How independent are newsrooms from their owners?

Depending on your preconceived notions, there is either something very weird or very understandable going on in Las Vegas.

Recently, the century-old Las Vegas Review-Journal was purchased by a company that, bizarrely, refused to disclose who owned it. Eventually it was determined that the owner is Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who seems intent on spending a lot of his money supporting Republican candidates for political office.

It gets worse. After Adelson bought the paper, but before anyone found out it was him who owned it, reporters were told to investigate judges who were unfriendly to Adelson. Not asked, ordered. And perhaps the most bizarre part of this story is that the newspaper that broke it was the Review-Journal itself.

A newspaper deliberately embarrassing itself is not something you see every day. And the fact that they did that seems to be the main argument in favour of convincing readers that their editorial integrity remains intact.

An editorial published last week includes this unbelievable passage:

You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal’s editors and reporters will fight it. How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper’s sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don’t want us to.

How often does a newspaper vow to protect itself from its owner?

And yet, for all the proclamations that the new owners will protect the newsroom and only control the editorial page, the fact that the newspaper’s editor suddenly left the paper doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does that whole judge thing, which still hasn’t been explained. It’s definitely still a scandal, and one that’s getting national attention.

Editorial interference in Canada

There have been several cases north of the border in which the question of ownership interference in newsrooms have come up. Among them:

  • Bell Media president Kevin Crull twice attempts to direct CTV News coverage of an issue affecting Bell. In the first, it’s chalked up to a misunderstanding. After the second, in which Crull’s orders were eventually ignored by CTV National News staff, Crull is fired. Bell cites the actions of its journalists, and its decision to fire Crull, as proof that Bell Media’s newsrooms are independent. But there is not a single measure in place to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
  • Postmedia (my employer) orders Alberta papers to endorse the Progressive Conservative party in the Alberta provincial election. Months later, all Postmedia papers, including its recently purchased Sun Media chain, endorse the federal Conservatives, apparently on orders from Postmedia brass. The editorials in the Sun Media papers are signed “Postmedia Network”, while those in the other papers are unsigned, leading readers to believe they were written and decided on by the individual papers’ editorial boards. Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey states that it’s understood that ownership decides on endorsements, a statement that the chair of the Toronto Star board didn’t agree with.
  • Quebecor Media’s controlling shareholder remains Pierre Karl Péladeau, the leader of the Parti Québécois. Péladeau has placed his shares in trust, but it’s not a blind trust because the trustee cannot sell the shares. Because he is not a member of the cabinet, he is not obliged to use a blind trust, but the rules on conflict of interest weren’t designed for a case where the asset is a media giant. Though it’s whispered and rumoured everywhere that Péladeau was a control freak before he entered politics, there’s little proof that he personally attempted to interfere in any news coverage. When Enquête looked into the issue in 2011, the best it could find was a case where a Journal de Montréal manager tried to fix the results of a list of most influential personalities. Péladeau has repeatedly said that Quebecor’s newsrooms are independent, and specifically points to its collective agreements as proof, even though the Journal de Montréal just about dismantled its union in a long lockout.
  • Groupe Capitales Médias, a company owned by former politician Martin Cauchon, buys six newspapers from Gesca — every one but La Presse. Though there’s been no suggestion Cauchon attempted to interfere with editorial, he refuses to disclose where the financing came from for this purchase (or even the amount). That has led to unsubstantiated allegations from people in the Quebecor camp that Cauchon is merely a puppet of Power Corp., which owns Gesca.

There are countless other examples at smaller players, or cases where newsrooms act in such a way as to promote their owners’ interests (a Saturday Night Live preview in a Global TV newscast, or cross-promotion between the Journal de Montréal and TVA).

But how does it work on a daily basis?

I have limited experience working in other newsrooms, though I have plenty of friends and contacts who work for various media. And I can tell you two things for certain:

  1. It’s a caricature that owners, whether a single mega-rich person or the CEO of a publicly traded corporation, call up newspaper editors on a daily basis or write their own front-page headlines or decide how a TV newscast is lined up. The reality is that they don’t have time to do stuff like that, and most of the time they don’t care.
  2. Anyone who tells you a newsroom is completely independent of its ownership is lying.

There are plenty of cases of overt interference. Endorsements are a good example. It’s one of the few times an owner of a chain of newspapers will care about their editorials. There are also cases that are relatively benign, such as Bell Media putting all its news resources into promoting the annual Bell Let’s Talk charity campaign. And there are cases in between, where an editor is asked to run any particularly sensitive stories up the chain to get ownership’s okay, but the latter won’t censor news just because it might make them look bad.

But then there are all the cases of self-censorship, cases in which a journalist or editor will choose not to cover a story that makes the owners look bad, even if there wouldn’t have been any repercussions for doing so, even if they’re protected by their union, even if the owner has promised not to interfere.

I honestly don’t know — and most people in newsrooms I speak to don’t know for sure — whether owners pick up the phone and bark orders at middle managers on what to cover. I can only speak to what I see on the front lines, which is that journalists are almost always free to cover stories as they warrant. And when reporters are reined in, it’s almost always because of a legitimate, journalistic reason.

But it’s not absolute. And when one newspaper owner (Postmedia’s Godfrey) says it’s obvious ownership sets the editorial direction and another newspaper owner (Quebecor’s Péladeau) says it’s obvious newsrooms are independent of ownership, the only thing that’s obvious to me is that people don’t know which is true.

How do we fix this? Well, readers and outside organizations should continue to hold media owners’ feet to the fire to demand transparency, accountability and independence. And owners should make it abundantly clear that their newsrooms are independent, putting in place measures to prevent them from interfering, whether it’s a public editor or ombudsman or other independent body that has the power to expose any such interference.

But I think the better solution is healthy competition in media. If different outlets have different owners, it’s hard for one owner to keep a story under wraps. And if consumers make transparency and trust a priority when choosing what media to consume, the media will do whatever it can to earn that trust.

6 thoughts on “How independent are newsrooms from their owners?

  1. Dilbert

    Alas, as new rooms are run by humans, there is always a slant. There may be a slight lean to one side or the other, there may be preference given to one side or the other in page layout or choice of interviews, etc. That is unaavoidable.

    The real issue isn’t if a newsroom is independent, rather it’s the concentration of media ownership in Canada that is really making this hard. When the organization leans to one side or the other, a huge portion of the Canadian media is leaning along with them. They don’t have to force the issue, they just have to keep hiring and promoting like minded people into positions of power at each level. Over time, those organizations naturally lean to match their corporate owners. The examples that you cite for the moment are issues because many of these consolidated media companies are still digesting their take over targets.

    it’s also a bit of a top down thing. The Federal government (and many provincial governments) use public funds to promote government policy. The Conservative party often used it to promote changes that were not yet law or did not come to pass – basically campaign ads paid by the public. Corporations are playing the same sort of cards, filtering their company out of the bad news and having their different parts promote the feel good initiatives from the top down.

    I would say that at this point, it sucks to work in media in Canada, because there is no longer any semblance of independence.

    1. Brett

      It sucks to say this but it would be better to work in the US because there are more smaller and independent companies owning daily newspapes. Most television stations are owned and operated by small companies not owned by the networks.

      We need more independent owners.

  2. A C Gauthier

    Why don’t you mention GESCA in your list? La Presse editorials reflect the opinion of André Desmarais, its Chairman of the Board, especially on election issues. It is normal, they own the paper.

      1. Mario D.

        It does not always have to do with what they write about but also about what they do not write about. During the Charbonneau commission for instance la Presse made it a duty not to talk about their liberal friends too much involved in questionnable political financing tactics. Lucky for us, it is not only on the red side but on the blue side and every political parties involved because this was part of the system !

        To come back to the main topic, it is sad that today it s not even a big deal that a media is owned/financed by a know party supporter as everyone in life has the right to have his or her own views but we know better what it involves down the line…
        Happy 2016 !

        1. Fagstein Post author

          During the Charbonneau commission for instance la Presse made it a duty not to talk about their liberal friends too much involved in questionnable political financing tactics.

          This is, of course, laughably untrue. If it wasn’t for reporters like André Noël and Kathleen Lévesque we wouldn’t have a Charbonneau commission in the first place. Noël left La Presse to join the commission and Lévesque was hired away from Le Devoir. Add to that people like Fabrice de Pierrebourg. And none of them are holding back on the provincial government from what I can see.

          it is sad that today it s not even a big deal that a media is owned/financed by a know party supporter

          Has this ever not been the case, though? Newspaper owners have had political views since newspapers were invented.


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