When the Sun News Network launched on April 18, 2011, the rapid-fire reviews were not kind at all. In response, host and seasoned journalist David Akin asked on Twitter that the network be cut some slack, at least until Day 2.
I decided to cut them a bit more slack. I'd give them a week, I'd watch the network throughout the day with an open mind, and reserve judgment until afterward (some sarcastic tweets excepted).
I put my new DVR into overdrive, recording the network for 16 hours a day, then watching it with the remote in hand to fast-forward through some of the repetitive parts and commercials.
After the first week, I realized that Week 2 would be a stronger test of Sun News than Week 1. The royal wedding was scheduled for the coming Friday, and Sun News had promised live coverage just like every other network in the world. And the end of Week 2 would feature the Canadian federal election, a huge test for any network, and an even tougher test for one that's two weeks old and still trying to find its footing. So I recorded Week 2 as well, from 6am to 10pm (the overnight hours are repeats of prime-time programming).
As it turns out, there was a third major news event during that weekend: the death of Osama bin Laden. An unexpected breaking news event on a weekend evening would also give huge insight into how Sun News performed.
In the end, I recorded and watched (or zipped through) almost 200 hours of Sun News Network broadcasts, including the first two weeks in their entirety.
Afterward, I watched a half-day each of CBC News Network and CTV News Channel, in order to get a proper basis for comparison. (I was reminded, for example, how much 24-hour news networks in general will repeat stories.) I also checked back in with Sun News to see how they filled airtime after the election.
For the past year, I've checked in periodically, when there's nothing better on TV. I won't be so bold as to suggest that makes me an expert on the network, but I think I'm a bit more familiar with what they put on the air than many of the people who have written about it since it launched.
So for the benefit of those who want a more balanced perspective about the network, and hopefully to counteract the flood of (mostly negative) commentary that comes from people who clearly have never seen it, I'll offer my review.
I haven't interviewed anyone at the network, and other than brief Twitter exchanges and a single on-air appearance, I haven't spoken to anyone there in any other context either. My opinions are based on what has actually been aired, combined with what personalities have said in other media. My research is based on what has aired combined with reputable sources I've found online.
(Note: This is really long. Feel free to skip to the conclusions and suggestions at the end if you're pressed for time.)
History and purpose
Sun News Network is the brainchild mainly of a man named Kory Teneycke, the former director of communications for the prime minister's office under Stephen Harper. Teneycke was hired by Quebecor, and in the summer of 2010 announced a project to start up a new 24-hour news channel that would be openly conservative, patriotic, opinionative and entertaining in a way the two existing English networks are not.
The project was immediately condemned from the left, who gave it the nickname "Fox News North" even though there was no connection between this project and the American all-news channel. (In fact, it has an agreement with CNN for international news.)
But Sun News's backers admitted that the model of their new network would be based quite a bit on Fox News Channel: news during the daytime and opinion in prime time. (This is also similar to MSNBC on the left.) The news gets the news junkies and people who can't find anything else to watch during the daytime, while the opinion shows attract more viewers (particularly those who agree with what the shows' hosts are saying).
Originally, Quebecor asked that Sun News be given a CRTC license as a "Category 1" digital channel, even though the regulator had said it prefers not to issue new licenses under that category. The main advantage to this category is that all digital providers (digital cable, IPTV and satellite) are required to offer the channel on a discretionary basis. The argument was that Sun News was an exceptional channel, with 100 per cent Canadian programming, unlike many of the digital channels being launched these days that have mostly reruns of American programming.
Critics, who apparently misunderstood what Category 1 meant, were outraged that Sun News was demanding "must-carry" status and that all Canadian cable and satellite subscribers would be "forced" to pay for it. In fact, the channel would not have been part of any basic package, would not have been on analog cable, and would only be paid for if the subscriber chose the channel or chose a package with the channel in it. But all digital broadcast distributors would have to make the channel available should a subscriber choose to buy it.
Still, after the CRTC made it clear it would not approve a new Category 1 channel, Quebecor relented and made an application for a Category 2 channel instead. This category, which the CRTC prefers new entrants to use, does not come with any guarantees, and Sun News would have to negotiate carriage with each distributor, which includes negotiating a wholesale price with each.
Originally planned to go live on Jan. 1, then postponed to March 1 after regulatory delays, it was finally given a launch date of April 18. At 4:30pm, after a long countdown, the network launched with a half-hour special that was half introductory, half self-congratulatory, and then went right into its opinion programming with Ezra Levant's The Source. The channel was offered as a free preview, as long as six months under Videotron.
Before its launch, Sun News signed deals with Shaw (which owns the Global television network and former Canwest specialty channels) and Videotron (obviously, since Videotron is also owned by Quebecor). Others would come later, but after fights. Bell and some smaller providers argued that Sun News was not only requesting high fees for a startup network, but that it also made onerous demands as far as packaging, which might force the companies to put the channel in popular packages and push it onto subscribers whether they wanted it or not.
Complicating matters somewhat is that Sun News replaced Sun TV, a conventional broadcast station in Toronto. For months, CKXT-TV broadcasted a simulcast of Sun News, being the only broadcast station in Canada to broadcast a specialty channel. This had two effects: It forced cable companies operating in Ontario like Rogers and Cogeco to carry the network and make it available to subscribers (but they didn't have to pay for it), and it frustrated competitors like Bell who wanted to know if they should treat this as an over-the-air station or as a specialty network.
This issue came to a head with Bell TV shortly after the network's launch. Sun News insisted that Bell pay for the network if it intended to keep it on its national satellite service after the federal election. Bell balked because it was merely rebroadcasting CKXT-TV and Sun News hadn't made clear what kind of service it was. Without an agreement in place, Sun News was taken off Bell satellite's grid on the morning of May 3. For Bell, it was at the request of the broadcaster. For Sun News, it was Bell acting as a censor to a competitor for its CTV News Channel and CP24 all-news channels.
Sun News launched an on-air campaign to pressure Bell to bring the channel back. Its hosts repeatedly put up Bell's phone number and encouraged viewers to threaten to cancel their subscriptions if Bell didn't offer the channel. (Of course, since Bell wasn't carrying the channel, it all seemed a bit pointless.) Sun News was also offered as a free livestream during this time.
In the end, it was negotiation, not public pressure that won out. In November, after Quebecor pulled the plug on the over-the-air transmitters (even after having converted three of them to digital), Bell and Quebecor announced carriage deals, putting Sun News, TVA Sports and other TVA specialty channels on Bell TV and RDS2 on Videotron. Quebecor then dropped its complaint to the CRTC alleging undue preference by Bell. Sun News has been available on Bell since Dec. 15.
Around the same time, Sun News struck an agreement with the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance, a group of small independent cable TV companies that had also complained that Quebecor's demands for Sun News carriage were too high.
Sun News is now carried on most major digital television systems. Packaging varies:
- Bell TV has it as part of its basic package outside Quebec. Inside Quebec, it's not part of any package but is available à la carte.
- Shaw Direct offers it as part of a specialty package with nine other channels (including Fox News and MSNBC). Shaw cable has it as part of its basic package in Hamilton and on discretionary tiers in other markets.
- Videotron has it as part of its Anglo package, but not Telemax or even Mega. It's also available à la carte.
- Cogeco doesn't offer Sun News in its basic package, or any theme pack I can see. It also doesn't offer the channel at all in Quebec.
- Rogers cable offers it in its Digital Plus package (the next step up from basic), as well as in its News theme pack.
A channel with no network
The biggest thing that sets the content of Sun News apart from CBC and CTV's news channels isn't political bias or entertainment value or patriotism or even opinion. It's that Sun News doesn't have an affiliated network of local stations across the country with news departments that can provide the channel with content. Both CBC and CTV have stations with local news departments in more than a dozen cities across the country. Not only can they send a crew to broadcast live video from the site of a breaking news event, but the channels can take packaged reports produced for local newscasts and air them nationally.
This is significant. The last all-news TV channel to be set up in North America without an existing network of local TV stations was CNN in 1980. There are some foreign channels that have also started up (like Al Jazeera), but that takes a lot of money, and Pierre Karl Péladeau isn't quite as generous with his money as the royal family in Qatar.
To counter the lack of local stations (Sun News makes no serious use of its common ownership with TVA, except for use of its footage for stories out of Quebec), Sun News setup studios in six cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and relies on Sun Media reporters (those who work for Sun papers) to provide Sun News with content. Most of Sun News is broadcast from Toronto, except for David Akin and Brian Lilley, who are based in Ottawa, and Charles Adler, who is based in Winnipeg.
The plan appears to have been that Sun Media reporters, who like many print journalists are starting to experiment with video, would produce video reports that would be posted online by their papers but would also feed Sun News. That's certainly in line with Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau's business model.
In reality, though, the quality of reports from print reporters has been mediocre. The audio and video quality has been poor, particularly for a network broadcasting in high definition. Most importantly, it has been inconsistent. Some stories get video reports, but most don't. And it's not a question of what stories are more important.
The lack of technological infrastructure also means that Sun News relies a lot more on phone interviews or interviews via Skype than the other networks. Often their newscasts will feature interviews with Sun print reporters, with their photo and a map as the only images. Or you'll see awkward, highly compressed images of guests holding a phone up to their ear (to avoid feedback) while chatting from their living room.
It also means that Sun News relies heavily on pool video feeds. They'll carry major political speeches because they can just get the feed from a pool in Ottawa or from CNN. But other major live events aren't covered as easily.
This was particularly apparent when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced on a Sunday night before the 2011 election. Sun News had to scramble to get people in on the weekend, and didn't break into its repeats for an hour after the news broke. It finally put together an awkward show with David Akin and Brian Dunstan, with pool feeds of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper's comments, as well as comments from them about the news, but that was about it. There hasn't been anything as significant breaking on a weekend evening since then, so it's hard to see if they've improved much.
Overall, there have been some improvements to this since Sun News launched a year ago. They've acquired at least one remote truck, which allows them to have actual live hits. When they have enough time to plan coverage, they can arrange to be somewhere live.
But Skype-style conversations are still commonplace, as are low-quality packaged reports and a lot of in-studio chats with reporters and talking heads.
Give them a break, they're new
It would be easy to pick on every error, every technical glitch, and conclude that Sun News is a joke. But that would be unfair. Sun News is a new network starting from scratch, and their gaffes have more to do with the realities of live television than their age or the quality of their staff.
That said, Sun News is definitely a network that's designed to produce news cheaply. It started with no foreign bureaus (it later added a Washington bureau, but all its foreign news comes via an agreement with CNN), it has inconsistent regional coverage, and it does no investigative journalism that I can see.
Nevertheless, it's expensive. It required a large cash infusion at the beginning, and another $3 million in one quarter to offset serious losses.
Canada ends at Montreal
Sun News's approach to regional balance is certainly interesting. Its bureaus in Vancouver and Calgary are checked with multiple times a day during the daytime news shows. The Roundtable show even has a "western anchor" who contributes via remote, though really only appears to talk about stories affecting Alberta and western Canada.
Sun News will also occasionally talk to a Montreal journalist (usually former CFCF staffer Brian Daly on weekdays and soft-spoken former Gazette intern Giuseppe Valiante on weekends) about news from Quebec. But the face that most appears on the network when talking about anything in "la Belle Provence" (as they say) is Eric Duhaime, a right-wing Quebecor columnist. It's not always made clear when he's on that he's a commentator, not a journalist.
The location of Sun Media's newspapers - particularly the Sun chain itself - also adds to the regional bias. Lots of news from Ontario and Alberta, a bit less from Vancouver and Manitoba, a little from Montreal and almost nothing from elsewhere.
A segment during the morning newscasts reminds the viewer of this - Once Around the Sun is a roundup of the Sun newspaper front pages, but the Sun chain extends only from Calgary to Ottawa (the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec aren't shown, and 24 Hours Vancouver and other non-Sun Quebecor papers were only added later). The segment is introduced interchangeably as "news making headlines across the Sun newspaper chain" and "news making headlines across Canada".
As much as I could complain about the low profile given to Canada's second-largest province (and particularly how odd that is because of all the existing TVA infrastructure here), it's really Atlantic Canada that gets the short end of he stick. The four smallest provinces were completely ignored by Sun News during its first two weeks. I couldn't find a single story based out of anywhere east of the Richelieu river during that time.
A few weeks in, Sun News added an Atlantic bureau. It doesn't have a real studio, but merely a reporter checking in via webcam sitting in front of a wall of "Atlantic Bureau" logos.
Even with the addition, it's still a giant gap in Sun News's coverage that they need to spend serious effort filling.
You'd think a network that is so proudly Canadian would embrace both of Canada's official languages. But, well, it really doesn't. Its hosts repeatedly argue against bilingualism because it discriminates against unilingual anglophones in the rest of Canada, particularly western Canada. The logic goes that Quebec should be French and the rest of the country English, and Canada should save the money spent ensuring a few whiny francophones in Alberta get their services in French.
Though I'm sure it's unrelated to their political views on the matter, Sun News was caught unprepared early on to get news in French. On election night, after seeing his party virtually obliterated, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe gave a speech in which he was widely expected to resign as leader, having lost even his own seat in the House of Commons. As it turns out, he did resign. But Sun News didn't carry that speech live because its French "isn't good enough". Instead, they had Eric Duhaime (a right-wing commentator, not a journalist) listen to the speech and tell them what happened.
The Sun Newspaper Network
Perhaps it was silly of me not to realize this off the bat, but Sun News seems, journalistically at least, to be merely an extension of the Sun newspaper chain.
Sun columnists are everywhere. The chain is heavily promoted in the Sun papers. But most importantly, there's little if any journalism here that isn't heavily tied to the Sun papers or Sun Media.
Even some of the big scoops - like Michael Ignatieff planning the Iraq war or Jack Layton getting his knob rubbed a decade and a half ago - were scoops of the Toronto Sun, not of Sun News Network. (This even though the former was written in the paper by a Sun News anchor.)
Sun News Network does have its own reporters, but "reporter" might be exaggerating things slightly. Rather than go out and do original journalism on a story, they stay in their studios and learn about the news through other sources. They then summarize the news for the anchors.
It's not that these are bad journalists. But they're being asked to do too much. Often you'll see a reporter asked to talk about multiple news stories. And it's pretty jarring to hear someone talk about bombing in Libya and then immediately switch gears to talk about the NHL playoffs.
Desk reporting isn't unique to Sun News, and is done by the other networks as well. But for the other networks, it seems to be something done when there's no alternative. For Sun News, it seems to be the way they prefer to run.
Journalists by proxy
The result is that while other networks will have live hookups with their journalists on the scene, or will air packaged reports from those reporters, Sun News Network instead talks to one of its handful of journalists in studio about the news. It's second-hand information, and it shows.
That's not to say Sun News doesn't talk to "real" journalists. They often interview Sun Media reporters via cameras in newsrooms in Montreal or Ottawa. They also talk to reporters in the field, and more and more they're getting and using packaged reports (most are heavy on reporter standups and short on editing and B-roll).
I'm sure I'm stealing this from somewhere, probably Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert talking about Fox News, but Sun News doesn't so much report the news as it becomes angry at it. Outside of the major stories, it tends to focus on those that cause them outrage. This story, for example, about a Toronto restaurant owner charged with assault after defending his business against a would-be robber, was talked about for weeks, with just about every personality weighing in, saying how outrageous it was that this man was charged for defending his property, complaining how other media weren't reporting the story (they were - the Toronto Star and CBC also followed it in depth), and suggesting that this was a sign of a larger problem, and that society has gone mad.
It doesn't matter that the same arguments were made over and over. It doesn't matter that just about everyone was on the same side on this issue (even the NDP's Olivia Chow stood next to the restaurant owner when he made a public statement). This story was a gold mine of populist outrage, and Sun News took full advantage.
Discussions about other media (almost always in a negative context) are also commonplace on Sun News. The most common target is the CBC ("the state broadcaster" as they refer to it, which is odd not only because it implies that programming is dictated by the state, but because they simultaneously suggest that the CBC is biased against the government). The "CBC money drain" logo even forms part of the opening for Brian Lilley's Byline show. Imagine any other network that made a logo for a competitor part of their graphics.
It was only eight minutes into Sun News's first show a year ago that the CBC bashing began, courtesy of Ezra Levant. It hasn't calmed down much since.
Sun News doesn't try to hide the fact that its personalities want the CBC shut down completely. Everything they do is a waste of taxpayer money. Every success (CBC News Network, Hockey Night in Canada) is because of the unfair leg up it gets through government subsidy. Every failure is because everyone has turned away from the CBC.
In the early days, Lilley went on about the CBC spending $1 million on an opera about Brian Mulroney and then walking away from the project.
The public broadcaster isn't Sun's only target. Its "media monitor" segment, in which Lilley appears on Krista Erickson's show and criticizes bias and errors by other media (it's always an error that shows their liberal bias, of course), also counts the Toronto Star (the "red Star" as Lilley calls it), Canadian Press, Postmedia (my employer), CTV and other mainstream sources as being part of the "consensus media" that has a strong liberal bias and is against the government.
Lilley does have a point. There is a liberal bias among journalists. It's just how their profession works. Journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They love human interest stories about people who are struggling to get by or who have been screwed by the Man. These tend to lead to left-wing biases.
But Lilley and others at Sun News exaggerate this bias. They consider any criticism of the federal government to be part of some media propaganda war, instead of simply journalists doing their jobs. (One wonders if a Liberal or NDP government was in power whether the media would be accused of having a right-wing bias. I was accused of being right-wing back in my student reporting days, and then suddenly when a right-wing student government came to power I was considered to be on the radical left.)
That's not to say that every member of the Ottawa Press Gallery is perfect, that there aren't some injecting their bias into what they report to the point where they give people incorrect impressions of the news. But most respected news organizations try to put a stop to that. At Sun News, journalistic activism seems to be encouraged rather than suppressed.
The Fox News model
I understand that Sun News has no formal relationship with Fox News, and I'm not one to call it "Fox News North", but the similarities extend far beyond the hard-news-straight-talk model. Anchors who describe themselves as journalists and commentators at the same time, thinly-veiled political endorsements, pretending to present both sides of issues while pushing one side, inviting guests that mostly just agree with the hosts rather than challenging their opinions, attacks on other media (while pretending theirs somehow isn't part of the mainstream), overemphasis on stories of little importance that fit a preferred political narrative. These are all things people criticize Fox News for (whether Fox News is guilty of these things is up for debate), and they are all reflected in Sun News Network.
Meet your Alan Colmses
In an effort to balance the scales somewhat, Sun News actually does have regular contributors from the left side of the aisle. But the selection is pretty pathetic. Representing the Liberals are Warren Kinsella, who for some reason throws himself at this network in a vain attempt to get his point across without being ridiculed, and Ray Heard, who's a blue Liberal and has stated numerous times he'd rather jump to the Tories than see the Liberals move any more to the left or (horror of all horrors) consider an alliance or merger with the NDP. For the NDP, it's Adam Giambrone, former NDP president, Toronto city councillor and Toronto Transit Commission chair.
That's it. Plenty of conservative commentators (whether big-C or small-C) to fend off against two and a half liberals.
Oh, and the Bloc? Ha. Even if they could find a Bloc Québécois supporter who would want to come on, Sun News treats sympathy with Quebec sovereignty as nothing less than treason. I have yet to see any sovereignist interviewed on the network, nor hear of anyone trying to book someone for such an interview.
Sun News is very, very heavy on politics. That's not surprising. It was started to be an openly political news operation trying to give "the other side of the story". Politics make up large parts of the day, and most content for the prime time shows.
There are advantages to this. Sun News has distinguished itself by covering provincial elections nationally, while CBC and CTV tend to do so only regionally. It was the only one to carry the Saskatchewan and Alberta leaders' debate nationally so people in Quebec could watch it (surely there are some of us who care). Though it should be noted that Sun News's regional bias meant it covered provincial elections in Ontario and western Canada much more than those in Atlantic Canada.
But newspapers don't just have one section. What about the rest?
Business: Sun News carries about the same business coverage as the other networks. One of its morning show hosts, Pat Bolland, has his background in business reporting and will often focus on business news. Sun News also has a dedicated business reporter, Anita Sharma, who focuses on the markets but other business news as well.
Sports: It's very surprising to me how little Sun News seems to care about sports. It will cover major sports news like any other news story, but there's nothing resembling a daily or weekly sports highlight show, or even a regular segment on the news shows devoted to sports news. There could be a few reasons for this - for one, there isn't much live programming in the evening, when a daily sports highlight show would make the most sense. But overall, you get the impression that Sun News just doesn't care. A look at its online sports section confirms this. They'll talk about Canadian hockey teams occasionally during the playoffs, but they seem to be fairweather friends with sports news at the best of times.
Contrast this with the Sun newspaper chain, which is heavy on sports.
Arts and entertainment: Like sports, entertainment is given little attention on Sun News. Celebrity gossip stories might be mentioned in brief during the daytime, but that's about it. There's no interviews with musicians or live performances or anything like that. And as for arts, well they don't deal with that at all except to question their funding (see below).
Lifestyle: As with other networks, there's a bit more focus on lifestyle stuff in the morning and daytime. Correspondents might be sent off with a camera to do quirky things. But there's never really anything in depth.
Funny YouTube videos: Oh boy, there's plenty of those. Even during prime time. It's the cheapest journalism there is, so why not?
Social media: Sun News Network has its own social media reporter, Gina Phillips (QMI Agency profile, Twitter). Her role often comes down to scouring Twitter for reaction to news stories and reading tweets on air, or talking about random things that are trending online. It's not much different from how social media reporters work at other news outlets, and about as pointless.
Weather: Sun News has regular weather segments, hosted by Michelle Jobin on weekdays and Alexandra Gunn on weekends. The segments are pretty standard as far as national weather goes (Jobin has experience in TV weather at the Weather Network, Global television and CHCH News). But it's only during daytime, which means no weather between 5pm and 6am on weekdays.
The Sun News Network website is kind of disappointing, when you consider how much content it has access to through QMI, or how well designed some other Sun Media websites are. Stories look oddly formatted, often with embedded videos that are much smaller than they should be, sitting below photos with all-caps captions. In general, it seems like little more than an advertisement for the channel. (Which is fine, it's not like Quebecor Media doesn't have enough news websites.)
The one good thing about it is the extensive video collection. Most major segments are posted online for people to share or review. And as you can see from this post they also allow people to embed videos on other websites.
Advertising on Sun News is similar to what you'd find late at night or on a low-rated cable channel: infomercial-style ads, government public-service announcements, heart-pulling pleas from foreign aid organizations, and house promos. About the only difference is that while, say, a CTV-owned low-rated specialty channel can run high-quality ads for other CTV networks and programming, Sun News has no affiliated channels to promote, leaving it with only the same handful of Sun News promos to run over and over again.
Sun News promised advertisers pretty low viewership numbers before its launch, according to the Globe and Mail: 5,000 during daytime and about 10,000 during primetime in the coveted 25-54 age bracket. As a result, many advertisers decided to wait and see, leaving airtime to the infomercial-style crowd.
You can't blame Sun News for what it advertises. Anyone can buy a spot (and, indeed, they showed that when the first political ad to air on the network came not from the Conservatives but from the Liberal Party). It's also gotten a bit better since then as advertisers become more comfortable with the network.
But its first year was loaded with ads for Dr. Ho's Air Orthotics, for Herbal Magic or for a Kate Middleton knock-off ring with "simulated diamonds" that for some reason came with a certificate of authenticity. Then there are those ads that look a lot like outright scams. Like the iRenew bracelet or QRay bracelet, which are ionized bracelets that promise magic healing powers out of an inanimate object.
Most of those ads are gone now, replaced with ones for kitchen utensils you didn't know you needed, or cheap long-distance phone service, or big-print keyboards.
Sun News has made it clear it also accepts controversial ads, such as those that are against abortion or gay rights. But while there have been some of those ads, there haven't been many. About the only indication during ads that you're watching a right-wing channel are ads from dating site ChristianMingle.com.
The most eyebrow-raising ad comes from a company called SierraSil, which is some sort of joint pain relief pills. The ad features Sun News host Charles Adler talking about how great SierraSil is from behind his desk in his studio. And because the ad regularly aired first in a commercial break during his show, it was hard to tell if the ad is actually part of the show or not.
Though Adler talks about his integrity during the ad, it leaves you with the feeling that he and his network have anything but.
There hasn't been much in the way of campaigns against advertisers (who's going to launch a campaign against the ionic bracelet people?), but apparently at least one has been scared away by complaints.
Is Sun News sexist or racist?
Take a look at the Sun News schedule and you see a lot of white men, particularly in prime time. In fact, all five of the "straight talk" primetime show hosts are straight middle-aged white men. The hosts during the daytime are more diverse, and in fact the argument can be made that Sun News puts strong female personalities in prominent roles. Krista Erickson, for example, technically hosts a daytime "hard news" show, but she's just as opinionative as the primetime guys.
Still, it would be nice to have one of the "straight talk" people be a woman, or someone of colour, or someone who in any way stands out from the rest in their cultural background.
It was only two days after the launch of Sun News that Tasha Kheiriddin wrote in the National Post that she disliked the network because of its focus on female anchors' appearance.
"For its women presenters, there seems to be a ban on sleeves. Not a jacket in sight. Only cocktail dresses, as clingy and low-cut as possible," Kheiriddin wrote. "It’s clear who the target audience is for Sun TV, and it actually isn’t small-c conservatives: it’s men who like their news with a side of T and A and bluster."
I don't know if I agree. There's definitely a focus on appearance, as there is on any television news show - even the CBC cares far too much about how people look on screen. And some of the female anchors have clothing that's maybe a bit tighter than what you'd see elsewhere or in more professional environments. But it's a far cry from the Sunshine Girl (even though some of the hosts had tastefully posed for the regular Sun feature).
The comment set off a firestorm in the early days of Sun News. To the hosts, it was an attack on their right to wear whatever clothing they wanted. A campaign quickly began - a "right to bare arms" - whereby more of the female anchors went sleeveless. Even NDP MP Olivia Chow got in on the campaign and went sleeveless during an early interview with the network.
The reality is that while Sun defends the right to titillate, it doesn't take advantage of it much, beyond Alex Pierson's and Krista Erickson's wardrobe choices.
Straight talk vs. hard news
Officially, Sun News draws a line at 5pm between the "hard news" and "straight talk" parts of its schedule. The daytime shows are live news shows meant to keep people updated on news. The primetime shows are mostly prerecorded and focused on opinion.
But the line is a lot more blurry than that. Many daytime hosts are very opinionated on air, taking sides in debates. Many "reporters" that appear during the day are also not shy about expressing their personal opinions.
On the flip side, you have many apparent opinion-makers who qualify themselves as journalists. Even people like Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley have described themselves that way. And you have David Akin, whose show is listed as "straight talk" but looks and sounds a lot more like a conventional hard news newscast.
The blurred line between news and opinion was most apparent during the early days, when a show by Theo Caldwell, the Caldwell Account, aired as both a "hard news" and "straight talk" show. An hour of it was simply repeated at 7pm, and yet somehow it was in both categories.
Sun News does little to distinguish the two concepts. There are no "opinion" labels during opinion segments.
It's a blurred line you see elsewhere too. Opinionative columnists regularly appear on news pages in newspapers, with only their logo byline to distinguish themselves from hard news. Many newspaper columnists also see themselves as journalists, even though it seems their goal is often to push a particular agenda.
Sun News would improve its respectability considerably by making a clearer distinction. Or it could abandon the news thing altogether and call it something like Sun Views.
But I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.
Meet the staff
Here's a detailed look at the shows and anchors that appear on Sun News Network (all times Eastern):
First Look (6am to 8am weekdays): Originally hosted by Neelam Verma, First Look was the lowest-rated of the Sun News Network shows, mainly because of its timeslot. The format is pretty forgettable, and consists mainly of recapping headlines, speaking to Sun News columnists who are willing to be in studio that early, and checking the weather.
Sun News is already promoting a replacement, anchored by contributor David Menzies. Menzoid Mornings is set to begin April 30. Little has been said about the format of the show so far, but Menzies likes to be outrageous and it makes sense to expect the same in his own show.
The Roundtable (8am to 11am weekdays): The only show on the network with two co-hosts is also the longest at three hours. Most of the show consists of the usual morning news show stuff, though perhaps a bit more newsy than most. At some point during the morning, the circular table is pushed away and the hosts discuss matters between them. I can't figure out why the table is moved for this, unless it's to give viewers a look at Pierson's bare legs (which are, admittedly, very nice).
Alex Pierson: A journalist and anchor with many TV stations including CHCH in Hamilton and City and Global in Toronto, where she specialized in crime and justice reporting, Pierson is highly opinionated but will also let some seemingly more left-wing opinions come through. (Wikipedia)
Pat Bolland: Born in Flint, Mich. (of Michael Moore fame), Bolland's background is in business reporting, working for CNBC, Business News Network and CBC Newsworld. His opinions are often right-of-centre, at least on economic issues, but he's also rarely angry about anything. He prefers to let common sense dictate his opinions, which he expresses calmly and with an open mind. Which is why he seems so out of place here. He also likes to wear bowties. And, you know, the mustache. (Twitter, Wikipedia)
Andrea Slobodian: She's billed as a sort of "third anchor" for Roundtable, which is why I'm including her here. And though she does appear regularly throughout the program from her studio in Calgary, it's hard to qualify her as an anchor. She doesn't speak with guests, and really only appears to chat with the anchors and talk about news related to western Canada (and Alberta in particular).
As for Slobodian personally, she's neither particularly outspoken nor particularly shy about her opinions.
Newswire (11am-1pm weekdays): First hosted by Jacqui Delaney, Newswire was a show that didn't have much of a point to it, it seemed, other than to fill two hours. The idea is that it's a home for breaking news, getting up-to-the-minute updates from the newsroom. But it doesn't really distinguish itself from the other news shows.
Delaney was let go by Sun News in March, for reasons that aren't clear. But the problem with the show wasn't Delaney. It's being hosted by Damian Goddard, who you might recall was fired by Rogers Sportsnet over his views about gay marriage posted on his Twitter account. The show page for Newswire doesn't list a host, and no new show for this timeslot has been announced yet.
Caryn Lieberman, Right Now (1pm to 3pm weekdays): A graduate of Dawson College and Concordia University, Lieberman got her start as an intern at Global Quebec in 2001. (Mike Cohen profiled her briefly last May.) She joined Sun News originally as their weekend anchor, but was promoted to afternoon anchor to replace Theo Caldwell.
Lieberman clearly cares more about getting the news than ranting about things that bother her. That, combined with her Montreal background, makes me want to say good things about her and her show. But the things that make her a good reporter also keep her from fitting in here. Her personality doesn't come through very well, and the show she hosts is about as bland and meaningless as its title. One of its regular segments is "prime time preview", in which she walks around the newsroom and talks with hosts and researchers for primetime shows to see what topics they're going to talk about and what guests they have lined up. When a regular segment of your show is talking about what's on other shows, you can tell something is wrong.
Still, it would be a shame if Lieberman were to lose out merely because she's not a blowhard.
Krista Erickson, Canada Live (3pm to 5pm weekdays): Oh Krista. She's a Sun News host who should hardly need introduction, thanks to her much-publicized spat with Margie Gillis. But I'll do it anyway.
I first wrote about Erickson back in 2008, when she was a CBC parliamentary reporter who was transferred to Toronto because it was discovered that she fed questions to a Liberal MP when she couldn't get the answers directly from the Conservative government. As I wrote at the time, the move was questionable and controversial, but it wasn't clear to me that it was unethical. Certainly a topic to discuss in journalism ethics courses.
I got an email from Erickson a few months later, pointing out that she had been cleared of wrongdoing and given back her Ottawa job. I updated with another post updating the record, and asked her some questions (like whether she agreed that such actions should be avoided). She wouldn't answer them, but apologized for that.
When I first saw her on Sun News Network, I didn't recognize her. She looks a lot different from her time at CBC. And, it seems, she acts a lot different too.
Erickson is at times jovial, promising "great TV" to show us, and at times she's frustrated and annoyed, like when a graphic doesn't appear properly (it's a common occurrence). I don't need to explain how hard-headed and opinionated she can be. Definitely a prime candidate should Sun News decide to put a woman in one of those prime time "straight talk" slots.
It would be easy to criticize Erickson using sexist terms, to mock her for the way she looks or the clothes she wears. It would be easy to call her a "bimbo" or characterize her as a dumb blonde. But she's really no different than Ezra Levant or Brian Lilley. I judge her not because of the tightness of her garments or the length of her hair, but because of the contempt she has for people who don't agree with her, and the way she, like those white-guy prime time hosts, like to mock political opponents with sarcasm rather than try to convince reasonable people to consider her side of the argument.
Erickson also does the "evening news update", a roundup of headlines that appears during commercial breaks of prime-time shows.
Ezra Levant, The Source (5pm to 6pm weekdays): An Alberta conservative (that's a small C), Levant is king of Canada's free-speech movement. He's made enemies of human rights tribunals, which he decries as undemocratic censors.
Levant has a habit of bringing up old battles on his show. His first week brought back the Mohamed cartoons (showing them on air) and his book Ethical Oil. On June 3, he brought on Stephen Taylor to talk about an incident with then-Gazette reporter Elizabeth Thompson from 2007. He's a fierce advocate for the Alberta oil sands, freedom in all its forms, and small government, which makes him an enemy of the CBC (he clarifies that he wants to privatize it, not shut it down).
Levant is a fan of stunts, and has used them often. Cutting down a tree with a chainsaw on Earth Day in 2011, scarfing down chicken wings while talking to a representative of PETA, having an intern wear a chicken costume when James Moore wouldn't show up, mocking Jack Layton after his death, stripping during an interview, the list goes on.
He also walked into CBC headquarters in Toronto, camera in tow, and demanded to speak with people in charge, only to be told by security that he had to leave because he wasn't authorized to film there. Levant eventually left, then filed an access-to-information request about the experience, where he learned one CBC executive jokingly suggest that they hire him. Levant pounced on that and used it for weeks as evidence that the CBC had no qualms about using taxpayer money to bribe critics. But, he assured us, he would never take government money to stay quiet, as if we were worried about that.
This may sound crazy, but I like Ezra Levant (and not just because he invited me on his show once). I agree with very little of what he says, and his connection to logic and common sense can be tenuous at times, but I don't doubt that he believes in his opinions, and that he believes he wants to do good by society.
More importantly, though, Levant doesn't take himself too seriously. Watch the viewer reaction part of his show or follow him on Twitter and you'll see he embraces even the nastiest of criticism. He's not easily offended by things, and he's not as likely as his friend Brian Lilley to resort to name-calling when his argument fails.
That said, Levant's show is problematic for the same reason as Coren's and Lilley's and Adler's: His guests tend to be people who agree with him, and there's rarely serious debate. He has a good monologue, but after that there's not much reason to tune in.
David Akin, Daily Brief (6pm to 7pm weekdays): The black sheep of the black sheep network. Akin is a political geek who doesn't spend his days grinding axes. Through his journalistic career covering federal politics for just about every national news service (including CTV and Canwest News Service), Akin has an encyclopedic knowledge of the hill, and an insatiable appetite for political news. Frankly, I wonder if he's some sort of robot.
It's not that Akin doesn't have opinions or is too timid to share them, but his interest in his own opinions is eclipsed by his desire to get more facts, in some cases even the most trivial ones. He'll start discussions about things like health care, in which his interview with a guest is meant to ask questions, not give statements and have the guest agree with him.
This is what makes him seem like he doesn't belong on this network. The Daily Brief is a news and interview show, not an opinion show, even though it's listed under Sun News's "straight talk" prime time lineup. Akin is the only one of the five primetime hosts who doesn't begin his show with an opinion monologue. Unlike the other shows, Daily Brief is also done live.
Akin is not afraid to express opinions that go against the talking points of the day being shouted by his colleagues (or, for that matter, by his left-leaning Press Gallery colleagues either). While other hosts were openly mocking recipients of government arts grants and bringing on Canadian Taxpayer Federation spokespeople to talk about how much waste that is, Akin wrote a piece for the Sun arguing in a reasonable tone that arts grants actually contribute quite a bit to our economy. While his colleagues were cheering the Conservative government's plan to kill federal per-vote subsidy to political parties and calling it the most ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, Akin wrote another piece arguing for keeping it. Or at least, arguing that other forms of subsidies to political parties should be eliminated first. Akin has also argued, for example, that Conservative MPs have acted unparliamentary toward NDP MPs.
Akin is hardly left-wing, but his eagerness to present reasonable rebuttals to populist right-wing rants probably makes him look like he is. Akin has been invited on his colleagues' shows to debate the subjects he's brought up, but otherwise his points are largely ignored and the other talking heads go back to their talking points. Which is a shame because the best moments of political debate on Sun News are when Akin takes on his fellow anchors with his Devil's Advocate stance. See this argument with Ezra Levant about human rights commissions. What makes this different than other arguments is that Levant, Brian Lilley and others have too much respect for Akin to dismiss him as crazy or stupid. Instead, his arguments have to be fought on their merits. Unfortunately, whether or not Akin wins an argument is irrelevant. His points go in one ear and out the other, and he never changes his colleagues' opinions.
Michael Coren, The Arena (7pm to 8pm weekdays): A former host of a show on CTS, Canada's Christian television network, Coren is the author of the book "Why Catholics are right", which should be fairly self-explanatory. I picked it up by throwing 50 cents into the charity bin in the newsroom. It takes just about every criticism of Christianity and the Catholic church, and makes the case that it's either exaggerated, misunderstood or actually the fault of some other religion or godless creatures. The child sex abuse scandal, the church's actions during the Holocaust, even the Crusades are watered down by laying the blame elsewhere.
Coren is unsurprisingly the resident religious conservative. He has a history of controversial opinions that have gotten him into trouble, and his attitude toward debates about religion (Christianity is great and so much better than Islam, Christians are persecuted and Islam should be) is very off-putting for people who don't watch CTS regularly. His British accent also gives him an air of smug superiority, whether it's deserved or not.
Despite being very religious, Coren thinks nothing of demeaning people who disagree with him by calling them names.
Coren started out as a regular guest on Sun News programs (while he was still doing his CTS show), but was announced as a new show host at the same time as Sun News parted ways with Caldwell. His show replaced a low-rated repeat of the first hour of Caldwell's program.
Charles Adler (8pm to 9pm weekdays): The Sun News personality with the most experience as a talk show host, Adler was a big get for Sun News when it launched. Born in Hungary, Adler's family immigrated to Canada and he quickly started up in radio, working for both CKGM and CJAD in Montreal before moving out west for good. He currently hosts a daily talk show syndicated across Corus's talk radio stations and others, putting him on about a dozen stations, but none east of Toronto.
Adler's show, broadcast from Winnipeg where he lives, focuses on what he calls "common sense" - and tends to talk about some outrageous story he's found out about that involves the nanny state or socialism or something else that may or may not be an actual threat to modern society. Adler is a hawk, he's pro-gun, pro-military, tough on crime, pro-death-penalty, for small government and anti-environmentalist. He's also against bilingualism because, outside Quebec, there's only a "speck" of 150,000 people who are unilingual francophones, and it's a waste to spend money giving them services.
He's not nearly as annoying and smug as the other primetime hosts, but it's hard to get over his impression that government programs to help the disadvantaged will turn this country into a communist dictatorship.
Among Adler's regular contributors is CHOM radio host Terry DiMonte, who brings out his inner populist (but reasonable) right-winger every Tuesday. He started appearing back when he was in Calgary, and has continued in Montreal. DiMonte and Adler are friends.
Brian Lilley, Byline (9pm to 10pm weekdays): I'm going to try to be nice here, because I want to stay open-minded, but having watched Lilley and his show many times, it's hard not to think that he's just the world's biggest asshole. He's got it all, the sarcasm, the smugness, the outright disdain for people who disagree with him, plus the cowardess of mocking people when they're not there to defend themselves.
Lilley is the standard-bearer in the fight against the CBC, though while Levant's attacks on the public broadcaster seem to have the larger purpose of pushing it toward privatization, Lilley's attacks seem to be more for their own sake. He loves going after the CBC so much that the "CBC money drain" logo is part of the opening graphics of his show. But he also attacks the "consensus media", using arguments as ridiculous as the fact that they're hiding that Barack Obama is a secret anti-Semite (note the old if-it-was-the-other-side-doing-this-it-would-be-a-scandal imagined hypocrisy argument, which is common at Sun News).
Lilley combines Levant's economic conservatism and disdain for government (and David Suzuki) with a lighter version of Coren's religious conservatism, including an opposition to abortion rights. (Lilley doesn't argue for the criminalization of abortion outright, but rather that the issue should be reopened and re-debated.) But whatever his opinions are, his attitude makes you really not want to share them.
Brian Dunstan, Sun News Live (weekends 9am to 11am, 2pm to 5pm), Saturday Sun (Saturdays noon to 1pm), Sunday Sun (Sundays noon to 1pm): Originally hired to do the weekday evening news update, Dunstan was moved to weekends after Caryn Lieberman was moved to a weekday show.
Dunstan is a hard news guy, and he's actually quite personable on air. He's courteous and respectful and has a keen eye for getting the news rather than pushing his opinions.
I would have expected such ridiculousness to get him fired by now, but I guess since he's on the weekend nobody watches.
Others: Plenty of regular faces appear on Sun News regularly. They include:
- Vancouver reporters Jill Bennett and Richard Zussman
- Winnipeg correspondent Nicole Dube
- Life and style reporter and weekend weather presenter Alexandra Gunn
- Business reporter Anita Sharma
- Reporters Sneha Kulkarni and Alex Mihailovitch
- Pollster David Coletto
Plus regular Sun columnists and personalities who come in to give their opinions on things, including Brigitte Pellerin, Mark Bonokoski, John Robson and Eric Duhaime.
Neelam Verma, First Look (6am to 8am weekdays, until March 2012): A former Miss Canada (Sun Media focused on this when introducing her, though the network itself didn't mention it often), Verma came to Sun News from its predecessor Sun TV, where she contributed to its Canoe Live show. Though she seemed very pleasant on air (being a beauty pageant winner, I imagine, gives you experience smiling for hours on end), Verma lacked the right-wing anger that you see from other hosts. (That is, of course, a good thing in general, but apparently a bad thing here.) She was also, it should be noted, the only show host on the schedule when the network launched who wasn't white (the reporting staff is more diverse, and a black weekend anchor was added later). Not that she seemed to mind. She defended having babes as news anchors, saying "There's nothing wrong with being smart, accomplished and beautiful." (Website, Wikipedia)
The show was mostly news and discussion of news, but also included a "breakfast bites" segment where the people who had just been discussing bombings in Libya start giggling while they talk about funny YouTube videos. It's currently in flux, hosted by Alex Mihailovitch. Sun columnist David Menzies takes over April 30 with Menzoid Mornings, which judging from the promos looks a bit like Ezra-Levant-style slapstick.
Theo Caldwell, The Caldwell Account (1pm to 3pm weekdays, first hour repeated at 7pm, until June 2011): Caldwell left Sun News for unknown reasons in late June - an archive of his segments has been compiled here. His afternoon show was replaced by Caryn Lieberman's Right Now, and the evening repeat by Michael Coren's The Arena.
Caldwell's show was considered both "hard news" and "straight talk" for some reason, and I wasn't sure why he was given so much airtime (three hours a day). Caldwell was a business-minded anchor with a big ego and a knack for being overly flamboyant in his discourse, like he thought the very sound of his voice was God's gift to broadcasting. He also had an obsession with American politics, to the detriment of Canada's political scene.
No reason was given for Caldwell's departure, which came unannounced.
UPDATE: Caldwell emailed me after this post went up, noting its thoroughness (and being remarkably nice considering how unflattering my comments about him here are). He wouldn't shed more light on why he left Sun News.
Jacqui Delaney, Newswire (11am to 1pm weekdays until March 2012): Originally from Newfoundland (and a Habs fan), Delaney also came from Sun TV's Canoe Live, though her background is more in radio and sports, working for Newstalk 1010, The Fan 590 and appearing on TSN. On the air, Delaney presented a sassy, no-nonsense persona. (QMI Agency profile, Sunshine Girl photo shoot)
Newswire had a feel of being in a newsroom with breaking news, which is a good thing. Delaney stood during the show, with the newsroom in the background. But otherwise it was pretty well the same as the other daytime shows.
Delaney hasn't commented publicly on her departure. She didn't even announce it on Twitter, except in replies to people asking where she went. She did hint shortly after she left that focus groups weren't friendly. She now lists herself as a freelance radio/TV personality. I wasn't a big fan of the show because it never seemed to have a point to it other than filling time between morning and afternoon. But Delaney was a perfectly competent host, and a good fit for a network that, despite how it was perceived at first, put some strong, opinionated women on the air, at least during the daytime.
Mercedes Stephenson: She was announced as a cohost for David Akin on the Daily Brief, but left the network for unknown reasons before it launched. She's now a reporter for CTV News Channel, where you can follow her on Twitter.
Show, don't tell
It might seem from all these negative comments about Erickson, Levant, Coren, Adler and Lilley that I just dislike conservatives. I won't pretend to be one myself, so I have to admit the possibility that that's it. But what bothers me about them is the same thing that bothers me about many on Canada's political left (including many of the fiercest critics of Sun News): their attitude.
I often find myself agreeing with some of the points raised by the Sun News opinion makers. I'm not a big fan of wasteful government spending, and I believe CBC's mandate should be reviewed. But rather than trying to calmly and respectfully explain to me their position and defend it in a serious debate, they shout their opinions out in the form of rants and ridicule, as if anyone who disagrees with their position is an evil, infantile moron who has no sense of reality.
None of the people I've listed above are stupid. Nor do I think they're evil. But either they're so filled with rage after years of being silenced (or at least convincing themselves they're being silenced) that they just can't control it anymore, or they don't care about converting people to their cause and are just preaching to their choir, building a fortress of hate that is constantly reinforced without the ability to expand or even look outside.
It's a shame. There are many level-headed conservatives out there, and many irrational leftists who could use some education on conservative ideas. But instead of offering a different point of view, the Sun News personalities have done their best to make it easier to hate them.
Sun News sees itself as the black sheep that's going after the sacred cows and trying to stir things up. They see hatred aimed at them as a sign of their strength, believing that the "if they hate us we must be doing something good" argument about journalism applies to what they're doing. But it doesn't.
I can understand why Quebecor wouldn't have a problem with this. They know the best thing they can do for ratings is go after the red meat, give the conservative base something to get a rise out of them and give liberals something to focus their hate on.
What I don't know is why the conservatives on the network participate in this. Maybe they think they've already won the ideological war. Or maybe they just don't care as long as they get a paycheque.
Journalists who wrote about Sun News Network in its first week said much of the same things: that it's conservative propaganda, that its daytime anchors seem to have been selected for their looks rather than their skills, and that the quality of journalism is very poor.
But I'll let them speak for themselves:
- Bill Brownstein, The Gazette: "With headliners like Levant, Charles Adler, Theo Caldwell and Brian Lilley, Sun News is long on ranting and rambling interviews and short on actual news – which would appear to be problematic for a supposedly all-news network."
- Tasha Kheiriddin, National Post: "...despite its virtues, Sun TV really isn’t about Hard News and Straight Talk. It’s about Hot Chicks and Sexy Outfits. And oh yes, after 5 pm, ladies, for the most part, you are dismissed."
- Scott Feschuk, Maclean's: Ezra’s show came off as a little canned, in that its focus drifted from an old story about the CRTC to an older story about CBC’s Vote Compass thingy to a five-year-old story about those Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad. On tomorrow’s Source: the latest from the Ford Hunger March of 1932!
- John Doyle, Globe and Mail: "After all of that – all the fuss, the hype and hysteria – what has Sun News Network amounted to? Cheap, cheesy, terrible television. I encourage you to watch it. You can learn a great deal about the utter banality of well-meant but bonehead TV."
- Doyle, again: "Pretty soon, the channel will be something that people watch for charity. You know, sponsor me and I’ll watch this thing. ... If you’ve got a devilish sense of humour, it is the most hilarious news channel you’ve ever, ever seen."
- Tabatha Southey, Globe and Mail: "They don’t tell you much news, in either the strictest or the most lenient sense of the word, but they do tell you what to think about it."
- Brad Oswald, Winnipeg Free Press: "Based on its first week on the air, SNN seems to lack both the ideological zeal and the financial wherewithal to achieve its self-stated goal of changing TV history."
- Nathalie Collard, La Presse: "Quebecor semble d'ailleurs vouloir miser sur la beauté de ses journalistes féminines (plus près du style des présentatrices de l'émission Entertainment Tonight que des lectrices de nouvelles de la CBC) pour attirer l'attention des téléspectateurs" (Collard also discusses the network with Christiane Charette on Radio-Canada)
- Stéphane Baillargeon, Le Devoir: "Trois semaines à peine après son lancement, la nouvelle chaîne d'information continue Sun News TV patauge dans la bouette et la désinformation. Ce réseau n'est donc pas juste la Fox du Nord, conservatrice à regret, prophétisée et crainte par ses détracteurs: c'est aussi carrément de la télé poubelle qui racole aux bas instincts, aux bobards, au sensationnalisme et au populisme."
- Patrick Gauthier, Rue Frontenac: "Le plus triste là-dedans, c’est que les principaux intéressés prennent les critiques, qui fusent de toutes parts depuis lundi, comme des preuves qu’ils ont raison."
- Bill Brioux, TV Feeds My Family: "all night there was much more talk, little news. You'd never know an election was happening in Canada outside of those political ads. After all the rhetoric of this being Fox News North, there seemed a deliberate reluctance to wave the Harper flag."
- Craig Silverman, Columbia Journalism Review: "Sun News is about bringing campaign war room tactics and strategy into the Canadian news game. In that respect, it really is Fox News North."
- John Miller: "Giving this polemicist (Ezra Levant) an hour a day to pile on his favourite targets -- political correctness, the CBC, human rights commissions, Ignatieff and big government -- is going to get really old, really fast. On top of that, the man seems to be a compulsive narcissist."
- Journalism professor Elly Alboim, to The Hill Times: "I think everybody jumping with hobnailed boots on them in the first week-and-a-half is a little weird. There are very few organizations in start-up mode who look very much the same six months later. It'll come."
- Martin Patriquin, Maclean's: "The best thing about the folks who bring you “Hard News, Straight Talk” is their utter lack of consistency. Or, since we’re all we’re straight talking here, let’s call it what it really is: hypocrisy."
I don't include Sun newspapers in this, of course, because their "reviews" were not so much reviews as they were self-congratulatory advertisements.
Sun's reviews of the reviews
If there's anything Sun News Network seems to like to talk about, it's Sun News Network.
It's understandable that a station that has just launched after months of planning will spend some time talking about itself, but Sun News kept the discussion about itself going on for days.
Ezra Levant, at least, had some fun with it, turning the early reviews into a "hot and not" segment. But much of the reaction-to-the-reaction was petty and pathetic.
A tweet by Rick Mercer joking that the studio was full of silicone got a lot of discussion on air, as did Kheirridin's National Post piece and a tweet she later apologized for referring to the network as "Skank TV". The sleeveless female anchors and their white-men-opinion-blowhard friends all expressed their outrage at the apparent misogyny, without anyone discussing why there were so many sleeveless pretty women on the daytime schedule in the first place.
Friends of Sun News like Quebecor-employed Sophie Durocher also took up the they're-saying-you-can't-be-pretty-on-television argument, as if anyone has actually suggested such a thing.
After he was hired by Sun News, former religious television host Michael Coren alleged that "some of the fiercest" critics are actually people who applied for jobs at the station and were rejected. He provides no evidence to back up this claim, but logic dictates he either relied on rumour, he heard it from the people who were rejected from those jobs, or he gleaned information - directly or indirectly - from Sun's human resources department.
Exclusive No. 1: Ignatieff is evil
The big exclusive on the second day of the newscasts (and in the middle of the election campaign) was actually a story from the Sun newspapers, written by Brian Lilley, that Michael Ignatieff was on the "front lines" of Iraq war planning. Presented on air by reporter Alex Mihailovitch, even though Lilley himself is an anchor at Sun News Network, the story seemed to be based mainly on two TV news clips from 2003. How replaying footage from C-SPAN and PBS can be considered an "exclusive" isn't explained. Neither is Lilley's statement in his article that this constitutes "new information". There was also discussion on air of Ignatieff gaining access to sensitive information, which was questioned because Ignatieff is Canadian. No explanation was given of what information Ignatieff was given that wouldn't be accessible to anyone watching TV.
A week later, the big story of the day came out of an article by Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau (in Sun newspapers, of course, each one teasing it on its front page) accusing a Conservative Party insider (Patrick Muttart, the former deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper) of trying to plant a false story that would have implied Ignatieff was on the "front lines" of the Iraq war. This false Iggy-on-front-lines story apparently being different from the previous week's true Iggy-on-front-lines story. The big false evidence was a photo of six guys in military uniforms holding guns, one of whom has a passing resemblance to Ignatieff. When Sun demanded a high-resolution version of the photo (as they would have needed anyway to make a front-page story of it), it showed that the man was clearly not Ignatieff.
The leak was passed through Tory Keneycke, himself a former PMO staffer as Harper's communications director, and now in charge of the Sun News Network.
Péladeau also accused the party of deliberately trying to attack the credibility of Sun News Network with this plant, as if it somehow helps the Conservatives to torpedo the credibility of Canada's conservative news network. Lots of people found this strange, and I would argue the close relationship between the two parties and the assumption that Sun News would be more favourable to news that's bad about Ignatieff (see previous story) were probably bigger factors in choosing Sun News as the outlet for the leak. (It would later come out that Muttart did work for Sun News, which makes this even more interesting, and Péladeau's assertion even more bizarre.)
The Conservatives, having lost the confidence of the conservatives, quickly fired Muttart, who sent out a press release saying he didn't intentionally try to mislead anyone, and he made it clear he wasn't sure if the photo was Ignatieff.
It starts off with this very telling paragraph:
Opposition research is a fundamental and essential element of every successful political campaign and the practice of campaigns sharing opposition research with journalists and media organizations is common the world over. Ultimately journalists and media organizations conduct their own research and make their own decisions about what to cover and what not to cover.
Exclusive No. 2: Jack's jackoff
The evening of April 29, a Friday, three days before the federal election. The NDP was surging, particularly in Quebec, and had unexpectedly become Stephen Harper's main opponent in the race.
Sun News broke into primetime programming to drop the exclusive bombshell: A former Toronto police officer told one of their reporters that Jack Layton had been found naked at a massage parlour in 1996.
Layton admitted he was there, but said he was only getting a massage and had no idea this place was used for illicit sex work. His wife backed him up.
Layton wasn't arrested, and police found no wrongdoing on his part, but according to the Sun journalist they were pretty convinced he had just gotten a happy ending before they came in.
The story is gross, so I won't get into it. What's more interesting is that it was a negative story about Layton, 15 years old, shopped to a reporter in the midst of an election campaign, and Sun decided to go with it.
I don't know if it's true. Politicians lie about this stuff all the time. Layton's version of events, though a bit hard to believe, are plausible enough that one can give him the benefit of the doubt.
But even assuming it is true, that Layton got a hand job at a massage parlour 15 years ago, did it matter? Sun News personalities defended the story, saying that if it was Stephen Harper the other media would be all over it. I don't think so. Reporters have given politicians a pass on a lot of personal issues in the past. When salacious details of Conservative minister Vik Toews's divorce case were publicized, it was a scandal - not for Toews, but for the person who publicized them, even though technically the file was public information.
It's telling that after the election, when the robocall scandal was breaking, Sun News personalities did their best to minimize it. They repeatedly said there was no evidence that there was any wrongdoing outside of Guelph, that the number of complaints to Elections Canada was far lower than other media had reported, and that this simply wasn't a scandal.
Partisan, but not Conservative
The Sun News Network thinks of itself as non-partisan. It's conservative, definitely, but it's not beholden to any political party. And it's true. The network often criticizes the federal government - for not being conservative enough. Heritage Minister James Moore gets a hard time because he believes the CBC deserves to exist. And while not scandalized by it as much as they are by other issues, they have reported on the F-35 cost dispute and are critical of government overspending.
But it's during elections that Sun News seems to get partisan. As it became clear the NDP were surging in the last election, commentators started warning about the dangers of an NDP government and defending criticism of the Conservatives.
We're seeing it again in an election in Alberta, where the incumbent Progressive Conservatives are facing a challenge from the even more conservative Wildrose Alliance. Sun News personalities like Ezra Levant have renamed the PC's the "Progressives" and compared them to the NDP. Suddenly everything about Wildrose is great, every criticism of the party is overblown or discriminatory, and the PCs can do nothing right.
I don't want to play the what-if game that Sun News seems to base so many of its arguments on, but I can't imagine any other news network doing everything but formally endorsing a candidate in an election and not being called on it. But at Sun News, it's expected.
For such a controversial network, you'd think the complaints and defamation lawsuits would be commonplace. But they're not. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which rules on complaints against private broadcasters, has ruled on only two cases involving Sun News.
One was about an episode of Levant's The Source in which he and a guest complained about free housing given to artists in Edmonton. As it turns out, the housing was subsidized, but not free. Levant corrected the record on a subsequent show, though perhaps in a way that lacked a sincere regret for getting the record wrong. The CBSC ruled that Levant's on-air correction was sufficient.
The other ruling was about the Margie Gillis episode, discussed in detail below. The CBSC found no violation of its standards there.
As far as defamation, I can't find any heavily publicized legal case or court decision about Sun News Network. There have been cases involving Sun News personalities for their statements in other media (notably the Sun papers), but nothing I've seen about Sun News directly.
Margie Gillis, leftist hero
The first story to really go viral among left-wing critics of Sun News Network (at least, the first to go viral after the network began broadcasting) was an interview that Krista Erickson did with Margie Gillis, a dancer and recent recipient of the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement.
The video from that interview is on Sun News's website, and was shared via social media, going crazy viral a few days after it was broadcast.
The interview was the culmination of a (for lack of a better term) running gag at Sun News over the previous two weeks making fun of publicly-funded but unpopular art. Sun News personalities, particularly Erickson, Theo Caldwell, Mark Bonokoski and Ezra Levant, targeted Gillis personally, mocking her movements in a video that showcases her interpretive dance moves (the video, which I found on the NFB website because it was created by them for the awards ceremony, was actually taken with high-speed cameras, something that wasn't mentioned on Sun News). Erickson attended the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards gala on May 14, saw the video the NFB produced about her, and was apparently shocked that not only were we honouring such art but funding it too.
Erickson and Sun News even setup their own awards, called the "Sunnies", and invited viewers to send submissions that also mocked artistic elites who receive government funding. Those "awards" were given out on June 8 during an interview with Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The winner was Craig Williams, who parodied Gillis's "swan hands" routine while wearing oven mitts.
The interview starts off with Erickson enthusiastically promising "great TV", and then gleefully lauding Gillis as she introduces her as her guest (this two weeks after angrily asking "who the hell is she?"). This is pretty standard for Erickson, blowing hot air while introducing her guests whether they're friend or foe.
It doesn't take long for the interview to turn ugly, as Erickson demands to know why Gillis and her foundation gets so much money from the government (an amount that appears to be a little over a million dollars over a period of more than 10 years, for a foundation that includes far more than just Gillis). The two strong-willed women spend about 10 minutes interrupting each other and talking (even yelling) over each other in the kind of train-wreck "let me finish" interview that is completely useless to the viewer but that you can't stop watching.
Then, as if it couldn't become more surreal, it's time for Gillis's "Moment in the Sun". This is a standard part of major daytime interviews on Sun News, in which guests talk about personal lives or unconnected projects while photos of them appear on screen. Suddenly the tone switches to lifestyle-fluff, and it's as if all that yelling is just forgotten.
Well, certainly not forgotten by the public. Though it wasn't seen by many people live, the online video spread like wildfire. Hundreds of links to it on Twitter and elsewhere. Lots of people leaving supportive comments on Gillis's Facebook page. Even a blog was setup about this issue.
The video spread particularly among the dance community here and abroad. Erickson reported getting emails from the Juilliard School in New York. One dancer went through the trouble of writing a long, researched response to Erickson. Gillis's foundation described to Rue Frontenac receiving letters from all around the world in support. It even got to the point where Gillis herself pleaded for calm, saying she doesn't condone messages of "hatred" being directed at Erickson.
The interview also spread to French Quebec. Articles from incredulous columnists and writers including Patrick Gauthier of Rue Frontenac, Marc Cassivi of La Presse, and Richard Therrien of Le Soleil. Marie-Andrée Labbé of Urbania. ProjetJ has a roundup. Stéphane Baillargeon of Le Devoir also points out the hypocrisy of Quebecor's empire being against funding for culture and yet taking government funding for its cultural activities. (Glen McGregor provides a list of money going to Quebecor's magazines.) And Franco Nuovo invited Gillis on his Radio-Canada show to talk about the ordeal (MP3, interview starts at 48th-minute mark)
Not that Quebec speaks with one voice on the matter. An opinion piece by right-winger Nathalie Elgrably-Lévy, published before the Margie Gillis brouhaha, also made the point that art should not be subsidized by the government. Sophie Durocher defended Erickson's interview. As if it needs to be said, these columns appeared in Quebecor's Journal de Montréal.
In the aftermath, a lot of venom was directed toward Sun News and Erickson personally. She has repeatedly complained on air that she has received threats, some apparently threatening physical harm to her or using vulgar language. A look through some of the reaction online and it's not hard to see that.
Still, she said in late June, the network was "grateful" for the "interest" the controversy has generated in the network, which is still struggling to get attention. That "interest" consists of more than 4,000 complaints filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (more than they'd normally get in total for an entire year), so much that they took the incredible step of asking people to stop sending in complaints because they only need one.
That news prompted another flurry of commentary on Sun News. Brian Lilley and Ezra Levant concluded that CSBC complainers are trying to censor Sun News and trample on their freedom of expression. Mark Bonokoski celebrated the interview as "good television and good journalism." Later, Quebecor lawyer Tycho Manson even praised Gillis for the "tenacity with which she presented the other side of the debate" as the network said it would not back down from attacks by the CSBC that attack its freedom of speech.
Even though we have the video of the interview, its content is reinterpreted according to bias. According to The Sun's Peter Worthington, "Erickson was ineffably polite and respectful of Margie Gillis". For The Star's Heather Mallick, Erickson was "angry, wired" and Gillis was "seriously nice" and had a "wonderful curtain of hair" I can trust neither of them to give me a proper picture of what happened.
In the end, the CBSC ruled that the interview did not violate the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code of Ethics because Erickson and Gillis were allowed to present both sides of the argument. The CBSC didn't concern itself with Erickson's lack of "courtesy and politeness," but did say there was no personal attack on Gillis that would have violated the code.
One expert raised the question of whether the CBSC used the right code in adjudicating the case. Marc-François Bernier argued that they should have used the RTDNA code, which applies specifically to broadcast journalism, rather than the CAB code that is for broadcasting as a whole. He believed that the interview may have violated the RTDNA code if not the CAB one.
The issue died out after that, though Erickson's reputation has been solidified. She was even nominated for a Zapette d'Or by ARTV's C'est juste de la TV, even though I suspect most of its viewers have never seen Erickson beyond the Gillis video. She lost in the category meant to highlight the worst of television.
Don't mess with Quebec artists
Sun News raised the ire of Quebec's lefties again when Erickson took on funding for the Oscar-nominated film Monsieur Lazhar. It was an odd choice, going after one of the most critically successful Quebec films of the year, but for Erickson that was exactly the point. She demanded to know how much the film got in public financing, and when she was told how much, she decided that wasn't good enough and demanded to know exactly how the producers were funding the film. They wouldn't say, so Sun News published the phone number and email of the producers and suggested viewers harass them until they gave up their secrets.
La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé appeared on Paul Houde's 98.5 FM radio show and called Sun News "babboons" - which naturally provoked a rebuttal from Sun News.
Let's be honest here, get some "straight talk" out there: The biggest measure of Sun News Network's success, certainly by Sun Media's standards, will be ratings. It's why it has the snazzy graphics, why it has the pretty news ladies during the day, and why it wants to outrage people and get everyone talking about it. If it's financially successful and get ad revenue, little else matters.
When it made its first splash, Sun News attracted some very respectable numbers for a digital-only cable network on its first day. 31,000 for Ezra Levant's show (behind CTV News Channel, but not by much), 51,000 for David Akin's Daily Brief. But those numbers went way down later in the week as people's curiosity was satisfied and they were more interested in those "boring" news network than what Sun News had to offer. Sun's marquee shows were getting fewer than 10,000 viewers, while CBC News Network has 200,000-plus.
The Sun newspapers apparently had access to different facts, showing numbers throughout the week in the 30-50,000 range, regularly beating their competition.
Not having access to raw numbers myself, I can't tell you which of these is more accurate. But let's just say the ratings in primetime are in the low five digits, and less than that during the day, overnight and on weekends.
A month and a half into the channel's life, another set of numbers. The Globe and Mail says their average audience is 12,900, about a third of CTV News Channel and 18% of CBC News Network, but about on par with the Business News Network. (See a comparative infographic here.) Sun Media had the same number for the average over a full week (including overnight hours), but focused on prime time, where it had 25,400 viewers on average and occasionally beat out CTV News Channel, despite having only about two thirds of the subscriber base.
In September, during Jack Layton's funeral, an embarrassing 8,000 for Sun News, according to Bill Brioux, compared with the other networks (main and specialty) each well into six digits, and City just short of 100,000.
In general, reports suggest that except for major news events, Sun News does about as well as Business News Network, a bit behind CTV News Channel and well behind CBC News Network. But Sun News looks on the bright side, pointing out that it has a much smaller subscriber base because Bell TV and some cable companies don't make the channel available to subscribers.
Ezra Levant also points out to The Hill Times that, because MTS doesn't carry Sun News Network, the channel is not available in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where he expects the network will be popular because of Prairies-friendly faces like Charles Adler.
Sun News's biggest ratings came less than a month ago, when Liberal MP Justin Trudeau and Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau faced each other in the ring. Sun News had secured exclusive rights to live video of the fight (so the other networks - except LCN - couldn't cover it live even if they wanted to). It managed to attract just over 100,000 viewers, which it says is its biggest audience to date.
In the end, it might not matter if Sun News cares more about subscriptions than advertising revenue. As the Toronto Star points out (in an article that quotes a blog post I wrote in October), most of its revenue will probably come from people who subscribe to the channel (either directly or through a news-themed package), whether they watch it or not. The trick is getting cable and satellite companies not owned by Quebecor to add Sun News to their service and to popular packages.
Advertising and subscriptions aren't the only potential sources of revenue for Sun News. It organized a winter retreat in February for fans to spend time with their favourite hosts, for only about a thousand dollars a person. Unfortunately, there was no word from it afterward. No blog posts, news coverage, or highlights aired on Sun News. That led some on the left to wonder if anyone even showed up.
Programming: 100% original
About the biggest thing I can credit Sun News Network with is that its programming is 100% original to the network. It buys no American programs, it carries no programs that are shared with other networks. Everything you see was created for Sun News Network and Sun News Network only. Yes, eight hours of it is overnight repeats, but when so many new specialty channels rely heavily on U.S. programming (many even brand themselves after their U.S. counterparts), it's nice to see something so originally Canadian, even if I don't like what it actually says.
One thing Kory Teneycke said when Sun News launched was that it wasn't going to be boring. They weren't going to rely on interviews with talking head university professors. They were going to do something different.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of talking heads on Sun News Network. And some of them are even university professors. There's a reason the other networks use them so much - they're smart and many of them articulate their thoughts well.
"We're taking on smug, condescending, often irrelevant journalism," he told Canadian Press. But that sounds a lot like Sun News.
If Sun News is really going to be unboring as Teneycke promised, they're going to have to get away from the six-minute talking head interview that makes up so much of both their daytime and primetime programming. And if they want to take on smug journalism, I don't think going more smug is going to help.
Critics just as bad
Smugness, sarcasm and name-calling also describe much of the criticism of Sun News Network, and much of that from people who claim to be journalists. You can read some of the reviews linked to above or just read the tweets sent to Ezra Levant, and you see how gratuitously nasty people can be. It's easy to see how, from their perspective, they're doing good, challenging conventional wisdom and facing against people who can't defend their positions without resorting to insults.
It's human nature to get defensive when people attack you. And it makes sense that if people's attacks on you are based on seemingly irrational anger and hatred rather than rational disagreement, they're likely to get dismissed. (Or, in Levant's case, he makes fun of them.)
I wonder if, instead of criticizing Sun News for its wardrobe choices, critics could have looked at more serious issues of Sun News, and whether those criticisms might have been more helpful had they not seemed so angry and confrontational.
That's part of the reason I've written this post (and why it's so long). I don't think non-Sun journalists, for the most part, have given Sun News Network a fair shake. Many people's opinions are based on what they've heard second-hand, or what they've determined based on a few minutes or a few hours of watching. Many opinions are based not on whether Sun News is of good quality, but on whether or not the person agrees with what is being said.
What bothers me about Sun News Network isn't that they are saying things I don't agree with. My problem is that I want to agree with them, or at least acknowledge their side of the debate, but their smug attitude is preventing me from doing so.
How does one judge something like Sun News Network? To someone from the far right, it's a breath of fresh air. To someone from the far left, it's an evil menace out to destroy us. To someone interested in informative political debate, it's the intellectual equivalent of junk food and adds little to the conversation compared to what it could. And to a journalist who's interested in objective, fair representation of the truth, it's an absolute travesty.
When Sun News Network was first announced, I welcomed it because it added something to the broadcasting scene, but I worried that it would be cheaply produced news and that there would be little true original journalism produced. My opinion has changed very little. The network came out about as I expected. I'm not a fan of it journalistically, but it's better than nothing. And so long as people aren't forced to pay for it if they don't want it (something that might be under dispute because of its packaging demands), I say keep it. But I'd like to see some changes.
How to make it better
Quebecor has said it has made a five-year commitment to Sun News Network, so there's still four to go. There should be plenty of time to turn this into a network that is worthy of being on everyone's cable plan.
First, make a decision on whether you're news or opinion. If you're the latter, fine, then change your name, forget the daytime parts of your schedule and nobody's going to complain you're doing bad journalism anymore. If you're the former, you can keep the opinion, but make sure it's properly labelled as such, and build a solid wall between commentary and journalism. Don't describe your commentators as journalists and don't draw your reporters into being opinionative. Keep your monologues, but either cut out the rest of the show or better yet put on people who will challenge those opinions. Nothing is more boring than having people agree with each other on television, and I'm much more likely to agree with an idea if it stands a true challenge.
Second, assuming you're going to keep the idea of doing news, invest in some actual original reporting. Have reporters work on stories more than five minutes. Put them on beats.
Third, do some editing. Relying on live programming and talking-head interviews is a crutch, and it's an insult to your audience. If you don't have the time to edit things down properly, why should we take the time to watch?
Fourth, try some new forms of programming. Broadcast a documentary. Surely there are conservative-minded documentary filmmakers out there whose work you can air. If not, why not fund one? How about a real debate with an impartial moderator?
Finally, take a chill pill. That saying about attracting more bees with honey than vinegar isn't just liberal propaganda. End your silly media wars. And rather than mock and insult people who don't agree with you, challenge them and debate with them. You're much more likely to change their mind that way, and as a side effect you might even educate some of your viewers.
Despite everything I've said above, I think Canada is better off having Sun News Network. But I want it to live up to its potential. And to do that it's going to have to grow up, fast.