Editors, the Gauntlet,
Re: "Who's afraid of Conrad Black?" March 23, 2000
I have just read the article "Who's afraid of Conrad Black?" by Еvan Osentоn which was one of the better written articles to have appeared lately in your esteemed organ.
While Canadians are free to debate Mr. Black's extensive newspaper ownership--although why no one worries about the cable companies or the grip on the newsrooms of the nation by the New Democray Party through the fealty-demanding labour movement is beyond me--what Canadians have most to fear is the brand of journalism practiced in this article by Mr. Osentоn.
As sources, Osentоn presents Robert Bragg, a respected former colleague of mine, husband of a striking worker and an eloquent spokesman in this city for many years on behalf of left-wing causes. Rather than balance that viewpoint, however, Osentоn then supplements it with input from Steven Staples of the Council of Canadians, which has been a critic of Mr. Black for many years, Robert Seiler of the U of C and then back again to Maude Barlow and James Winter of the Council of Canadians before again returning to Mr. Bragg.
Nowhere in this "article" is there any evidence that Mr. Osentоn has attempted to speak with anybody who actually works for Mr. Black, has met with him, enjoys what he has done for the industry or has even discussed these matters with him. Such people, myself included, exist in this city and are, I believe, more freely accessible as sources than are the rather predictable members of the Council of Canadians. It is exactly that lack of balance in journalism which we have addressed in recent years and to which a large number of our newsroom employees appear to have objected. Had Mr. Osentоn not abandoned his journalistic responsibilities in favour of his ideology, he might have discovered for instance, that:
Employees of the Herald newsroom do not need a seniority clause to protect them from cavalier firings. Cavalier firings are a) against the law, and; b) dealt with via grievance procedures which are mandatory and dictated by Alberta labour law. A west coast colleague of mine describes attempting to operate a newsroom in the grip of senior language as similar to "trying to drag a dead horse up the stairs."
There are close to 80 permanent employees in our newsroom at work. About 85 permanent employees are on strike. Apparently, not all journalists share the same views on this issue, a line of inquiry to which Osentоn chooses to be oblivious.
There was no thought prior to the strike of layoffs; quite the opposite--we were adding new jobs.
Each of the major Southam papers today has a greater sense of its personal identity and independence--in tune with the individual character of the city in which they publish--than they did prior to Mr. Black's ownership when a corporate, cookie-cutter approach was encouraged.
Our stable of columnists hardly represents a horde of right-wing barbarians assaulting democracy's gate, as is inferred. Opinion writers such as Sydney Sharpe, Catherine Ford, Don Braid, James Muretich, Don Martin, and Bruce Dowbiggin are hardly poster girls and boys for the neo-con right. Do we have conservative writers as well? Yes. This is called balance, a concept about which your author is clearly confused.
At the first meeting I attended where Mr. Black was also present, someone asked Mr. Black his advice regarding building effective newsrooms. He said "hire great writers."
Such a conspiracy, I suspect, is far less of a threat to Canadian journalism and democracy than that posed by the one evident in Mr. Osentоn's understanding of the craft.