Moguls of Winnipeg

Two books examine the controversial Asper media legacy.

The first of these two books, Peter C. Newman’s Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul, is very confusing, to say the least, which may explain why one of Izzy Asper’s three children (David) would have nothing to do with it. It illustrates the pitfalls involved in writing biographies of people you know, even for such an eminent portraitist as Newman. Sooner or later the first person of the acquaintance starts to intrude on the authorial third person of the biographer. Autobiography becomes all tangled up with biography, fiction with history.

This is tricky ground even for a reviewer of a book such as Izzy, which is also a kind of obituary for the man who was the last of the barons of Canadian print journalism, men who loved newspapers, who used and misused them, and who were both worshipped and despised by the journalists they employed. Yes, even a careful reviewer may inadvertently start to insert himself into the literary scenery, remembering a cold rural Manitoba morning several decades ago when he first met Izzy Asper.

He (Asper, not the reviewer) was the new leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, preparing to speak to an audience of schoolchildren. I (the reviewer, not Asper) was the national political columnist for the Toronto Star, curious to meet the man who already was known for unorthodox opinions and behaviour. And he did not disappoint. I found myself comparing him to René Lévesque in the column I wrote later that day. Both men, I said, were “nervous, constant smokers who complain that the citizens of their province are treated as second class citizens and give the impression of living constantly on the edge of enthusiasm and the edge of exhaustion.”

Decades later, when he died on the morning of October 7, 2003, journalists were still remarking on his lifestyle, notable in a profession where drinking and smoking were once commonplace. In his biography, Peter Newman does not try to gloss over this aspect of Izzy’s character. As he writes, Izzy’s “drinking habit, combined with his chain smoking—at least three packs of Craven A’s a day—reached self-destructive levels.”

Asper’s early years were more conventional, in fact a stereotype of the successful son of hard-working immigrants. The young woman who would become his mother, the daughter of a Jewish rabbi from Ukraine, had arrived in Winnipeg in 1919. Five years later, his father followed and the couple were soon married. Five years after that, Leon Asper bought a movie theatre in the Manitoba town of Minnedosa. Israel Harold Asper was born in Minnedosa in 1932 and in 1946 the family relocated to Winnipeg.

Izzy was enrolled in Winnipeg’s Kelvin High School, where he soon distinguished himself as a debater and columnist for the student newspaper covering music and sports—all indications of his future interests. In 1953 he received his BA and entered the University of Manitoba’s law school, graduating in 1957, one year after his marriage to Ruth “Babs” Bernstein. After his articling year, he established a law firm with another young lawyer and began to make a name for himself as a tax lawyer, writing advice columns for local and national newspapers.

He received his Master of Law degree in 1964. In the following decade, he started careers in business (a distillery in Minnedosa) and politics (leader of the Manitoba Liberals) before discovering his true vocation as a media owner. That venture started modestly with the $750,000 purchase of a local television station in North Dakota and its transfer to Winnipeg, and expanded eventually to become a multimedia conglomerate operating on a world scale. In the process, he suffered his first heart attack in 1983 and underwent a quadruple bypass.

His biographer summarizes this process in a single paragraph:

“Asper spent his final two decades in a binge of deal-making that earned him the reputation for tweaking every deal to its last decimal point … It was his unrelenting and interminable examination of all the elements of a deal—plus his intellectual sleight of hand—that fuelled his quest to fulfill impossible dreams.”

By 1995, Izzy’s firm, Canwest Global, and its partners, had hit a market capitalization of $1 billion. “Now, nothing seemed impossible,” writes Newman. “His big-game corporate hunt over the years that followed culminated in his multi-billion-dollar purchase of the Southam newspaper chain from Conrad Black—the largest media transaction in Canadian history.”

These holdings in print journalism were eventually combined with Izzy’s international television operations, which included networks in Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and other European countries at various times.

What Newman has created here is a new school of biography that could be termed “semi-authorized,” because Izzy’s son David refused to cooperate, and “semi-autobiographical,” because Newman himself prominently features in the finished work.

For example, Newman recalls sailing on his boat in British Columbia’s Georgia Strait when he received, via marine radio, a request from Izzy for a copy of his book about Conrad Black, The Establishment Man: A Portrait of Power. As he relates this episode, he shifts from the authorial third person to the first, becoming a character in his own story:

“I wish we could have spent more time discussing his suggestion. My book … might indeed have been useful, since at the time Black was only thirty-five and still a real person instead of the combative, whining metaphor he would become. He was a compelling presence then, more strategic than manipulative, less concerned with ways of making money than with making history.

“I fell under the spell of his command of language and his impressive feats of memory, a memory both photographic and phonographic, in that he could recite anything he had ever read and mimic almost anyone he had ever heard. His presence was impressive and what struck me most forcefully was his lust for power. He basked in its coital afterglow like a lover.”

As he was writing this book, Newman looked back on Izzy Asper’s 2000 purchase of Black’s Canadian newspaper empire and recalled how it had “set off a confrontation of rare intensity.” Newman says “the journalists were defending their mandate as front-line gladiators, guarding the freedom of expression that defines their noble profession: the Aspers were exercising their legal proprietary rights over the newspapers that had cost them half their company’s market value.”

There was no more explosive expression of this clash than Canadian policy toward Israel. In Izzy Asper’s opinion, there was no uncertainty about a newspaper owner’s right to dictate editorial policy, just as there was no uncertainty about Canada’s obligation to defend the existence of the state of Israel. Where Israel was concerned, according to Newman, Asper would not—or could not—recognize any acceptable middle ground.

“And it was this fervour that caused turmoil in his newsrooms. He didn’t always get it, but he demanded that the coverage of Israel recognize that the desert republic’s existence was not debatable. That was certainly a reasonable assumption, but on a personal level he often went beyond that proposition by dividing people into two categories: you were either a devout supporter of Israel or its mortal enemy.”

This rigid position has to be understood against Manitoba’s history of anti-Semitism. As Newman explains, “during the 1930s Winnipeg was the operational headquarters of the Canadian Nationalist Party, led by William Whittaker, a First World War veteran who became a professional Jew-baiter.” According to Newman, this history “is not generally known or remembered,” and I can vouch for that. I don’t recall ever hearing about it during the five years in the 1950s when I left my native Montreal to work for the Winnipeg Tribune. I was astonished to learn that Whittaker had “modelled his warlike organization on Hitler’s storm troopers” and that a riot in Winnipeg in 1934 between Whittaker’s party and the local Anti-Fascist League had involved 500 people.

According to Newman, “Izzy remained a secular Jew, which meant that he seldom attended synagogue, yet he was inordinately proud of his tribe.”

“‘When I was a kid in Neepawa, I was regularly beaten,’ Izzy remembered. ‘We had to form phalanxes to go home from school, and I still have a bridge where I got a tooth knocked out.’” Newman reports that Asper often insisted that it was “mainly as a direct result of the anti-Semitism that he encountered while growing up” that he became a passionate Zionist.

Izzy’s uncompromising loyalty to Israel was at the heart of situations that led to serious conflicts with the CBC and with journalists working for the National Post and many of his newspapers. “Nothing raised Asper’s ire like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,” writes Newman, “which he believed was guilty of biased reporting against Israel.” And he reserved his greatest fury for Neil Macdonald, the corporation’s Middle East correspondent from 1998 to 2003 and currently the network’s Washington correspondent. Macdonald “was not shy about injecting his opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict into his reports. His bosses back in Toronto were supportive.”

At one point in this dispute the head of CBC News, Tony Burman, said publicly that “there is something profoundly ironic about being told off about media bias by someone like Izzy Asper.” Every journalist in Canada understood that this was what Newman describes as a “thinly veiled reference to the Aspers’ practice of urging their papers to publish company-written editorials that expressed their owner’s views, a policy that was abandoned after the fuss it caused.”

Before that retreat from Izzy’s preferred policy, only about half a dozen of these group editorials had been churned out by Canwest’s “head-office editorial factory” in Winnipeg, but that was enough to antagonize many of the chain’s journalists. This was particularly unfortunate because in many other respects the National Post had been welcomed by most Canadian journalists, at least in its early years, because of the healthy competition it provided for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s dominant quality daily.

At the height of the dispute, Macdonald accused the Aspers of disseminating “more bullying, more bombast, more ideological anti-journalistic nonsense.” In 2002, at an Israel Bonds fundraising dinner in Montreal, Izzy upped the ante to include journalists outside of Canada. “I make the charge,” he said, “that much of the world media who are covering the Arab-Israeli conflict have abandoned the fundamental precepts of honest reporting.”

In 2007, as Canwest prepared to celebrate the first decade of publication of the National Post, founder Conrad Black was sentenced to spend time in a Florida jail, unrepentant. The year 2007 also saw the publication of the first book-length treatment of Izzy Asper and his family enterprise. The editorial tone of this book by Vancouver journalist and academic Marc Edge was clearly evident in its title, Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company. The book could not be more different from Newman’s Izzy.

Edge begins his book with a relatively gentle nod in Asper’s direction, recalling a casual meeting between the two when Edge was covering the B.C. law courts for the Vancouver Province. “Now, of course, I wish I had taken the opportunity to get to know him a bit better,” Edge writes in his preface. “Everyone who knew him seemed to agree he was endearing and personable. Except for his business partners, of course, who universally found him insufferable, and for the journalists confronted with his notions of ownership privilege.”

After this polite beginning, Edge takes off the gloves by page six of his preface where he mentions Peter Newman’s “fawning profile of Asper in his book Titans.” Edge then refers to rumours about Canwest Global providing money to subsidize Newman’s upcoming biography of Izzy. (When Newman’s book appeared last November, he admitted that he had received a research grant from the Asper Foundation, but added that the understanding with the family was that he “would have complete independence on the writing of the book as well as responsibility for its contents.” He defended this somewhat unorthodox arrangement by saying it allowed him to “check the accuracy” of his data with Asper’s widow and two of his three children.) As far as his own book is concerned, Edge states that it is “neither authorized nor a biography, instead qualifying more as a critical corporate media history.”

By the time of the publication of Asper Nation, Edge was no longer a staff reporter with the Vancouver Province, but a news media researcher with a growing reputation. He investigated the recent history of his old employer in Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly.

In the preface to Asper Nation, Edge takes pains to make it clear that he is not interested in attacking Asper personally. “This book,” he writes, “is less an indictment of Izzy Asper and his heirs than of a system that allowed them to gain control over so much of Canada’s news media and use it to promote an ideological agenda.

“There will always be people like the Aspers,” he insists. “If Izzy Asper hadn’t been the one to demonstrate the peril of permitting such concentrated and now converged media ownership, it would have been another tycoon.”

Finally, Edge closes his preface by confessing to his own biases. “Some will undoubtedly find that in chronicling the media biases of Izzy Asper and his heirs I betray a bias of my own,” he writes. “That is inevitable, as every writer necessarily comes with a bias. Mine is that of a disillusioned former journalist who spent two decades growing increasingly frustrated by a craft to which I had long aspired. Since then, I have dedicated myself to studying the news business to help improve it through research and informed criticism.”

In a press release, Edge’s publisher, New Star Books of Vancouver, states that “Asper made Canwest the country’s most profitable broadcaster by feasting on regulations that encouraged the importation of cheap American programming.” What Edge has produced, in effect, is a guide and interpretation to the voluminous archive of Izzy Asper’s multifaceted career.

So what are these two books that I have before me? And which do I prefer?

If I was preparing a legal document or a political article, Edge would have the edge. But for the inside story and a good read, nothing beats Newman.