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Lessons in bias: Who will take the Peter Kent challenge

You would think the offer was irresistible, a no-brainer.

Federal Tory candidate Peter Kent invites journalism schools to monitor press coverage during the next election to prove or disprove a bias favouring the Liberal Party.

How could any journalism instructor in the country resist such a real-life teaching tool?

But instead of the chorus of hurrahs we expected to hear, the offer is greeted with tepid interest at best. Are the teacher's afraid of what the students will learn?

Peter Kent comes with impeccable credentials. He's a member of Canada's Hall of Fame. He was nominated twice for Emmys during his stay at NBC. He was the anchor of CBC's national newscast, and anyone still wondering about the political bent of CBC employees only has to read The Black Rod's look at their lockout blogs.

He's worked in the news business for forty years and is under no illusions that the vast majority of reporters and editors are not liberal small "l" and, given a choice, Liberal big "L". Ditto journalism instructors.

The idea that reporters don't slant the news to their politics is laughable. Bernie Goldberg's book Bias is an indispensable journalism text for its revelation of the mindset of newsrooms and how it acts as a filter to reporting on conservative issues and candidates.

So Kent's gambit is a brilliant tactical move. It forces the Liberals to tone down their manipulation of the press, and reporters to pretend their stories are fair and balanced, even when it goes so against their grain.

And at the same time it exposes the journalism schools.

Will we see Liberal (small "l" and big "L") Donald Benham assign the Kent challenge to his journalism students at the University of Winnipeg, where former Liberal Party cabinet minister and leftwing MP Lloyd Axworthy is president ? Or maybe Free Press columnist Lindor Reynolds can raise it with her class in "how to write features" at - you guessed it, Axworthy's campus.

Who knows? Why not? Benham knows that liberals are shameless. If the J-school monitoring turns up an anti-Conservative bias, it won't be for months after the election. And, then, so what? What's anyone going to do about it? A day after the liberal-dominated papers bury the story, it will be forgotten...

But, maybe, the silence is because none of the journalism instructors knows how to do the monitoring. The Black Rod does its own monitoring of the press and we have some suggestions.

The weekend of the Loewen defection is a perfect microcosm of how the Winnipeg Free Press covers the liberals and the conservatives.

Thursday, Sept. 22
A large photo of Liberal MP Reg Alcock. It doesn't matter why because as readers have learned, as long as he shows up somewhere the Free Press will run the picture.

Friday, Sept. 23
The Free Press carries a story saying it "has learned" that the Liberals will be contributing millions to the expansion of the floodway.
Every Friday the paper turns the editorial pages over to its liberal columnists, and today both of them write about the new book trashing former Conservative PM Brian Mulroney.
And there's a small photo of Reg Alcock at the University of Manitoba announcing the feds contribution to the first phase of the high-tech Engineering and Information Technology Complex (EITC) at the U of M.

Saturday, Sept. 24
The Front Page is devoted to the defection of provincial Tory John Loewen to the federal Liberals.
Photos have a smiling Paul Martin in the background.
The pro-Liberal quotes from Loewen are given prominence over any comments by federal Conservatives.
Provincial Conservative leader Stuart Murray refuses to say anything remotely offensive to the Liberals.

Three days.
* three photos favouring the Liberals;
* two stories, including a Front Page on the most-read paper of the week, favouring the Liberals,
* two columns trashing the former Conservative Party leader.
This shows how easily the Liberals can influence the news and how eager the paper is to be manipulated. Hand out money, get a photo. Leak a story, get a big puff piece.

To have the paper claim it "has learned" about the federal money going to the floodway is disingenuous at the least. The wording suggests a reporter ferreted out the information. Don't make us laugh.

What happens at the Free Press is that the Liberals hand them these stories in exchange for the "exclusive". In other words, the paper pretends it's breaking a story when it's actually just serving as a Liberal propaganda arm.
Should this sort of "reporting" be discussed by journalism classes?
Professor Benham...?

This past week delivered an even better example of how the local liberal paper slants the news to protect the large "l" Liberals.

Call it "anatomy of a story".

The Free Press on Thursday carried a story from Parliament Hill which, on the face of it, appeared perfectly balanced. Two paragraphs said PM Paul Martin has apologized to the parents of four murdered Alberta Mounties for telling Parliament he had had "long discussions" with them about changes to the law they were lobbying for. And two paragraphs said the families were critical of Opposition leader Stephen Harper for criticizing the Prime Minister for failing to attend a reception for the parents; they were quoted as saying they knew Paul Martin would be too busy to attend. Sort of even-stephen.

Except that the true story was that the Prime Minister had lied to Parliament and got caught. He tried to use the grief-stricken parents as foils to deflect questioning in the House, and he got caught. Two lies. Is that balance?

We had to dig through a lot of stories to find the truth. Much of it was in the lengthy story that ran in the Winnipeg Sun, but even then there were nuances that the bigger paper could and should have reported.

The story starts Sunday, Sept. 25, at the 28th annual police memorial service on Parliament Hill.

The parents of the Mounties killed at Myerthorpe, Alberta, attended, having come to Ottawa to lobby MP's to scrap plans to decriminalize marijuana, to toughen sentences for grow operators, and to tighten parole and sentencing criteria. Liberal MP's, including the Prime Minister, avoided the rally like vampires avoid garlic.
On Monday, the first day of Parliament, the Tories raised the parents' issues.

The PM told the House "I met with the families and had long discussions with them."
The families choked on his words. Grace Johnston, the mother of one of the Mounties, told the Edmonton Sun she was "outraged that he's trying to use a horrible tragedy and changes we're trying to make...for his own personal whatever."
On Tuesday, the Tories called on Martin to apologize to the families for misleading the House. Martin's reply was to attack the Tories for "political gamesmanship."

Then, after the cameras were gone, he phoned the spokesman for the families and apologized. And had an office hack tell the press.
That was the first part of the Free Press story.

And the second part, the part slamming Conservative Leader Harper?
Well, CTV said the Tories accused the PM of refusing to meet with the family members on Sunday. Not Monday, as the Free Press said. Confusion over meetings, or a bit of bias thrown in for good measure?

The families, meanwhile, accepted Martin's apology and said they didn't want to alienate him by any further criticism. They obviously still work on the dated premise that politicians are honourable people who can be swayed by a reasonable argument.

Last week we saw just how honourable they are.

You may recall our stories about Winnipegger Bruce Vallance, the retired military man who was almost killed by an FLQ bomb 36 years ago. He wrote the Prime Minister with his reservations about the appointment of Michaelle Jean as Governor General because of her cozy relationship to Canada's homegrown terrorist movement, and discussed his feelings about her with us

In a radio interview Tuesday, Vallance told what happened after his letter was delivered.

He got a response.
From the pension board.
Saying he had been overpaid.
Since 1985.
By a grand sum of well over $200,000.
But they had decided he didn't have to pay it back.
Get it? Hint. Hint.

Somebody, on receipt of the letter to the PM, obviously looked him up in government records, privacy rights be damned. They found something they could use against him, something which may or may not be true (they claimed they made a mistake in his disability evaluation) but which a retiree can't afford to fight. And they fired a warning shot across his bow.

Remember what we can do if you bother us again, Mr. Vallance. We are The Libranos.

But Mr. Vallance is not a coward. He wasn't when the FLQ bombed his office. He wasn't when he stood up to appointing someone who has never repudiated her terrorist friends. And he isn't now.

On Sunday the Free Press said "something she said 15 years ago at a party with some of her husband's separtists friends should not be held against her."

Perhaps, when Michaelle Jean comes to Winnipeg later this month, she will meet with Mr. Vallance and we'll see whether she can look him in the face and apologize for making smiley-faces at terrorist bombers. And what spin the papers will put on it.
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