVD remote. Stop. Rewind. "A warning tonight from the American ambassador to Canada," Robertson announces. "Paul Cellucci says it is inevitable that terrorists will consider using Canada as a launching pad for attacks on the United States."

"There we go. Terrorists," says Smith, pressing record. "That's something that we note." HRC members often find the word terror absent from headlines relating to Palestinian attacks on Israelis, but evident in relation to other countries. To prove its point, the organization released a study in June 2004 tracking references to the word in five of Canada's major newspapers over a three-month period. In the Star, which fared worst in HRC rankings, the controversial word never appeared in relation to Israel, but the paper used it 100 times in articles about Jordan, Kashmir, and elsewhere.

Fast forward. "Cirque du Soleil pays $2,650 for the last surviving hot dog from a Montreal Expos game," says Robertson.

Suddenly, Smith launches into a critique, "The prime minister of Lebanon resigned. Serious story. That didn't make it onto the news. There are 140 areas in which there's some kind of military activity going on, but that doesn't make it on. You have to ask why. I don't necessarily think the media have an agenda, but isn't that stuff more important than 'Mr. Happy Meal' over there?" he says with a laugh.

HRC assistant director Mike Fegelman, a graduate of Carleton University's journalism program, spins around in his chair, picks up a tiny newspaper clipping from the floor, and holds it up. "When those [serious] stories do make it into the paper," he says, "they're usually small briefs like this."

"They complain about not really being able to provide context for stories because there's no time in a 30-minute newscast," says Smith. "My goodness, if there's time for this $2,000 hot dog, I'm sure they could find time to provide a little bit of context."

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