Fairly Unbalanced

The Fox-ification of local papers.

By Fred Stenson

Donald Trump’s war on US news media got me thinking about Alberta’s first Social Credit premier, William Aberhart. Like Trump, Aberhart did not enjoy the stories about himself he read in the local papers. The Edmonton Journal in particular used to report unfavourably on the premier and his policies, and by 1937 he had had enough. Aberhart introduced the Accurate News and Information Act, the gist of which was that any newspaper in Alberta that printed news that the premier and company deemed inaccurate would be required to print a government rebuttal. The Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald, the Lethbridge Herald, the Red Deer News and some smaller Alberta newspapers fought the press gag and the Edmonton Journal was awarded a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee, the first time that recognition had been given outside the US.  As for Aberhart’s press gag bill, it was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The story comes to mind because of the anti-press antics of Mr. Trump but also because of the way Alberta newspapers have been reporting on our NDP government. I should be more specific. I’m really talking about the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton and Calgary Suns, all owned by Postmedia Inc. and operated out of combined newsrooms. In these dailies, it is rare-to-impossible to find a positive mention of Alberta’s duly elected government. The New Democrats had barely finished celebrating their 2015 knockout victory over the Progressive Conservatives when headlines appeared calling the win an accident, a fluke and the outfall of a temporary misunderstanding that caused Alberta’s right-wing split. It was like the papers were saying, “We took the screen door off for 15 minutes, and, wouldn’t you know it, a swarm of killer bees swept in.”

Anyone getting their news exclusively from these dailies might believe that the unification of Alberta’s rightist parties is a fait accompli and the 2019 provincial election little more than a formality. Having blamed Notley and company for everything from the international oil glut to pipeline resistance in BC, the big-four dailies have all but called in the vultures for a post-defeat banquet: the cleanup of all things orange.

Call me old-fashioned, but I read newspapers to find out what happened yesterday, not tomorrow or in three years.

You’ll notice a contradiction here. After praising Alberta’s 1930s newspapers for mounting a successful fight against Aberhart’s press gag, I am now complaining about suspect reporting of provincial politics in Alberta newspapers. What next? Will I comb my hair forward and bark “fake news”?

For the record, I do believe most facts I read in Alberta newspapers, even the Postmedia ones. More to the point, I believe the reporters have made an effort to verify their information. What I object to is their tendency to operate in the twilight zone. Call me old-fashioned but I read newspapers to find out what happened yesterday, not tomorrow or in three years. (I recognize that editorials are often about projections, but even there it wouldn’t hurt the editorialists to note occasionally that they are not Nostradamus.)

One way of predicting the future while apparently reporting fact is to use polls. For months, the big-four dailies have been all over any poll that shows NDP unpopularity or that Albertans favour a united right. The numbers are trumpeted as proof that the NDP will fall.

But hold the phone. Polls aren’t facts. Different polling methods yield different results. Call landlines in the daytime if you want an older sample; cell phones if you want a younger one. There is also the fact that polls have gotten umpteen elections wrong in recent years. Hillary Clinton was supposed to win the US election. No Trump. No Brexit. Wildrose would have won the 2012 Alberta election. Premier Danielle Smith. President Romney. No Obama. No Nenshi.

The main reason polls get elections wrong is that they reflect a current moment, not the future. If voters don’t make decisions until the final weekend, pollsters will get the result wrong as often as they get it right. So why, why, why do papers go on quoting polls as gospel and prophecy? Because they reflect the paper’s bias, I guess.

For the record, I don’t think unification of the Alberta right is a slam dunk. Nor do I believe an NDP defeat is a foregone conclusion. Maybe Jason Kenney will go on an anti-LGBTQ tear one of these days. Maybe the PC and Wildrose tug-of-war (You come to me. No, you come to me) will widen the split rather than heal it. Maybe the cranks in the corners will get sick of being silenced, and fresh bozo eruptions will scare the political centre-dwellers into NDP arms. Maybe the young will look closely at the right-unification platform and turn out in droves for team orange. Maybe people will notice that Premier Notley and her NDP have done a good job.

See? I can make predictions too.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.


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