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They said WHAT? What is to be done about Sun Media?

Typical Sun Media front page

On New Year's Eve, without justification or evidence, Sun Media newspapers published a column that called Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi an anti-Christian bigot. His apparent sins: he is identified with small-l liberal politics and he is a member of another faith.

Many of us are pretty shocked by this kind of thing, but are tempted to conclude this company and its operatives are "best left in the shadows."

On New Year's Day, Sun Media moved beyond a year full of self-serving and intellectually dishonest attacks on the CBC with a self-serving and intellectually dishonest attack on the CBC.

Many of us value the CBC and are concerned about the full-court press now being put on by Sun Media and the neo-Con brain trust in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office to destroy this important national asset.

A few days before Christmas, a commentator on Sun Media's 24-hour television service closed a commentary opposing the boycott by a few U.S. companies of oil extracted from the Athabasca region's bitumen deposits by emphatically telling one firm's public affairs vice-president, a man with a Hispanic family name, "Chinga tu madre!" This translates as: "F*ck your mother" or "go f*ck your mother." Never mind that the official of the company in question was apparently saying his firm was not boycotting tar-sands oil.

Perhaps from the perspective of Sun Media's head honchos the offensiveness of this remark was ameliorated because it was spoken in Spanish, which would suggest they don't speak Spanish. Or maybe it was because the commentator in question was the same person who attacked Mayor Nenshi in print a few days later. Or perhaps they just don't give a … you-know-what.

Beyond these examples, as those of us who look at the Sun's newspapers or watch excerpts from its cable broadcast network know, the company has moved dramatically to the right and that has had a worsening impact on its news coverage -- which was already very poor after years of brutal staff cuts.

It is one thing to consistently back far-right causes in a newspaper's editorial pages -- in that regard, but for its page size, Sun Media is barely distinguishable from the Globe and Mail or the National Post. It is quite another to let it infect the coverage contained in its news pages. This, however, has now become routine in all Sun newspapers and it is openly boasted of as the mandate for the company's amateurish TV efforts.

Just watch how, in the upcoming Alberta general election, Sun Media openly campaigns in its news columns for one particular party. (Hint: It won't be the NDP.)

When there are few facts to massage, the Sun is quite prepared to add sexual innuendo, misleading juxtapositions or whatever else it takes to give the impression there might be something going on. Consider its Alberta papers' ugly and innuendo-laden attack on Alberta Premier Alison Redford, apparently deemed by the chain's executives to be too "left wing," and on her chief of staff.

Clearly Sun Media is morphing from a typically right-wing media company to an incubator of anti-social behaviour that deserves the sobriquet Fox News North.

Arguably, this and its planned role as the Conservative Party's Pravda make Sun Media a genuine threat to democratic discourse in Canada -- which is why, it's said here, it's best not to leave it in the shadows.

Meanwhile, coverage by legitimate news sources suggests the company's financial situation is now quite precarious -- which might account for the particular virulence of its recent commentary about the CBC.

A Canadian Press news story in late November on Sun Media plans to cut 400 more jobs from its media operations and possibly outsourcing pre-press work to India noted that parent Quebecor "has been squeezed by the slowing economy, which has hurt advertising revenues and eroded the company's profits."

In the previous quarter, CP reported, Quebecor had seen a 69-per-cent drop in profit. "With a big chunk of its assets in Ontario and Quebec, the company has been particularly vulnerable to the slowdown in the manufacturing economy of central Canada."

Moreover, according to a letter to non-union employees from Sun Media Human Resources Vice-President Christopher Krygiel reproduced on the plaintive blog "Toronto Sun Family, 1971-2011," all wages will be frozen in 2012.

"With the continuing economic downturn newspaper organizations are experiencing, there is significant pressure on both the advertising and circulation revenues," Krygiel wrote on Dec. 13. "We have also been forced to look at reducing our operating costs in light of the economic climate. We have made some very difficult decisions and one such decision is to announce that Sun Media will be implementing a salary freeze for 2012."

"We understand that this decision is disappointing, but it was made after a great deal of discussion and not made lightly," he said. "This decision applies to all levels within the organization."

So while Sun Media seems particularly aggressive in its advocacy of far-right-wing causes for which there is still relatively little support among Canadians, it is at this moment uniquely vulnerable to economic pressure as well.

The trouble is, it is quite difficult for progressive Canadians to apply economic pressure to a company like Sun Media for a variety of reasons.

The first instinct of most Canadians, of course, is to turn to government for solutions to situations like this. Obviously, however, that's not on when the government of the day is actively encouraging the problem -- and profiting from it.

Moreover, for readers to boycott a media product in the Internet age is very difficult -- it's too easy to be drawn to Sun Media's stories, and thereby its advertisers, via an Internet link. We can boycott the 50-cent paper, but then, most of us do anyway, whether intentionally or not.

Boycotting businesses that advertise in anti-social publications is also likely to meet with failure. Even in an era of diminishing advertising revenues, there are just too many advertisers to make this effective. Some well-meaning groups are trying this, and predictably not getting very far. We can't boycott everything, people!

Likewise, we can't expect much support from the union movement. While Sun Media's anti-union credentials are impeccable in both its editorial polices and its labour relations, unions do represent some Sun employees and cannot be expected to be a part of an effort to apply economic pressure to their members' employer, even by cutting their own ads.

So what are we to do?

Well, think about what Napoleon said about the use of concentration of force to defeat a larger enemy.

It might not be fair, but a boycott applied to one Sun Media advertiser would likely yield better results than a confused and cranky campaign against a large number. The advertiser that got picked would certainly cry foul. But who said life was supposed to be fair and all the bad guys were going to get caught?

So, whom to pick? Well, think about this. What business advertises in Sun Media's papers more than any other by a factor of about 90 per cent? Auto dealers, right?

And what do auto dealers sell? The same thing as dozens of other auto dealers in the same region. Correct? If they still sold Humber Super Snipes in Canada, there would likely be more than one Super Snipe dealer in every region. (Then again, and I say this as someone who learned to drive on a Super Snipe, maybe not!)

Regardless, how many lost sales would it take before an auto dealer picked up the phone and put a call in to the publisher of his local Sun Media rag?

Not very many. I'm just saying.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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