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June 24, 2010

Canadian media covering the Middle East

Scott Stockdale

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Very few Canadian journalists aspire to foreign work to that fraction of the Canadian public who want to know, about world events, according to Maclean's blogger and senior columnist Paul Wells.

Acting as the moderator for a media panel discussion entitled “Danger, Disaster and Deadlines” at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), in Waterloo, recently, Mr. Wells said he's often heard the question: “Why go there? What good does it do anyone?”

After acknowledging that interest in foreign events is limited to begin with, Mr. Wells indicated that even this interest fades with time.

“The last few years when we (Maclean's) write about Afghanistan, our audience declines noticeably.”

And this is an eight-year-long conflict, unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has gone on for generations.

Although interest in foreign events may not be pervasive,  Patrick Martin, Middle East Bureau Chief for The Globe and Mail, who was in Gaza last week, indicated that there is still intense interest among certain segments of the Canadian populace; who thus try to influence media coverage. 

“There's always a propaganda war...When the Israeli government announced the easing the blockade (of Gaza), I read it out and people there laughed. The lead in my story was 'People of Gaza can be forgiven if they think easing of the blockade is a cruel joke.' There as a huge phone-in and write-in campaign against the story. People were reacting viscerally. The editors were taken aback. They said to check the story to make sure it was accurate and fair-minded.”

Following up on Mr. Martin's comments, Martin Regg Cohn, Deputy Editorial Page Editor at the Toronto Star, as well as a veteran foreign correspondent, said these foreign correspondents are writing for all Canadians.

“We can't write a special article for one group. We try to give the full context so people can understand the story as best as they can. We try to give all of our readers what they need to make an informed decision.”

He added that although editors generally have a sympathetic ear for foreign correspondents, partly because they want the wisdom of the people in the field, in the newspaper, deadlines can, at times, compromise this process.

“Datebook journalism (a prearranged list of events that must be covered) can lead you off the of storytelling narratives that show what's happening on the ground.”

Nahlah Ayed, a correspondent for CBC-TV said that after some foreign correspondents have been in their positions for a while, they have a tendency to start reporting for their colleagues and bosses, rather than the audience; and this is why some media organizations rotate their correspondents.

Costs and, more specifically, budget cuts were other factors, Ms. Ayed said influence media coverage. She told of being in Iraq, doing a news story in the morning, then rushing into the street to interview a few people, before rushing back to the TV studio for her next newscast.

“Most days we're using wire (newswire) material due to a busy schedule. For the Gaza Flotilla story, no correspondent went to Turkey. It's a TV thing, having fewer correspondents.”

During a question and answer session after the discussion, I asked the panel how Canadian media coverage of the Middle East conflict is affected by the concentration of Jewish ownership in the Canadian media and the fact that most Canadian Middle East correspondents live in Israel and their children go to school there.

In response, Mr. Martin said the influence of the pro-Jewish lobby was not the only political force. He said there is a growing number of people with opposing points of view in Canada, and accuracy is very important to most journalists.

Moreover, his children go to school in Israel, with children of diverse ethnic backgrounds, so he doesn't see these factors having any influence on how journalists approach their stories.

Because he is a former National Post columnist, I asked Mr. Wells to respond to my two-part question.

“It's not that linear to say because you have a Zionist proprietor, you have a Zionist correspondent. But some elements of the debate that are characterized in the Canadian press are not in the U.S. Or British press... During the invasion of Iraq, I could express my skepticism, but it wasn't the opinion of the newsroom.”

He added that, currently, Maclean's is far more a home for diversity of opinion than the “cartoonish, flag-waving National Post.”

Mr. Cohen said it was not an unreasonable question, then he mentioned a story that was in the U.S. media about a foreign correspondent who had two children in the Israeli army.

He then mentioned a Jewish funeral home in Toronto that has boycotted the Toronto Star for years, followed by an anecdote about how he met the Hezzbollah chief a few years ago and the negotiating he did to obtain a story, even though the Hezzbollah chief recognized the Jewish last name on his business card.

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