Peter C. Newman’s Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul, is an authorized biography that sheds less light on its subject matter than on its legendary author’s reporting practices, according to Marc Edge. Edge is the author of Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, an examination of Canwest Global Communications and its founding family.
Peter C. Newman is an icon of Canadian journalism. He was editor of the country’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, in the 1960s. As editor of Maclean’s, he led Canada’s news magazine to weekly publication in the 1970s. His seventeen books – from his biographies of Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker (1963) and Lester B. Pearson (1968) to his trilogies on the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian Establishment – have helped define Canada. Newman was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 and was promoted to the rank of Companion in 1990. Now 80, he recently signed with Random House Canada to write a biography of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
Like much of Canadian journalism, however, Newman’s recent record has become increasingly problematic. His 2005 book The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister prompted a lawsuit from Brian Mulroney, who claimed that his interviews with Newman in the 1980s were not intended for use in a work of this kind. That same week brought a lawsuit from former Canadian media magnate Conrad Black for graphic descriptions of his sex life published in Newman’s 2004 autobiography Here Be Dragons.
Black and Newman engaged in a heated exchange on the pages of the National Post in 2007 after questions were raised about Newman’s Globe and Mail review of Jean Chretien’s book My Years as Prime Minister. Its publisher took the unprecedented step of buying an ad in the Globe to rebut the review and to question whether Newman had even read the book. Black, who despite his faults (for which he now languishes in a Florida prison) has written several substantial biographies, declared that as a purveyor of the genre Newman “does little work and is a shoddy writer.” Newman defended his work against Black’s charge that much of it was unsourced, declaring: “All my books are peppered with footnotes.”
Newman’s latest offering, on the Asper clan of Winnipeg, raises more troubling questions about his work. His 2008 biography Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul, was funded by the Asper Foundation, a charitable entity established by the founder of Canada’s dominant but troubled media company, Canwest Global Communications. Newman states in the book’s acknowledgments that his “research grant” – the terms of which he declared confidential – covered “the time spent in the detailed and geographical breadth of the required research.”
In addition to dozens conducted in Canada, the book lists interviews in Israel, Australia, Colorado, San Diego, London, Dublin, and Paris. Some of this research was conducted by Winnipeg historian Allan Levine, who authored a commissioned history of Canwest, From Winnipeg To The World: The Canwest Global Story; The First 25 Years, that was published by the company to mark its 25th anniversary in 2002. Newman notes that part of that confidential agreement states that he would have “complete independence on the writing of the book as well as responsibility for its content, which meant that the Aspers could sue me if they were so inclined,” but one wonders if a writer would choose to bite the hand that feeds. Newman’s stipend from the Asper Foundation, now run by Izzy’s daughter Gail (who is described in the book as a “vivacious beauty”), was likely considerable, but no one except Newman and the foundation knows how much he was paid.
A reading of Izzy leaves little doubt, however, that it was bought and paid for by his heirs. Newman frequently allows his interview subjects to reminisce uninterrupted for full pages of the book about the Canwest founder’s colorful exploits. They include Asper’s widow and heirs except for his eldest son David, chairman of the National Post, who refused to co-operate with the project. Newman also allows the Aspers full answer and defence to charges of media manipulation but devotes little space to the specifics of their journalistic transgressions. Readers thus effectively get the defence argument minus much of the evidence.
For example, in late 2001 Canwest ordered “national” editorials written at company headquarters in Winnipeg to be carried in its dozen daily newspapers across Canada. That brought a byline strike by many Montreal Gazette journalists, who withdrew their names from atop local articles in protest of the corporate homogenization of opinion. The Aspers reacted harshly, threatening members of the self-described “Gazette Intifada” with suspension or even firing for as much as gossiping about the matter, a fact glossed over by Newman. Journalists at the Regina Leader-Post who staged a similar byline strike the following year to protest what they saw as censorship were, in fact, suspended.
Canwest CEO Leonard Asper betrays his contempt for his employees – and for the craft of journalism – in discussing the Gazette incident with Newman. “I don’t see that a journalist is any different than an employee at Wal-Mart,” he says. “If a bunch of employees at Wal-Mart are running up and down the isles [sic.] at Wal-Mart declaring, ‘We hate Wal-Mart, this is a terrible company and we hate its owners,’ as they were doing at the Gazette – we just didn’t see why a group of employees should be allowed to run around trashing the company and its owners.”
As for the columnists who found themselves out of work at newspapers across Canada, if they disagreed with the politics or censorship of the Aspers, Newman records unchallenged Leonard’s contention that they are replaceable parts: “Columnists can write what they want, and if you didn’t like it, you just get new columnists.”
Newman even shifts into the first person to absolve the Aspers of blame for one of their most controversial actions. Canwest’s 2002 firing of Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills after his newspaper ran an editorial calling for the resignation of Chretien, who was an Asper family friend, heightened concern for press freedom in Canada. It also helped to prompt a years-long Senate inquiry into the country’s news media. Newman, however, judges the Aspers not guilty of exercising undue influence on Canadian journalism in terminating Mills. “Having been in a similar position, I believe that in this case the Aspers behaved as publishers must,” he writes. “Proprietors do have rights, and one of them is to speak through editorials.”
Despite the obvious amount of research that went into Izzy, the book contains no footnotes or other references to the voluminous literature on Asper and Canwest that has been published in newspapers and magazines, or even a bibliography of sources beyond a list of people interviewed. Many of the tales are familiar. And in at least two places, Newman imports direct quotes word for word without crediting their source.
The first, on the subject of family succession in business, appears on page 213:
The 100-word passage was originally published in the National Post in 2000:
A certain amount of “borrowing” from the work of others, even unsourced, can be acceptable in journalism or even history, and given the amount of recycled material in Izzy, the uncredited copying of work done by others might have escaped even the trained eye had Newman not insisted, in a May 4 Maclean’s feature on Canwest’s financial woes that he obtained the quotes in question personally.
The page 213 quote, he claims, was something Izzy Asper “told me when I was researching a book about him that was published last year.” Could Asper, often in the media spotlight, make the same statements to reporters again and again? Sure, but it seems unlikely he would use exactly the same phrasing each time.
I also encountered a paragraph almost entirely of my own writing, with only an occasional word altered.
On page 357 of Izzy:
On page 9-10 of my book, Asper Nation (2007):
One sentence was even reproduced word for word. It appears on page 357 of Izzy, and page 10 of Asper Nation:
Is this the best we can expect of someone of Newman’s stature? The Aspers may feel they got value for money in Izzy, but the rest of us might justifiably feel short-changed. The result seems more worthy of a desperate undergraduate than a legend of Canadian journalism.
Marc Edge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas and author of Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company.