"Othering" minority communities sometimes helps media companies pay the bills
Over Twitter, some have declared that a controversial column by Mark Hecht was not a sharply dramatic aberration from what's been appearing in the Vancouver Sun weekend opinion pages in recent years.
That's because this daily paper and many others have been sowing mistrust of federal immigration policies and multiculturalism for quite a while.
In the Vancouver Sun, this has primarily been advanced by columnist Douglas Todd but also occasionally through guest columnists, like the now-deceased Martin Collacott.
I want to stress that many other Vancouver Sun columnists—including Vaughn Palmer, Daphne Bramham, and Ian Mulgrew—are not doing this.
It's worth noting that the Calgary-based Hecht told Canadaland that he approached the Vancouver Sun because the paper has been publishing Todd's columns. Hecht was inspired by Todd's articles, according to Canadaland.
Vancouver Sun editor-in-chief Harold Munro has apologized for running Hecht's column but the paper's braintrust seems happy with the contributions of Todd and Collacott. The proof is in their continued existence on the website.
Another one of Todd's admirers is Postmedia contributor Terry Glavin. He recently referred to Todd as one of his comrades on Twitter.
They've carved out a niche as guys who "tell it like it is" about minority communities, be they South Asian or Chinese. They may even see themselves as George Orwell–style truth tellers as they tap away on their keyboards.
One of Glavin's bugaboos is the long-dead movement for an independent Khalistan; Todd has focused massive numbers of column inches on people of Chinese ancestry and real estate.
This has occurred even though statistics consistently show that only three to five percent of housing purchases in B.C. are by foreign buyers.
One of the most vocal critics of Todd and Glavin has been Ng Weng Hoong, a veteran economic journalist, blogger, and occasional Georgia Straight contributor.
He repeatedly points out other factors contributing to housing prices that don't merit a mention in articles by a tribe of Canadian mainstream columnists writing about residential real estate.
As another veteran journalist, Frances Bula, declared over Twitter yesterday, this weekend's uproar didn't erupt suddenly over one column.
According to her, it reached at tipping point.
As someone who has been following repeated criticism over Twitter directed at Munro, I also know that this has been festering for a while.
All you need to do is follow the Twitter account of former federal NDP candidate Victor Wong. He documents what he perceives to be xenophobia on the website of the Vancouver Sun and other media outlets.
In the midst of one of these Twitter conversations between Munro and his critics, I once jumped in with a tweet asking Munro if he wanted this to be his legacy to Vancouver. I told Munro that he used to be a good reporter.
He replied that his paper was acting responsibly and that I was wrong. End of story. I felt there was no point engaging him in further conversation because his mind was made up.
I didn't tell him at that time that I had spoken with Canadians of South Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Iranian, and Filipino heritage who've expressed their serious concerns and, in some cases, outrage over how certain columnists have written about their communities.
A recently deceased Iranian Canadian and former Spice Radio broadcaster, Alireza Ahmadian, sat in my office for over an hour in the spring discussing how he planned to launch an initiative to counter what was going on in the Canadian mainstream media.
Ahmadian felt that media xenophobia is actually intended to turn new Canadians away from the mainstream and drive down voter turnout. And he suggested that this was a deliberate political strategy, borrowed from the Republicans in the United States and being advanced through the mainstream media.
He made the case that each time minority communities were "othered", it undermined the building of bridges and more participation in electoral politics.
New Canadians would conclude that the mainstream didn't like them, so they would retreat further within their own communities.
That, he suggested, advanced the interests of right-wing politicians, who benefit from lower voter turnout in elections.
Hecht's rookie mistake is that he didn't follow the lead of so many experienced Canadian columnists.
He didn't find a person of colour—who's lived in Canada for decades or who was born in Canada—to quote and who could be photographed for a column undermining public confidence about immigration or multiculturalism.
That's the way the pros often do it.
I'd like to end this column with constructive suggestions on how to turn the corner and ensure that something like the Hecht controversy won't happen again.
But the reality is that page views are like oxygen for Canadian media outlets. They are in the fight of their lives against U.S. digital giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
Columns that elevate suspicion about immigration are "page view gold". The temptation is too great for some opinion page editors.
I don't see that changing, even if Munro appoints a new opinion pages editor at the Vancouver Sun.
Nearly 40 years ago, Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein followed the money when seeking answers to why the president of the United States would authorize a sordid little break-in of a hotel room.
Critics of the Hecht column might want to consider using the same approach—following the money—in trying to figure out why a daily newspaper in a city as diverse as Vancouver might want to publish an article condemning inclusion.
Even those who hate these types of columns pass them around on social media and read them.
That brings more eyeballs to newspaper websites, which results in more revenue, thanks to programmatic advertising buys.
Australian-born Rupert Murdoch's media company was one of the first to recognize that othering minority communities can be monetized.
It also works for Breitbart News.
Now, I fear, it's spread to Canada.