The Winds of Right-wing Change in Canadian Journalism

David Taras (University of Calgary)

The Winds of Change conference, which took place in Calgary in May 1996, brought together approximately 70 leading right-wing thinkers and activists in an effort to bring unity to conservative forces before the next federal election, expected in 1997. The goal, according to organizer David Frum, was to discuss the prospects for a merger between the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. The stark reality facing Conservatives is that a continued fracturing of the right-wing vote is likely to ensure not only a victory for Jean Chretien's Liberals in 1997 but that the Liberals remain in power indefinitely. Frum believed that a vigorous airing of views behind closed doors, steps to develop a common agenda, and the bon amie of personal contact would create the momentum that was needed.

The conference turned out to be both more and less than expected. In terms of bridging the differences between the parties of Preston Manning and Jean Charest, the conference made little headway. The conference did endorse a move that had been underway for some time to field a single Reform-Progressive Conservative candidate in the federal riding of Brant. But the chasm in terms of the egos and pride of the leaders; the different attitudes that the parties have towards populist initiatives; Reform's origins in western alienation, Social Credit, and religious fundamentalism; and the fact that Reform emerged in part as an angry protest against the policies of a Progressive Conservative government made a rapprochement unlikely. The conference also revealed deep divisions between so-called fiscal conservatives who wanted a smaller role for the state and a climate that would foster business growth and social conservatives who wanted greater state involvement in legislating morality whether on abortion, criminal justice, or "family" values.

The conference's real significance, its real meaning, however, may have little to do with whether the goal of unity on the right is ever achieved. More important perhaps is that the conference highlighted a phenomenon that has been taking place for quite some time in American politics, but seems only now to be emerging full-blown in Canada: that an increasing number of journalists have become ardent political activists. Where objectivity was once the gold standard on which the professional credibility of journalists rested, today the rules seem to have changed. Some journalists have been able to enhance their status by openly championing partisan positions and causes. We have in some senses gone back to the days of the party press, the period from 1870 until at least 1940, when fierce and zealous partisanship by journalists was the order of the day. Politics and journalism are no longer separate estates, locked in a relationship of conflict and symbiosis, but are merging in new ways that have been little studied or even recognized.

A second and related development that could be seen in clear relief at the Winds of Change conference is that while the right may be unable to form a united front to contest the next federal election, public policy has been heavily influenced by a right-wing agenda. Whether it is the priority given to the problem of debts and deficits, the dismantling of the welfare state, the widespread acceptance of free trade, or the increased salience given to law and order and "family" values, conservative perspectives have shaped the policy debate in dramatic ways. Indeed, part of the frustration for Reformers and Progressive Conservatives is that the Liberals under Jean Chretien have moved to the right, adopting many of their programs and taking away their issues.

The triumph of a right-wing agenda is not simply, one can argue, the result of liberal failures or flavour-of-the-month ideas that have caught the momentary fancy of the public. The legitimacy of conservative viewpoints is the product, rather, of a sustained and concerted effort. A right-wing information infrastructure has been built up over the period of the last 15 years--an infrastructure that has the capacity to shape public opinion through a variety of means. Think tanks such as the Fraser and C. D. Howe Institutes, the conservative ideological tilt and corporate boosterism of Canadian newspapers, and the rise of right-wing talk radio are all evidence, one can argue, of the extent to which conservative institutions and ideas now dominate the public sphere. The Winds of Change conference in Calgary brought together some of the often disparate elements of this formidable infrastructure.

This article will discuss the merging of journalism and active politics and the reasons why conservative viewpoints have achieved such a prominent position in recent policy debates in Canada. The article is meant to be speculative and provocative, to stimulate thinking about the new shape of Canadian journalism. It is largely impressionistic since no major studies have been conducted on any of these topics. My argument is that the Winds of Change conference brought to the surface trends in both society and in journalism that have been developing for quite some time.

Pundits and politics

The list of invitees to the Winds of Change conference included a number of people who could be described as pundits, journalists who make their living by commenting on rather than reporting the news. They are mostly newspaper columnists who have made their reputations by entertaining, amusing, outraging, goading and, most importantly, winning the loyalty of their readers. Because of their positions they also appear frequently as experts or commentators on radio and television programs. Their faces and voices have become familiar to many Canadians. While Canada has not been able to foster a class of celebrity journalists commanding huge salaries to nearly the same degree as in the United States, pundits are at the top of the journalistic food chain. They are among the stars of the profession, they have name recognition, audiences, and influence.

The term pundit can be stretched to include academics who write for and appear frequently in the media. Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto, Alain Gagnon from McGill University, David Bercuson of the University of Calgary, and Daniel Latouche at Université de Québec à Montréal are among those scholars who have high media profiles. But it also includes radio talk show hosts, a group whose influence has increased dramatically in the 1990s. Studies indicate that in the United States at least nationally syndicated shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Don Imus made a substantial impact during the health care debate and during the 1994 congressional elections. While the "talk culture" operates differently in Canada, Canadians seem to be as addicted to the genre as Americans are.

Howard Kurtz has argued that "the center of gravity" has shifted in journalism "from those who ask questions to those who seem to have the answers" (Kurtz, 1996, p. 19). While columnists and other commentators have always played an influential role, that role has been magnified in recent years. The explosion of news outlets in the last 20 years has given pundits many more opportunities to be seen and heard. From Sunday morning television, to the myriad of CBC news and current affairs programs, to the talk shows and all-talk stations on private radio, there is now a vast space occupied by journalists and academics who have ideas to sell, can speak in catchy phrases, and are willing to speak authoritatively and present themselves as experts on a bewildering variety of topics. On CBC alone one can see or hear the same "opinion meisters" appearing again and again on local TV news panels, on Newsworld programs, on morning news shows, on The National's magazine segment, and on national and local radio programs.

David Frum, the organizer of the Winds of Change conference, has made a career being a pundit. He has had no other work experience. He is a prominent author, newspaper columnist, and TV panelist whose views on virtually all topics are unwaveringly and ardently right-wing. Far from hiding his political beliefs, he parades them and to some degree has come to symbolize them. His participation in the political process is seen as natural and, one can argue, reinforces rather than detracts from his success as a journalist.

Part of the reason for the special prominence of right-wing pundits is that many public affairs programs have an adversarial structure. They use a pro-con, for and against format. Having someone who can represent a conservative point of view is almost mandatory. The most blatant example of the format is CNN's Crossfire where conservatives and liberals are pitted against each other in what often ends up as little more than a shouting match. But CBC Newsworld's Face Off uses the exact same structure and many panels on many shows use the same adversarial positioning in the hope that confrontation, and the verbal fist fights that they produce, will attract audiences. The important point is that people are often chosen to appear because they have an identifiable bias, because they are firmly identified with a cause.

The CBC has been particularly conscious of the need to have a variety of points of view represented in news reports and on panel discussions. Charges of biased reporting during the Meech Lake negotiations and the controversy that erupted following the airing of The Valour and the Horror, a three-part TV series that was highly critical of Canada's role during the Second World War, made the CBC hyper-sensitive about any programming that could be construed as one-sided. The Board of Directors that was appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, which included several prominent right-wingers, became obsessed with making the public broadcaster more "accountable" to the public. One board member, John Crispo, a University of Toronto management professor, author, and radio talk show host, once characterized the CBC as being a "lousy, left wing, liberal NDP pinko network" whose reporting was so anti-American during the Persian Gulf War that it had virtually come to resemble "Radio Iraq" (Nash, 1994, p. 500). Crispo, incidentally, was one of those who attended the Winds of Change conference.

The corporation has responded by putting a number of internal checks in place. During elections, or on particularly controversial issues such as the constitution, the CBC has instituted a kind of bean-counting exercise where every appearance is categorized and counted to determine whether coverage has been "balanced." The CBC handbook, Journalistic Standards and Practices, addresses the need to capture the fullest range of opinions in the following way:

A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight of opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but also should the established views be clearly put. (CBC, 1993, pp. 30-31)

Lance Bennett among other scholars has suggested that virtually all aspects of news reporting and commentary are "indexed" to reflect "the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic" (Bennett, 1990, p. 106). As Bennett explains: "Indexing constitutes a quick and ready guide for editors and reporters to use in deciding how to cover a story. It is a rule of thumb that can be defended against questions from uneasy corporate managers and concerned citizens alike" (Bennett, 1990, pp. 107-108).

In organizing panels, it is difficult to come up with the right combination, the combustible material that will make sparks fly. But the balancing has to have political subtlety and fit the "rule of thumb" that Bennett refers to. The CBC's most famous and successful panel was on radio's Morningside. It featured former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis as the representative of the left, former Quebec and federal cabinet minister Eric Kierans as the nominal liberal, and Dalton Camp, a veteran Tory insider, as the conservative member of the panel.

Politicians have long realized that what pundits say can have a major effect on public opinion. This view is substantiated by the research that has been conducted by Benjamin Page among others. According to Page (1996), "Research has indicated that experts' views, as presented by the media, have a significant impact on public opinion: when experts speak in favor of a policy proposal, public opinion tends to move toward supporting that proposal" (p. 109). Of course, pundits are invariably presented as experts--that is why they are invited to appear in the first place. Eric Alterman believes, at least about the American experience, that it is "the thinking of these pundits that determines the parameters of political discourse in the nation today" (Alterman, 1992, p. 5).

More and more, however, pundits have become surrogates or stand-ins for politicians. Political leaders realize that because of the high levels of cynicism and distrust that citizens have toward politicians, much of what they say is discounted. If the same message is delivered by a journalist then it is likely to be viewed as more credible, as more believable to the public.

Politicians also know that when they appear they will likely face tough questioning from journalists who believe that it is their job to debunk or unmask the pretensions of political leaders. Larry Sabato and others have written about the credos of "attack journalism," the "cult of toughness," the "machismo" that pervades the journalistic culture with regard to politicians (Sabato, 1991). Watching political leaders run the gauntlet of cynical, "gotcha" questions has become one of the rituals of North American political life. And politicians, as much as they crave the public spotlight, are wary of the many traps that are continually being set for them. They have learned to avoid the cameras and the microphones unless they have some means of controlling the nature of the interview. Pundits, on the other hand, are likely to be treated with respect by those interviewing them. Journalists may score points by ambushing a politician; they are likely to lose standing if they do the same thing to a professional colleague.

The rise of pundits also coincides with a continued erosion in the power of ordinary politicians. The system of party discipline in the House of Commons makes Members of Parliament little more than spokespeople for the party line. Those who buck the party or stray off course on major issues are likely to face expulsion (John Nunziata, Jan Brown), demotion, or reprimand. Their lack of power and the strait-jacket of party discipline make them unappealing to the media as prospective guests or commentators. And this lack of media exposure reinforces their powerlessness. If they are not on, not heard, not visible, then they cannot reach their publics and are denied the status, the glow of importance and authority, that comes from appearing in the media. The reality is that pundits such as The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, Face Off 's Clair Hoy, or Vancouver hotline host Rafe Mair have far more influence than any ordinary MP.

In his book on talk radio and television, Hot Air: All Talk All the Time, Howard Kurtz describes the new power relationships that have been created by the prominence that pundits have achieved. Leading Washington politicians and bureaucrats carefully nurture relationships with the most influential pundits. They will often phone several times a week, nourish them with gossip and inside information, and aggressively market themselves and their policies. The objective behind this courtship is to make the pundits do the politicians' work for them so that their perspectives and concerns will be pushed on the Sunday morning TV shows and on Monday morning talk radio. Politicians will use pundits to float trial balloons, attack opponents (leaving their own hands unblemished), or spread rumours.

Of course, the pundits have also come to depend on these relationships. Without these contacts and tips, they would lose their value as experts with insider knowledge. The value of their own currency would diminish.

The game of spinning and leaking has gone on among politicians and journalists literally for generations. What has changed is the extent to which it is the pundits in particular that are the ones now being lobbied. This is due to the vaunted positions that they occupy in the new public sphere.

The right-wing information infrastructure

The ascent of the pundits is only one aspect of a very different information environment that has emerged in the last 15 years. There are a number of factors which taken together have led to the development of what I will refer to as a right-wing information infrastructure. While much of this infrastructure is amorphous, disconnected, and haphazard, there is little doubt that conservative perspectives are being pushed more aggressively than in the past. 2 This infrastructure rests on a number of foundations.

First, in the 1980s and 1990s the corporate community has funnelled considerable resources into so-called think tanks. The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the C. D. Howe Institute in Toronto, and the Canada West Foundation in Calgary are among the most influential policy-oriented research institutes. They often make headlines with timely and sometimes controversial reports on public policy issues, do contract work for governments, hold conferences and seminars, and do their own community outreach and media liaison work. Right-wingers might argue that the left in Canada has its own think tanks in the form of some university-based research centres. Of course, even the most objective scholarship might seem threatening to those who hold strong ideological views. These centres lack both the financing and the muscle that is available to the corporate-sponsored institutes. Indeed, as university budgets and federal funding for basic research have been cut back, corporate money has become more important in financing research. Corporations tend to support projects from which they can benefit directly.

According to some reports, the Donner Canadian Foundation has played a decisive role in fueling the right-wing intellectual assault of the 1990s (Rau, 1996). Since 1994, it has contributed over $2 million to support projects at the Fraser Institute, the C. D. Howe Institute, the Mackenzie Institute, and at a number of Canadian universities including the University of British Columbia, Carleton University, and the University of Calgary. Projects include financing the Centre for the Study of the Public Debt at the Fraser Institute, the establishment of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies at the University of New Brunswick, and the creation of The New City, a quarterly magazine which takes staunchly conservative positions. Support from the foundation also helped launch another right-wing publication, Gravitas, which specializes in Canadian foreign and trade policy. Some see the activities of the Donner Canadian Foundation as an aggressive and inappropriate intrusion by a private American foundation which is "bred of the culture of U.S. conservatism" (Rau, 1996, p. 12). Its mission, they argue, is to spread an American vision, an American social gospel, into Canadian intellectual and political life.

The impact that think tanks have had on governments and on the policy debate in Canada is difficult to measure. Because no major studies of Canadian think tanks have been conducted, little is known about the connections, funding, and policy influence of any of these institutions. There can be little doubt that such studies would make interesting and perhaps crucial reading. The federal government turned to think tanks during the constitutional negotiations of 1991-92 to organize five citizens' forums that proved to be critical in shaping the final Charlottetown agreement. Think tanks also produced, both before and after the 1995 Quebec Referendum, a number of studies which promoted various strategies for dealing with Quebec separation. Think tanks were able to float ideas, to push positions that politicians could not be associated with but wanted placed on the table nevertheless. On a more mundane level, when a person enters the Premier's Office in Alberta, for instance, an award from the Fraser Institute commending Premier Ralph Klein on his deficit elimination policies is displayed prominently. While this is only a symbolic and admittedly inconsequential example, the existence of a connection between think tanks, conservative ideas, and government actions cannot be easily dismissed.

Another aspect of the changing information environment is the increased corporate concentration in the newspaper industry and the conservative orientation of Canada's major newspaper owners. Conrad Black's control over the Southam chain through Hollinger Inc., together with his other newspaper holdings, has given him a position of almost unprecedented power in the Canadian newspaper industry. According to James Winter, Black now controls 60 of the country's 104 dailies. His papers reach 2.4 million readers daily, 43% of all circulation in Canada (Winter, 1996, p. xi). Many Southam journalists are nervous about the extent to which Black's conservative views are or will be imposed on the editorial stances of their newspapers. Black is known to have strong opinions about what he sees as the abuses of investigative journalism. He is also reported to have a negative view of the profession as a whole. He was once quoted as saying: "My experience of the working press is that they're a very degenerate group. There is a terrible incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse. The mental stability of large elements of the press is more open to question than that of many other comparable groups in society" (Taras, 1990, p. 10). Peter White, a Hollinger vice-president, once observed that Black was "part businessman, part media figure and part politician--though without the vagaries involved in dealing with the electorate" (Taras, 1990, p. 10). Dramatic shake-ups have already taken place at Southam as journalists with conservative views are put in charge and given greater prominence and more newspaper space.

Black's takeover of Southam has changed the equation for the newspaper industry as a whole. The Toronto Sun Publishing chain, which accounts for approximately 11% of Canadian circulation and was recently acquired from Rogers by its management and employees, has long been passionately right-wing in its political orientation. The endless lambasting of Liberal politicians and policies, its populist civic boosterism, and its appeal to working-class male values gives the paper a distinct flavour and constituency. Before Black's takeover of Southam, however, the Sun chain's zealous and unwavering support for conservative causes was offset by the existence of other perspectives, especially in cities where Southam newspapers dominated. That is, of course, no longer the case. The problem of balance is compounded even further when one takes the country's self-proclaimed national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, into account. As the voice of the Canadian establishment, the Globe's positions are reliably conservative.

Some scholars would argue that the one-sided ideological tilt in the newspaper industry makes little difference at a time when citizens are exposed to and receive information from a wide variety of sources--the CBC, specialty TV channels, magazines, books, the Internet, and so forth. There is also the view that citizens have the good sense to know what it is they are reading and that papers that become too narrow or too rigid in their outlook will simply drive readers away. The argument on the other side is that most people still trust newspapers and see their contents as a kind of truth. They turn to the newspaper for basic information--news about local events, sports scores, want ads, business news--and are largely unaware of the political diet that is being served up along with these other dishes.

Todd Gitlin has warned that the changes now taking place in terms of global corporate concentration may be irreversible. His analysis of the American situation could be true of Canada as well:

Trusts with the capacity for overbearing power are being merged and acquired into existence as if there were nothing at stake but stock values. Today's deals may weigh on the culture for decades. The potential for harm is at least as impressive as the potential for good. If the country believed in the countervailing authority of the government, the recourse would be obvious. It's time for the sheriff to step in and say, "Not so fast." But the sheriff has been disarmed.... (Gitlin, 1996, p. 6)

Ironically, the mantra of many on the right, repeated for so long, is that the media are dominated by left-wing journalists. Ezra Levant, the secretary of the Winds of Change conference and a columnist for the Sun chain, made this accusation again in a recent column.

A third development that has altered the tone of political debate in the 1990s is the emergence and popularity of the talk show culture. While talk radio has been a force in Canadian journalism since the debut of Pat Burns' hotline show in Vancouver in the early 1960s, the advent of talk TV; of satellite, toll-free lines, and syndication; and of "shock jock" journalism has created a new political battleground. Talk shows are also inexpensive to produce and bring big returns. Talk is now second only to country music as the most popular genre on radio and the number of all-talk radio stations in the U.S. grew from 300 in the late 1980s to over 1,000 stations by the mid-1990s (Kurtz, 1996, p. 257).

Surveys indicate that roughly 70% of American talk show hosts have right-wing views (Kurtz, 1996, p. 259). The most popular is Rush Limbaugh who reaches approximately 20 million people daily. In some places business people go to "Rush rooms" to listen to his show at lunch. But Don Imus' nationally syndicated program is at least as popular, as outrageous, as bellicose, and as unequivocally right-wing.

One can speculate about the reasons why talk has become such a formidable institution. Callers tend to be older males who are often disenchanted and disenfranchised--people who have grievances and little power. They turn to talk because it is one of the few platforms that will give them access to an audience and an outlet for their anger. Robert Hughes believes that the origins of the talk culture can be found in the confessional nature of the American religious experience. Hughes (1993) argues that the urge "to confess in public" is fundamental to American culture (p. 12). Others see talk shows as an expression of populism--a democratic leveling that allows ordinary citizens to express their views and frustrations and to hold the powerful accountable. Some talk show hosts act like public prosecutors questioning, judging, and ultimately finding authority figures--whether they be doctors or government officials--guilty of having inflicted abuses of some kind.

Almost all talk shows stress similar right-wing values. Government leaders are almost always portrayed as lacking in common sense, intent on wasting taxpayers' money, and preoccupied with selfish political ends. There is also, according to Wendy Kaminer, a "relentless emphasis on self-esteem" and on "the culture of self-centred individualism" (CBC, 1994, p. 9). There is a fascination with victimization, recovery, and self-improvement.

While studies have yet to be done on the talk phenomenon in Canada, these shows have come to occupy an important part of the public space. During the 1993 federal election, CTV interviewed radio hotline hosts as part of its regular coverage and both major English-language TV networks treated appearances by party leaders on talk shows as major campaign events. These shows are now a fundamental part of the Canadian political landscape.


The Winds of Change conference occurred at a time of both political crisis and rising influence for the right in Canada. On one hand, the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties continue to battle each other for supremacy on the right, splintering the vote. The conference did little if anything to alleviate the problem. On the other hand, the entire agenda of Canadian politics has been influenced by an intellectual climate that is shaped more and more by right-wing journalism. This article attempted to describe a number of the foundations on which this new information infrastructure has been built. To a large degree this is unexplored territory. Little research has been done on any of these topics and much of what has been written here is speculative.

There is little doubt, however, that the changes that I have described have profound implications for the future of democratic debate and experience in Canada. The question is whether citizens will have the information that they require to make informed judgments about the kind of country that they want to live in. Studies show that information environments that are rich in terms of choices and variety produce better informed and more active citizens (Just, Crigler, Alger, Cook, Kern, & West, 1996). Without the fresh air that comes from exposure to a full range of ideas, public life is greatly diminished. By continuing to wage an ideological war, the right may be undermining the very values that it holds most sacred.


Alterman, Eric. (1992). Sound and fury: The Washington punditocracy and the collapse of American politics. New York: Harper Collins.

Bennett, Lance. (1990). Toward a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Journal of Communication, 40(2), 103-125.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). (1993). Journalistic standards and practices. N.p.: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). (1994, May 23 & 30). Talk television. Ideas.

Gitlin, Todd. (1996). Not so fast. Media Studies Journal, 10(2-3), 1-6.

Hughes, Robert. (1993). Culture of complaint. New York: Warner Books.

Just, Marion, Crigler, Ann, Alger, Dean, Cook, Timothy, Kern, Montague, & West, Darrell. (1996). Crosstalk: Citizens, candidates and the media in a presidential campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kurtz, Howard. (1996). Hot air: All talk all the time. New York: Random House.

Nash, Knowlton. (1994). The microphone wars: A history of triumph and betrayal at the CBC. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Page, Benjamin. (1996). Who deliberates: Mass media and modern democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rau, Krishna. (1996, July-August). A million for your thoughts. Canadian Forum, pp. 11-17.

Sabato, Larry. (1991). Feeding frenzy: How attack journalism has transformed American politics. New York: The Free Press.

Taras, David. (1990). The newsmakers: The media's influence on Canadian politics. Toronto: Nelson Canada.

Winter, James. (1996). Democracy's oxygen: How corporations control the news. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

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