St. George’s portrait and fables the media tell, Part II

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Martin posing as Brian Mulroney

Paul Martin posing as Brian Mulroney

The story’s always the same these days when Paul Martin slips into the news again. Mr. Dithers (the media moniker for the former PM) is forgotten and St. George, the fearless deficit-slaying finance minister, rides boldly across the stage.

And so it was last week when Martin’s official, Mulroney-like, portrait was unveiled on Parliament Hill.

“He confronted a fiscal crisis in this country, one that was on the verge of crippling our economy,” said Trudeau II echoing the main media fable about Martin.

“His bold choices were right for the time and ended up paying dividends that we still see to this day,” Trudeau continued.

Oh yeah, “dividends” like record student debt, below-poverty-line welfare rates and a critical shortage of affordable, public housing — all legacies of the fearless St. George and the Harper Conservatives who gladly followed his neo-liberal, hell or high water trail.

Or maybe by “dividends” the well-heeled Justin meant Martin’s multi-billion dollar tax giveaways to corporations and the lucky members of Canada’s elite 1% club.

Canada’s greatest finance minister

The silliest media piece on the unveiling was penned by the CBC’s Neil Macdonald. He recalled riding with the finance chief in the cheap seats on a commercial airliner headed westwards while some backbench MPs sipped champagne and yukked it up in business class.

Macdonald asked Martin if it wasn’t a weird scene especially since some of the backbenchers were Reform Party members who had denounced such business class travel.

He just shrugged, and put on that rueful grin of his, and went back to the pile of business on his lap.

Rueful. That was always his look. Almost apologetic, somehow.


As usual, Macdonald goes on to observe that St. George’s budget slashing “worked.”

Martin began running surpluses for the first time in a quarter century. Five consecutive surpluses, which shrank the debt and, yes, allowed restoration of program spending.

Well, not exactly. In 2000, Martin delivered the biggest tax cuts in history while maintaining federal spending as a proportion of the economy at the low levels not seen since the late 1940s and early 50s  —  well before the advent of federal-provincial social programs in health, education and welfare.

And as for his flying in the cheap seats, Macdonald appears to have forgotten that in 2003, Robert Fife, then Ottawa Bureau Chief for CanWest News Service reported:

Paul Martin flew on private corporate jets of some of Canada’s wealthiest businessmen for pleasure and business during his years as finance minister.

The trips were not publicly declared as required under federal conflict of interest rules.

According to Fife, the ethics commissioner privately OK’d Martin’s flights on the grounds that his benefactors were personal friends.

Neil Macdonald writes that during the unveiling ceremony, Martin “was referred to as the greatest finance minister in our history.”

Although Macdonald doesn’t say who uttered those words, maybe it was one of those high-flying capitalist benefactors, perhaps Paul Desmarais Jr. of Power Corp, the french-frying McCains or Gerry Schwartz of Onex Corp, grateful that their St. George had kicked the shit out of those disgusting, weak-kneed types who shamelessly fed at the troughs of welfare-state entitlement.

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St. George’s portrait and fables the media tell, Part II

St. George enters federal campaign: how media frame the economy, Part I

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Former PM Paul Martin (Photo: Andrew Rusk)

Former PM Paul Martin (Photo: Andrew Rusk)

As federal politicians continue their trek toward election day on October 19th, it’s worth looking at how mainstream journalists frame economic issues and asking what if they framed them differently? What if, for example, journalists asked who gains and who loses from balanced budgets, tax cuts and spending restraint?

Michal Rozworski’s piece published yesterday in The Tyee is a helpful backgrounder because it views economic policies through the lenses of social class and the capitalist system. It’s especially relevant now that Paul Martin has appeared on the campaign trail.

Rozworski recalls Martin’s record as federal finance minister in the 1990s. He argues that Martin’s austerity policies disciplined workers on behalf of the capitalist class, though of course, Martin himself would never put it that way. Aside from Martin’s cuts to social programs in the 90s, the Liberals also gutted unemployment insurance.

In 1990, 80 per cent of workers could qualify for UI. Thanks to Martin-era reforms, that figure fell to 45 per cent by 2008 meaning that most workers could not collect what had, by then, been renamed Employment Insurance. As Rozworski writes:

When workers know they are less likely to get state support, they are also less willing to go out on a limb to demand wage increases, form a union, or otherwise try to better their working conditions. Changes to unemployment insurance were part of a reorientation towards more flexible labour markets and a lower social wage. Business was helped directly, too: their unemployment insurance contributions fell by over a third.

But mainstream journalists rarely remember the effects of Liberal policies in the 1990s and in any case, would never frame them as anti-worker.

Martin as economic star?

Paul Martin’s appearance at a campaign event yesterday in Toronto prompted the Canadian Press news agency to report that the Liberals “put on a display of economic star power…as voters watched jittery world markets and Justin Trudeau faced unrelenting Conservative attack ads that portray him as weak on the economy.” Martin was one of the economic stars the news agency referred to.

For mainstream media, Martin achieved his star status with his 1994 and 1995 budgets when he became the St. George who, “come hell or high water,” slew the “deficit dragon.”

Canadian Press called Martin’s campaign appearance “a not-so-subtle attempt to remind voters that as finance minister under Jean Chretien he oversaw the elimination of the federal deficit.”

In that way of framing things, Martin’s deficit record is a bankable asset, an achievement Canadians (and Liberals) can be proud of.

Martin as slasher

Left-wing economists, such as Jim Stanford, have long pointed out, however, that Martin’s slash and burn approach to social programs went far beyond what was needed to eliminate budget deficits and bring federal debt under control.

Martin scored part of his success on the backs of the poor when he eliminated the Canada Assistance Plan which shared welfare costs with the provinces. It was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer that reduced overall federal spending on social programs. After the elimination of CAP, welfare rates took a dive sending the message that supporting Canada’s “unproductive” underclass was a luxury the state could no longer afford.

Even so, mainstream media applauded Martin’s cuts in the 1990s and continue to applaud them today, although Sun Media columnist Anthony Furey did wonder why Martin would sully his fine reputation by campaigning with the likes of Justin Trudeau. Furey writes:

It’s obvious why the Liberals wanted Martin at their presser. As finance minister, he balanced the budget during tough times in the 1990s. The surpluses continued during his years as PM.

What’s less obvious though is why Martin would want to damage his legacy by standing beside a novice campaigner whose most memorable lines on economic policy are that “the budget will balance itself” and that he’ll grow the economy “from the heart outwards.”

While it’s true that the Sun Media chain likes to lean to the right, Furey’s positive view of Paul Martin’s legacy as deficit slasher, budget balancer and surplus maker is echoed throughout corporate media including the CBC.  Somehow Martin’s other legacies affecting poor people and workers have been forgotten or erased. For journalists, government economic policy, even Stephen Harper’s, is as free of ideology as it is of class bias.

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St. George enters federal campaign: how media frame the economy, Part I

Do 82% really support anti-terror law?

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Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 9.38.17 AM

Angus Reid online survey of 1,509 adults conducted Feb. 9-11

Every mainstream media outlet in Canada is reporting that 82 per cent of Canadians support Bill C-51, the Harper government’s proposed “anti-terror” legislation. The reporting makes the 82 per cent figure seem certain even though the Angus Reid poll it’s based on was not a random sample of the whole population and more than half of those who took part in the survey knew little or nothing about the new legislation.

Globe and Mail coverage was typical. The newspaper ran an “analysis” piece under the headline, “New poll finds Harper’s anti-terror bill is a political juggernaut.” The paper’s chief political writer, Campbell Clark, began with a declaration: “There’s rarely been a bill before Parliament that was more popular. The public (sic) Conservatives’ new anti-terror legislation is filling a public demand for tough new measures aimed at a terrorism threat that Canadians believe is serious, and close to home, according to a new poll.”

It took Clark 12 paragraphs to tell readers how the poll was done. “The Internet survey was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 1,509 Canadians drawn from an Angus Reid panel.”

After the piece ends 17 paragraphs down, an editor’s note informs readers that an earlier version of the story mistakenly gave the poll’s margin of error. “Because it was not a random sample of the whole population, the pollster, the Angus Reid Institute, does not cite a margin of error,” the editor’s note continued. It then went on to say that the margin of error the pollster did give was for  a “probabilistic sample of the same size.”


Questions about the accuracy of online polls

The Pew Research Center in the U.S. warns that online polls have their limitations. For one thing, participation is limited to people with access to the Internet. For another, online polls like this one are based on panels of people who volunteer to fill out surveys in return for small amounts of money, a chance to win prizes and the promise that their opinions will influence elite decision-makers. (See below for more details on the Angus Reid panels. For more detailed information about the limitations of online polls, see this 2010 report from the American Association for Public Opinion Research.)

Aside from concerns about the limitations of online polling, more than half of those who took part in the survey knew little or nothing about Bill C-51. In fact, only 18 per cent seem to have paid much attention to media reports and what friends and family had to say.

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 9.18.12 AM

So why attach any significance to this poll?

Well, it’s an election year and for months, journalists have been scrambling to figure out which issues may favour one party or another. It’s part of the media fascination with the political horse race, who’s gaining and who’s losing. And the polls, with their precise numbers, seem to offer answers.

As they say, perception is reality.

How Angus Reid puts his panels together

Angus Reid panellists are volunteers who sign up to complete monthly profiling questionnaires. The links to the online surveys are emailed to them. The surveys ask for information about a range of things such as age, income, family size, lifestyle, consumer preferences and habits as well as opinions on current political issues.

Panellists are told their opinions will influence decision-makers “whether they are developing public policy or moulding new products and services. Your voice will be heard in the media as they report on the changing values and preferences of the Canadian public.”

In return for taking part, panellists are eligible to receive small amounts of money, usually 50 cents for each profiling survey, plus a chance to win monthly prizes. Panellists can redeem their “survey dollars” only when their total reaches $50. They also earn additional survey dollars if they fill out other questionnaires that the company invites them to complete.


From the Globe and Mail, Feb. 19, 2015:

Editor’s Note: The original newspaper version of this story and an earlier digital version mistakenly referred to a margin of error for this poll. The poll was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 1,509 people drawn from an Angus Reid panel of 130,000 people. Because it was not a random sample of the whole population, the pollster, the Angus Reid Institute, does not cite a margin of error. It instead noted the margin of error for a probabilistic sample of the same size. This digital version has been corrected.

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Do 82% really support anti-terror law?

CBC reporters tell different tales about Israel

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Baird poster

Protester holds sign at anti-Baird rally

When Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s convoy got pelted with eggs and shoes by Palestinian protesters in Ramallah, in the West Bank yesterday, CBC radio and TV saw things quite differently.

Radio framed the story narrowly, telling it mainly from Baird (and Israel’s) point of view, while CBC TV presented a more critical and nuanced account that explained why Palestinians see Canada’s support for Israel as a threat.

The introduction to the radio report on The World This Weekend told listeners: “Demonstrators were angry with the Canadian government’s perceived pro-Israel stance” as though Canada’s fervent, unqualified and well-publicized support for Israel was a matter of perception, not fact. CBC Radio’s Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel explained that, “Protesters say they don’t like Canada’s position when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They accuse Canada of blindly siding with Israel.”

Stoffel went on to note that Baird got a much friendlier reception later in Jerusalem when he met Israel’s foreign minister. “They both took aim at the International Criminal Court,” Stoffel said, adding, “In a provocative move, the Palestinian leadership asked to join the ICC and the court is now considering whether it will investigate Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Stoffel then made it clear that both Baird and his Israeli counterpart strongly objected to the Palestinians going to the ICC with Baird calling on them to negotiate with Israel — a reference, though Stoffel didn’t say it, to the endless “peace process” that Israel uses to buy time while it builds illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

CBC Television’s different picture

The introduction to the TV report on The National told viewers about “Baird’s rough reception” in Ramallah and promised more details about “the reason behind it.” Correspondent Saša Petricic began by noting that, “It used to be that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories saw Canada as a friend or at least an honest broker — not so, today.”

After giving details about the flying eggs and shoes, Petricic reported that later in Jerusalem, Israel’s foreign minister heard Baird’s “unconditional endorsement of Israel.” He added: “Baird scolded Palestinian attempts to end the occupation through the UN or other bodies.” Then he showed a clip of Baird saying:

But these provocative, unilateral actions will not contribute to peace and security in the region. We also strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself by itself and we’ll play our part to defend it from international efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel.

“Not a word about Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” Petricic added, “which Ottawa has long considered illegal under international law. And no criticism of Israel’s actions during last summer’s Gaza war which the International Criminal Court has started investigating at the request of the Palestinians.”

Petricic concluded by noting, “Israel has asked for Canada’s help in pressuring the court to drop its investigation. Baird didn’t commit Ottawa to any particular action, but he was sympathetic, far too sympathetic say the Palestinians who now see Canada as standing in the way of their statehood.”

Two reporters, two stories

One of the weaknesses of reporting in mainstream media is the tendency to parrot what powerful officials say and to frame stories from their point of view while ignoring historical context and glossing over specific details.

CBC Radio’s account of the Palestinian protests against Baird is a good example. Derek Stoffel refers to the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as though it’s a bloodless, two-sided contest between equals. In his account, Israel and Canada are calling for peace talks while the Palestinians make a “provocative move,” pressing the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli war crimes.

With the help of Petricic’s reporting, we see that Stoffel echoes Baird’s own words — “provocative and unilateral actions” — as Canada’s foreign affairs minister scolds the Palestinians for trying, in Petricic’s words, “to end the occupation through the UN and other bodies.”

There’s no mention in Stoffel’s reporting (or in Baird’s remarks) of the expanding Jewish settlements, while Petricic points out that Canada has long considered them illegal under international law.

So, why were Palestinian protesters pelting Baird’s convoy with eggs and shoes? Was it because, as Stoffel said, “they accuse Canada of blindly siding with Israel”? Or was Petricic closer to the truth when he reported that Palestinians “now see Canada as standing in the way of their statehood”?

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CBC reporters tell different tales about Israel

Jesus Murphy, Rex, wake up & smell the coffee

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images As our Toyota hurtled through darkness and rain last Sunday evening, my spouse pleaded with me to “turn the damn thing off.” She was referring to Cross Country Checkup, the CBC radio phone-in hosted by the tendentiously garrulous Rex Murphy.

Murphy was wondering whether Canadian police and security agencies need more powers to combat those who might pose a threat in light of the fatal attacks on soldiers near Montreal and at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. In the twin-sided, either/or formula so beloved by mainstream journalists, Murphy presented it as a choice between civil liberties and public safety.

“How much power can we give the security agencies?” he asked. “How do we balance the need to keep Canada safe with the need, the necessity for civil liberties in a democracy?”

“Us” vs. “Them”

Murphy also resorted to the tried and true journalistic formula of a simple, two-sided conflict: Innocent, law-abiding Canadians versus the terrorist evildoers who threaten their safety. The rational versus the irrational; us versus them.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s framing prevailed. Not a single caller mentioned Canada’s foreign policy and nor did the so-called experts Murphy interviewed. Not a single mention of Canadian participation in foreign wars including our long campaign in Afghanistan and our bombing runs in Libya and Iraq. Not a single mention of Canada’s failure to condemn Israeli attacks on Palestinians and in Lebanon. Not a single mention of Canada’s role in overthrowing a popular and democratically elected president in Haiti. And no mention that so many of Canada’s aboriginal peoples live in poverty and squalor.

Hey Rex, here’s a thought from an expert you might have interviewed on Sunday:

Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it. — Noam Chomsky

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Jesus Murphy, Rex, wake up & smell the coffee

Occupation? What occupation? Part Two

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Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski is a CBC journalist who makes it a practice to speak truth to power. At times, that practice has landed him in trouble, but so far, he’s survived. After all, journalists are supposed to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

But not, it seems, when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its military assault on Gaza. Mainstream Canadian journalists tend to avoid the word “occupation” and Milewski is no exception.

Yesterday, as guest host of the CBC Radio program The House, Milewski interviewed Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The interview was framed around the notion that no long-term solution to the violence in Gaza is possible. Bell asserted that Hamas “depends on these disturbances to empower their base” while Milewski suggested that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is justified.

“What about the core demands of Hamas for a permanent settlement?” Milewski asked adding, “They want the blockade lifted and the seaport opened and simultaneously they remain committed to eradicating the state of Israel and to killing Jews. So this surely is going to be seen by the Israelis as a complete non-starter, as an opportunity for an open door for Hamas to re-arm and buy more rockets and more tunnels.”

Bell responded that while the demand for more open borders is legitimate, “Israel faces an enemy, if you like, whose ultimate goal is not just the flow of goods and services and what have you into Gaza, but whose ultimate goal is the destruction of the state of Israel, the Jewish state.”

Neither man seemed aware of the obvious. That Israel is steadily destroying Palestine. As Noam Chomsky writes:

Amid all the horrors unfolding in the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza, Israel’s goal is simple: quiet-for-quiet, a return to the norm.

For the West Bank, the norm is that Israel continues its illegal construction of settlements and infrastructure so that it can integrate into Israel whatever might be of value, meanwhile consigning Palestinians to unviable cantons and subjecting them to repression and violence.

For Gaza, the norm is a miserable existence under a cruel and destructive siege that Israel administers to permit bare survival but nothing more.

To be sure, Michael Bell and Terry Milewski are not alone among Canada’s political elites in ignoring military occupation as the root cause of the conflict. Nor are they alone in justifying Israel’s war on Palestinians.

The ruling Conservatives vigorously defend Israel’s slaughter in Gaza while the New Democrats and Liberals talk about “Israel’s right to defend itself.”  Only the Green Party, led by Elizabeth May, has pointed out that Israel’s invasion of Gaza violates international law.

Maybe the CBC show that bills itself as “Canada’s most popular political affairs program” will find the courage to interview Elizabeth May.

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