Uncovering Canadian media’s devastating pro-Israel bias
The bias is enforced at every level of the media,
from editorial boards all the way to ownership.
By Davide Mastracci
Last year, I almost quit journalism. A major reason was an evolution in my perspective on the industry.
My first journalism experience was at the McGill Daily as an undergraduate student. The independent paper is explicitly leftist, so my understanding of journalism was built from a progressive perspective. As such, I didn’t think I had illusions about corporate media in Canada, especially as we had an antagonistic relationship with these outlets.
Regardless, when I decided to pursue journalism as a career, I thought I could carve out a niche in the industry for the sort of work I was inspired by. Yet after moving to Toronto for a journalism masters at Ryerson, I started to see things differently, realizing that you can’t be part of something but divorce yourself from the harms it perpetuates. I started to feel that I was complicit.
This change of heart was due to many factors, including a deeper understanding of one of the strongest biases the Canadian media has: pro-Israel and anti-Palestine.
I eventually decided I’d continue in journalism if I could do a few things differently than before, including proactively combating the pro-Israel bias.
With that in mind, I’m now going to explore the bias by offering my experiences with it, and then breaking down the various ways it is upheld, from the level of individual journalists all the way to outside interference on the media. As a whole, this process ensures Israel is rarely held to account for its actions.
My experiences with the bias
I’ve never had anything more than an entry-level position in corporate media. Those that have can give you more insightful anecdotes of the bias in action, and I’ll go into some of them later. Regardless, my experience, which has included roles at eight different publications and freelancing for dozens of others, is still useful to see how the bias works at a low level. Here are some examples.
A few years ago, I pitched an Israel/Palestine article to a publication I had little prior experience with. It was accepted, edited by a junior staff member, published and well-received. A day later, I was informed by a senior editor that the junior editor should have run the article by them before sending it to publication. I wasn’t made aware of this procedure beforehand, and didn’t understand why I, as a new writer, was being reprimanded. Then the editor casually added that their publication wasn’t sure of their editorial stance on Israel/Palestine, so it would be especially important to consult with them on this topic. I realized the issue wasn’t primarily about chain of command, but rather that I was critical of Israel. This sent me an implicit message: don’t tackle this subject again.
Another time, an article I wrote on Israel/Palestine was pushed out on social media late on a weekend night — a traffic graveyard — despite being published earlier. This seemed like an attempt to bury the story. I mentioned it to someone in that newsroom, and they told me the person responsible for the scheduling had interfered with other journalists’ critical work on Israel in the past, so it’s unlikely the scheduling was an oversight.
On another occasion a few years back, I was invited onto a radio show to discuss an Israel/Palestine issue. At the time, I was required to get approval from my employer to do any outside writing or appearances, so I asked. These appearances were typically quickly approved, and celebrated, because it meant people cared about our work. This time around, I had to follow up before being called into a meeting with a few people. I was told I could go on the radio show, but couldn’t give my opinion, and could only describe the events from an “objective” perspective. The reason offered was that the brand wasn’t sure about their stance on the “complicated” issue. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be speaking on behalf of the company or that I’d made other outside appearances offering views higher ups likely disagreed with. Something about this topic was special.
Finally, a few years back I tweeted a mild criticism of an Israeli official. It didn’t get any retweets, just a couple likes — hardly noteworthy. A few days later, I got a phone call from a higher up asking me to remove the tweet because someone had complained. They wouldn’t tell me who, or even if it came from within the company. They didn’t even seem to understand the alleged problem with the tweet. Regardless, they wanted it down. I was also asked to remove any mention of the company from my Twitter bio, which they claimed was standard procedure. Yet the timing made the real issue clear, especially given others in my position hadn’t been asked to do the same.
I’ve written about many “controversial” things over the years, and this is the only topic where I’ve faced this sort of interference. Others have dealt with more egregious experiences. I know from speaking with Arab journalists that many either avoid the subject, or have received so much hate when they do speak out — including either condemnation from higher ups or no support — that they don’t approach it again.
Yet when journalists refuse to shut up, the bias is enforced in different ways. I’m going to discuss a few now, to show how the bias thrives through individual journalists and editorial boards, corporate interference, journalism organizations and lobby groups, with the cumulative effect of a staunchly pro-Israel media landscape.
Personal and editorial views
The personal views of mid- to senior-level journalists can have a major impact on what gets published, in a few ways. One is that critical pitches on Israel/Palestine can be rejected regardless of quality, which, if done enough, tells journalists not to bother anymore. Another is stories in progress being killed, or edited beyond recognition, when the right people find out. Even just a couple of these individuals in the right positions can make a difference in upholding the bias.
The editorial pages of major newspapers in Canada are instructive in this regard. They aren’t representative of all journalists, but they do mark the publication’s official view. In 2018, I looked at the editorial stances the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post have taken on military conflicts between Israel and Palestinians. Below, I will quote heavily from the article.
In 2009, Israel launched a ground invasion into Gaza, killing more than 760 Palestinian civilians, including 345 minors. Israel violated international law, and used white phosphorus, a chemical smoke that burns people’s skin, in civilian areas.
Despite this, the Globe wrote that the invasion of Gaza, which they referred to as “Hamas’s ‘statelet,’” was “well justified,” with no mention of the destruction it caused. In a June 2010 editorial, they simply referred to the invasion as a “regrettable incident,” but claimed that the more important issue was turning Gaza into a territory that wouldn’t pose a threat to Israel.
In 2012, Israel rained missiles on Gaza, killing more than 100 Palestinians, including four children playing on a soccer field.
The Post published a pair of editorials in support of these strikes. They wrote, “Our view is that [prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu] waged this mini-war in exactly the right way,” and that, “Israel had no choice but to strike at Gaza.” They claimed Israel is a “civilized and humane nation” in contrast to Gaza, and argued Israel had been careful to limit rocket fire to “terrorists.” The Star applauded the bombardment, claiming Netanyahu couldn’t be “faulted” for his supposedly justified actions. No Palestinian civilian casualties were mentioned, and while they claimed that the “scope” of the airstrikes “raised a few eyebrows,” they concluded Netanyahu couldn’t seem soft on security in the upcoming elections.
In 2014, Israel launched its most destructive attack on Gaza yet. More than 1,460 Palestinian civilians were killed, compared to six Israeli civilians.
The Globe wrote, “It cannot be wrong for Israel to defend itself,” referring to this invasion as the “latest round of grass-mowing” in Gaza, where Israel supposedly “cut back the military capabilities of their enemies.” The Post described the conflict as a “fight between a Canadian ally and a vicious terrorist group,” failing to mention civilian casualties.
These are just a few examples, focusing on one aspect of the conflict, in just six years. The bias extends far beyond them. I chose to focus on military conflicts because they’re when the contradictions are most laid bare, and you see Canada’s major outlets cheering military efforts that result in mass civilian deaths.
While the views of journalists at the editorial level make a difference, upper-management and ownership can be more important, especially as the media becomes increasingly monopolized and centralized.
Before proceeding, it’s important to note that not all Jews are Zionists, most newspaper chains are not owned by Jewish people, not every owner of a paper interferes to the extent you’ll see, and when they do so, it is not always, or exclusively, on Israel, and often occurs on other issues as well. Support for Israel just so happens to be a uniting factor of a wide-range of right-wingers, from Hindutva extremists to American evangelicals. The idea that the media is owned by a secret Jewish cabal, as many anti-Semites believe, or some other Protocols of the Elders of Zion-esque conspiracy theory, is wrong and should be opposed.
Owners of news chains do, however, have a record of using them to advocate for their own financial interests and ideological beliefs, including, in some cases, support for Israel. The CanWest news chain — whose properties now belong to Postmedia — offers an illuminating case study of the pro-Israel bias because of how openly and proudly it was carried out, with countless employees testifying to its existence.
CanWest Global Communications was founded in 1974 by Israel Asper, a Winnipeg lawyer and self-declared Zionist who proudly declared an “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, which he saw as a “symbol and teacher of excellence for all of humankind.”
In July 2000, CanWest announced its $3.2 billion purchase of media properties from Hollinger Inc., a media company established by National Post founder Conrad Black in 1985. According to a CBC article that month, the deal meant, “CanWest picks up 136 daily and weekly newspapers, including half of The National Post, 13 large big-city dailies, 85 trade publications and directories … [and] all of the Hollinger and Southam Internet properties.”
In an October 2002 speech to the Israel Bonds Gala, which the National Post published, Asper described his disgust with Canadian media for supposedly “destroying the world’s favourable disposition toward” Israel. Asper claimed this is because journalists, including his own, are “lazy, or sloppy, or stupid” or “biased, or anti-Semitic.” Asper concluded the speech by stating all Canadians should “stand tall … for the right of Israel to exist and to take whatever actions it needs to battle its savage attackers, and to demand that our media and our politicians act with honour in this quest.”
Asper’s newspaper chain had already become a battleground for this war, with many journalists being censured or fired for being anything less than completely supportive of Israel.
In September 2001, Michael Goldbloom, the publisher of then-CanWest property the Montreal Gazette, quit, citing differences with the company. The Globe and Mail reported that this was due in part to “senior editors at the paper [being] told in August to run a strongly worded, pro-Israel editorial on a Saturday op-ed page.”
In December 2001, Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter at the Montreal Gazette, went on CBC’s “As It Happens” to discuss reporters pulling their byline from the publication after CanWest imposed a policy requiring all of its local papers to run editorials written by the chain’s editor-in-chief, Murdoch Davis. Marsden noted that this had resulted in a strong pro-Israel perspective.
Marsden told CBC this:
“They do not want to see any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East. We do not have that free-wheeling debate that there should be about all these issues.
We even had an incident where a fellow, a professor at … the University of Waterloo, wrote an op-ed piece for us in which he was criticizing the anti-terrorism law and criticizing elements of civil rights. Now that professor happens to be a Muslim and happens to have an Arab name. We got a call from headquarters demanding to know why we had printed this. Now this kind of questioning goes on all the time.”
CBC also interviewed Davis, asking him if a chain in the paper wanted to write an editorial regarding Israel that was “absolutely contrary to the editorial written from your office, would they be able to write that?” Davis said, “No. It is clearly the intent that the newspapers will speak with one voice on certain issues of overarching national or international importance.”
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