Theatre critic, author and actor Jerry Wasserman is the winner of this year’s Max Wyman Award in Critical Writing.
The annual award celebrates critical commentary on the visual, performing and literary arts in the province of British Columbia. It is intended to honour informed and compelling writing that stimulates critical thinking, fosters ongoing discussion about the role of arts and culture in contemporary society and demonstrates the value of creative commentary in our understanding of the world around us.
The winner receives a prize of $5,000 and a gold and emerald pin designed by Vancouver artist Robert Chaplin. A mentee, named by the laureate, receives a $1,000 prize. This year’s mentee is Angie Rico, an emerging writer and media artist.
The award was established in 2017 by philanthropist Yosef Wosk to honour the career and lifetime contributions of the Vancouver author, arts critic and commentator Max Wyman. It recognizes writers who have amassed a significant body of work. Eligible subjects of criticism include the visual arts, architecture and design, theatre, literature, dance, music, film and television, as well as more general cultural commentary.
Wasserman began working as a theatre critic on CBC national radio in the mid-1980s and broadcast weekly reviews on Vancouver’s The Afternoon Show from 1987 to 2003. He has since served as theatre critic for the Province and, currently, the Vancouver Sun. About 400 of his articles and reviews have appeared in those papers; since 2004, his website, vancouverplays.com, has received more than 1.6 million visits. He taught English and theatre at the University of British Columbia for more than four decades and served as head of the department of theatre and film from 2007 to 2012. His acting resumé includes stage appearances for the Arts Club, Playhouse, City Stage, Westcoast Actors, New Play Centre, United Players and Western Gold Theatre, and more than 200 film and TV appearances, from The X-Files, Look Who’s Talking and Alive to I, Robot, Watchmen and The Last of Us.
The jury citation reads: “Jerry Wasserman’s remarkable career in many ways embodies the aims of this award. His decades as a teacher and as a performer give his writing about the theatre a sympathetic and thoughtful understanding that is expressed in language that is lively, direct and deeply informed. The jury was unanimous in its appreciation of the way he has encouraged and enhanced a wider appreciation of the richness of the Vancouver arts scene and the talents of those who make that richness possible – both through his print and media reviews and through his website, which is a consistent source of information and critical context on all things theatre in Vancouver.”
Wosk commented: “Jerry Wasserman’s voice has been a steady and trusted source of information and context about the Vancouver theatre scene for decades. He treats criticism and commentary as an integral part of the cultural fabric, and sees the role of the critic not as an antagonist to the performer and creator but as a collaborator. I am delighted that he is to receive this award.”
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Brighton Feldman has been named to the U-18 Canadian National Rugby Team for a tour in the Netherlands this summer. At the school-based age group, however, team members have to pay all their own travel expenses, so Feldman has started a GoFundMe page.
“Ever since I started playing rugby, I’ve wanted to wear the leaf on my chest,” he writes. “Now that I have that opportunity, I need a little help to get me there. I promise to work my butt off and come away with some wins. Any support is appreciated.”
Feldman is the son of Steve Feldman and Kristen Sandborn of Victoria, and grandson of Pearl Feldman of South Surrey, B.C. He is a graduate of Congregation Emanu-El Hebrew School and is completing Grade 12 at Royal Bay Secondary School in Victoria. He plays basketball and rugby for his school teams, as well as playing rugby for the WestshoreFC and, now, for Team Canada. He has previously played and captained the B.C. Bears provincial rugby team.
Next year, Feldman will be attending the University of Victoria, working towards a degree in physical and health education. At UVic, he will compete as a member of the Vikes Rugby Team.
On May 30, the Global Reporting Centre’s Peter Klein will give the talk Disinformation and Democracy. (photo from VST)
Emmy Award-winning journalist Peter Klein will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Making Meaning in a Time of Media Polarization conference, organized by the Vancouver School of Theology (VST). Klein’s talk on the evening of May 30 – titled Disinformation and Democracy – is free and open to the public.
Klein, a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, Writing and Media, also heads the Global Reporting Centre, an independent news organization based at UBC that focuses on innovating global journalism. His lecture will explore the role that disinformation plays in both confusing the public and in undermining journalism.
“Open information is central to democracy,” said Klein. “There is no open society without open dialogue. In the past, the challenge was simply to restrict governments from curtailing the media. That was a challenge in itself, but, today, there are so many forces of propaganda and disinformation, many much more subtle than dictators arresting journalists.”
The origins of disinformation go back a long way, Klein noted. He referred to a Jan. 24, 2018, message on World Communications Day from Pope Francis who spoke of the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis that created “fake news” to lure Adam and Even to “original sin.”
Klein will focus his talk on more contemporary efforts to lead people astray – from Germany’s Hitler to the Russian newspaper Pravda to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. He will first look at disinformation from a North American context, then provide several international examples.
The Global Reporting Centre recently competed a study on disinformation attacks on journalists, or what he refers to as a “special subset of disinformation.”
“Attacking the messenger is an old trick that people in power have traditionally used, but social media has made it so much easier to undermine the authority of journalists,” said Klein, who has served as a producer for 60 Minutes, created video projects for the New York Times and written columns for the Globe and Mail, among other publications.
“Publish a critical story about a politician or business leader, and there’s a chance they or their supporters will come after you any way they can,” said Klein. “What we found in our study is that those wanting to undermine media do so by attacking on basis of race, gender and a number of other factors, which vary geographically.”
Though social media is what Klein calls “the pointy end of the stick,” mainstream media has, sometimes through disinformation, become polarized, too, he said. The Dominion Voting Systems case against Fox News, ending in April when the network paid a $787 million US settlement, is a clear example. Fox had falsely claimed that Dominion manipulated the results of the 2020 American presidential election.
“Fox had to pay for this, but they’re still standing, and I don’t necessarily see much change at the network,” Klein said.
The latter part of Klein’s talk will examine ways to combat disinformation. A key element of lessening the problem comes down to “public sophistication,” said Klein.
“We’re awash in fake news, not just political but calls to your cellphone that the RCMP is going to arrest you because of unpaid taxes, ads for incredible deals on household goods that just need a small deposit to hold the item, and the classic Nigerian prince scheme. I think we’re getting better at spotting that kind of fake information, although people still fall for it on a regular basis – including me recently, when looking for a deep freezer. As the public gets more sophisticated, so do the scammers.”
The same holds true for disinformation, according to Klein, and people need to improve their ability to identify falsehoods. He spoke about the visit a few years ago to the Global Reporting Centre by a journalist who exposed that torture was being committed by Iraqi special forces fighting ISIS. Following the visit, an Iraqi graduate student arrived at Klein’s office and presented a video that portrayed the journalist as a fabulist and a torturer himself.
“It turned out this video was part of a disinformation campaign in Iraq meant to undermine his embarrassing reporting, but she fell for it. We’re all susceptible, but if we can be better educated about disinformation and better equipped to spot it, we have a chance to combat it,” Klein said.
“In many ways, we’re more powerful than those who are combating traditional heavy-handed censorship and attacks on media. My parents fled Soviet-controlled Hungary, where public dialogue that was not in line with the state narrative could get you tossed in jail. We have the agency to combat it,” he said.
Making Meaning in a Time of Media Polarization, which will be held May 30-June 1, will be VST’s eighth annual inter-religious conference on public life. Its participants will seek answers on how spiritual and religious leaders might proceed at a time when social media, politicians and some news organizations sow polarization and cultivate outrage.
“Under COVID restrictions, our society’s stress points started to crack. We saw bad actors use media and social media to divide people, and we saw innocent, well-meaning people get drawn in,” said Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies and professor of Jewish studies at VST, who is the conference director.
“Ideally, in spiritual communities, people learn how to live a meaningful life with others. So, we started to think about how religious communities might respond to a crisis in public discourse,” she said. “We designed a conference where media experts can help us understand the crisis, and religious teachers can help us respond.”
Author and former politician Michael Oren addresses the Jewish Media Summit, which took place in Jerusalem Dec. 19-22. (photo by Dave Gordon)
The Iranian threat, the new Israeli government, BDS, terrorism, and the challenges of aliyah, were just some of the discussion topics last December, at the fifth annual Jewish Media Summit, which took place in Jerusalem Dec. 19-22.
The nearly 100 attendees hailed from Israel and across Europe, as well as from South Africa, South America and North America, and included the Jewish Independent. Most panels and keynote addresses consisted of official spokespeople, politicians (incoming and outgoing) and organizational heads. The conference was organized by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Government Press Office.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Michael Oren spoke about one of his pet projects. Oren is a former member of the Knesset and the author of several books, including Ally: My Journey Across the Israel-American Divide.
Several years ago, when Oren was a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, he proposed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel have a blueprint leading into the state’s 100th birthday – Oren’s book Israel 2048 will be published in April.
To write the publication, Oren investigated different areas of Israel’s future: social, education, health and foreign policies; Israel-Diaspora relations; Palestinians, Arabs. “We found experts in every field. It was a tremendous undertaking,” he said. “I would not shy away from any issue, controversial, even explosive.”
About Israel, he noted “we don’t have sovereignty over large areas of our territory,” referring to the 60% of the country that is the Negev Desert. As an example of what this means in terms of governance, he said there’s no application of Israeli law regarding housing there and so there are some 400,000 illegal Bedouin structures in the Negev.
“But if I built a two-millimetre addition to my balcony in Tel Aviv, I have a police car there, within seconds, giving me a big ticket,” he said. Additionally, he said there’s “an inability to enforce [other] Israeli laws” there, so there’s no control over guns, drug or human trafficking, and polygamy is rampant, despite it being illegal.
Of concern, he said, is that more Bedouin are being influenced by Islamic extremism and the Palestinian narrative.
“It’s critical that the 2048 initiative is not the initiative of religious people, of secular people, of right-wing, left-wing, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim. It’s everybody together,” he said. “If you want Israel to have a second great century … we have to work on it. And we have to work at it by talking to one another, about real solutions.”
Oren spoke with the Jewish Independent about how he thinks Israel will ease challenges to aliyah.
“What shocked me is that large segments of the population are no longer interested in large-scale aliyah,” he said. “I couldn’t get people in Israel and [in the] Israeli government to be very interested in encouraging aliyah from France.”
The predominant reason for this lack of interest in welcoming new immigrants from France or any other country in the Diaspora, he said, is that Israelis are becoming increasingly angry at how the many costs of new olim (immigrants) are offset by the state.
“This is going to play out now with Russia and Ukraine as well,” he noted. “So, while everyone’s focused on the grandfather clause [of the Right of Return], I asked a deeper question: to what degree is aliyah still a central tenet of our raison d’être of the Jewish people? Because, from my perspective, if we are not encouraging large-scale aliyah, we’ve lost a big sense of why we are here. And I see this as a danger.”
The largest section of Oren’s new book, however, deals with the Palestinians. Oren said he was involved in one way or another with “every peace initiative since 1993.”
On another topic, Oren noted that Benny Gantz, then-minister of defence, proposed a solution to the Iranian threat: “force our international partners” into offering “military intelligence and diplomatic cooperation.”
“Our actions must be preventative, before it is too late,” said Oren.
On a tour of the Tz’elim IDF base, a 10-minute drive from Gaza, Gen. Bentzi Gruber spoke about the ethics of combat, stressing that the army makes enormous effort to minimize innocent casualties. In contrast, he said, only two Hamas rockets hit the base, while thousands hit civilian areas.
Gruber added that he fights a psychological battle, too.
“I fight all my previous wars every night in my sleep. My wife wakes me up when I’m yelling,” said the deputy commander of the IDF armoured division. “Every soldier that fought in a war carries the scars with them. If you killed a terrorist or a civilian, that never leaves you.”
The tour included a mini-Gaza mockup city, a training area for the Israel Defence Forces.
Kibbutz Nirim, a few hundred metres from Gaza, has been hit by rocket fire from Gaza in recent years. The kibbutz’s spokesperson, Adele Raemer, who addressed the United Nations Security Council in 2018, said the village had to build safe rooms, as residents have just a few seconds to get out of harm’s way. One terror tunnel discovered nearby was 75 feet deep, 1.1 miles long, and made of 500 tons of cement.
Still, she said, she “has nothing against ordinary Gazans,” and locals participate in Project Road to Recovery, where Jews shuttle Arab patients to local hospitals “because we care about our neighbours.”
President Isaac Herzog encouraged Jews around the world to fight the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement, whether espoused by foreign governments or the media, on college campuses or elsewhere. He commented on those who disagree with Israel’s new government.
“Israeli democracy is vibrant and strong,” he said. “The many voices that compose us do not point to the weakness of our democracy, but our strength. The rule of law, freedom of speech, human and civil rights, these have been and always will be the wall of our democratic state.”
In a non-political talk, Neta Riskin, who plays Giti Weiss in Shtisel, spoke about the surprise hit, which has run three seasons. At first, the show’s publicist told them “there’s nothing to work with” and it wouldn’t last, but word of mouth and good reviews bolstered the show, she said.
For her, Shtisel “has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with people – longing, hope and people’s desires. The cultural restraints of the show made it more interesting. No dead bodies. No sex.” She said she was pleased that women’s stories were also being told in the show.
Shtisel is popular in the Haredi community, with people watching it on their phones, according to Riskin. “The show managed to bridge an un-crossable bridge,” she added, noting how popular it was among all stripes of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world. His website is davegordonwrites.com.
Editors from three Canadian Jewish publications gathered on May 11 for a wide-ranging and passionate online discussion about the state of Jewish media in the country.
Yoni Goldstein of the Canadian Jewish News, based in the Toronto area, Bernie Bellan of the Jewish Post and News in Winnipeg and Cynthia Ramsay of Greater Vancouver’s Jewish Independent examined such topics as the economic viability of Canadian Jewish media, antisemitism, and the ability to balance an array of differing opinions within the community. All three publications have a long-standing history of Jewish journalism, with the Post and News and the Independent able to trace their beginnings to 1925 and 1930, respectively. (Though the JI started as a mimeo in 1925, the newspaper began five years later.)
Goldstein led off by explaining the recent manifestation of the CJN, which, founded in 1960, is the baby of the group. The paper closed in mid-2013 and again in April 2020, but reopened each time. The current version restarted in January 2021 with a reduced staff and a focus on online media.
When introducing his paper, Bellan noted that the Post and News readership skews to an older demographic yet endeavours to be as inclusive as possible. “With the advent of the internet, there are so many different news sources that it is hard to establish a clear identity for a lot of Jewish media,” he said. “You have to change with the times and know your audience.”
Ramsay, too, addressed the fine line between keeping established readers interested and also bringing in a younger audience. “We celebrate Jews in the community whether or not they are doing something specifically Jewish. We want to look forward and also respect the past. We try to be a window to the world and not be too insular.”
Moderator Bryan Borzykowski, the president of the CJN, next pressed the panelists on staying relevant in an age when connections to Jewish organizations are waning.
“One of the positive sides of the digital age is that you can dive in and see what sorts of stories people are engaged in,” Goldstein responded, highlighting the numerous subjects CJN offers in its podcasts, from politics to arts, sports to humour.
Bellan said he features newcomers to Winnipeg in his paper, whether they are from Russia, Israel or elsewhere in Canada. “We want them to know that the established Jewish community welcomes them and we want them to feel integrated in the community,” he said.
“As long as you are writing a paper that is in this moment and not dwelling on the past, then you are relevant, and your readers will decide that,” said Ramsay.
Borzykowski asked about revenues, particularly during a pandemic, which has challenged further the solvency of media in general.
“Most of our money still comes from advertising. For now, it is great because we are small, lean and we are able to ‘pivot’ quite easily. I don’t have to get OKs to do anything. And our community has been very supportive,” Ramsay said.
For the CJN there are three money planks, according to Goldstein: advertising, subscriptions and donations. The publication hopes to be able to provide tax receipts to donors in the future.
Bellan credited a loyal local subscriber base and an attachment that former residents of Winnipeg have towards the city as reasons that place his paper in an enviable position when it comes to sustainability. “There are probably more Jewish ex-Winnipeggers in the world than there are current Jewish Winnipeggers,” he noted.
Balancing the range of opinions readers have on issues, such as Israel, was the next phase of the discussion. Ramsay welcomes a diverse selection of views on the Jewish state, with the ground rule being the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. “We had to bring the readership along to the concept that you don’t have to be afraid if someone does not agree with you on Israel,” she said.
Goldstein brought attention to the number of reputable publications based in Israel, which, from the CJN’s perspective, would not be worth competing against. Instead, when the publication does run an Israeli story, it will likely have a Canadian connection, he said.
Bellan’s Post and News presents a vast spectrum of views on the Holy Land, from running pieces by a Palestinian scholar to a hawkish opinion writer, and Bellan stated that differing views on topics can contribute to the vibrancy of a publication.
When questioned about reporting on antisemitism, Goldstein said it could be seen as one of the key reasons for the existence of Jewish media in that it will cover the topic in a more sensitive and journalistically appropriate manner than the mainstream press.
Bellan said his paper has taken note of the recent increase in antisemitism, especially in universities, and has published a lot more articles on the subject of late.
Ramsay emphasized that, while acknowledging and dealing with the topic of antisemitism, the Independentdoesn’t write from a position of fear or panic, but rather one of pride in celebrating Jewish identity.
No present-day conversation of modern media would be complete without the mention of “fake news” and what responsible publications can do to prevent it.
“The challenge is to build trust with audiences,” Goldstein said. “You have to build your reputation as being honest and rigorous in your reporting.”
In Winnipeg, the anti-vaccine movement became a problem for Bellan as his main columnist is one of its adherents. Bellan’s response was to counter with facts and chronicle his own battle with COVID-19 without denying anti-vaxxers space in his paper.
Ramsay stressed the importance of fact-checking and sourcing material while, at the same time, providing room for as many views as possible. That said, she said she does censor material, such as that from anti-vaxxers, which could harm public health.
Borzykowski ended the evening by noting that the CJN is a national paper and touching on the possibility of collaboration between the CJN and local Jewish newspapers across the country.
Congregation Etz Chayim in Winnipeg hosted the event, with Monica Neiman supplying the technical support.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the national educational tour about the Holodomor began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far. (photo by Pat Johnson)
What constitutes a genocide? How many Ukrainians were murdered by Josef Stalin’s human-created famine in the 1930s? Would you stand up in a situation where lives were at risk – even if it meant you might become targeted?
These were some of the questions confronted by Grade 12 students of King David High School last week. A national educational tour about the Holodomor – the mass murder of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime – pulled into Vancouver, opening the eyes of young people to this chapter of history.
Beginning in 1932, the Soviet government under Stalin began a calculated, systematic famine in Ukraine, seizing all food sources, cutting off escapes for people fleeing starvation and implementing summary execution for the crime of stealing the smallest piece of sustenance. Farming was collectivized, creating catastrophic conditions. Political and intellectual elites were murdered.
Some details, including the number of Ukrainians killed, remain cloaked in uncertainty because, from the start, the Holodomor was deliberately hidden from the outside world through a comprehensive system of censorship and misinformation, as well as the complicity of media and other countries. Estimates of the number of dead range from seven million to 14 million.
Holodomor is a portmanteau made up of holod, starvation, and mor, death, meaning “death by starvation.”
The Holodomor National Awareness Tour consists of a bus-sized repurposed former recreational vehicle. Rather than a static exhibition through which participants walk, the vehicle has been retrofitted with a 30-foot screen down one interior wall and 30 theatre-style seats down the other, with interactive tablets that invite students to study and discuss in small groups before reconvening to share what they’ve learned with the larger group. A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the tour began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far.
The Holodomor was not an endeavour to kill an enemy, but an effort to restructure society, a form of social engineering at its most extreme. In September 1932, Stalin wrote to one of his lieutenants that Ukraine was restive. The Soviets perceived Ukrainians as being profoundly religious, individualistic, believers in private property and attached to their plots of land, making them unsuitable for building communism. Addressing these perceived flaws would require, according to Soviet leaders, an action so extreme that a word had not yet been invented to describe the intent.
The entire agricultural sector was upended by collectivization and resisters were murdered or sent to gulags, Soviet concentration camps. At first, remaining supplies of food sustained the Ukrainian people, but those reserves were soon depleted, while the Soviets extracted ever-increasing quotas of grain and Soviet wheat exports to the West grew. As the Holodomor proceeded, NKVD secret police were sent to search for and confiscate any remaining food sources. While those caught stealing or concealing food were executed, for millions more, fate was less sudden.
“Most of the victims died slowly, at home,” according to the narrator of one of the interactive films viewed by students. “Special NKVD units raided people’s homes to collect the dead bodies. They received 200 grams of bread for every dead body they delivered.”
Students examined the forces that allowed the Soviet Union to hide the reality from the world. For the Soviets’ part, there was censorship and the threat of retaliation for those who shared the truth. But their crimes were abetted by Western figures, including New York Times correspondent Walter Durante, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the USSR, even as he misrepresented the Holodomor. In one article, titled “Hungry, not starving,” Durante wrote that there is no actual starvation or death from starvation, though he acknowledged there was widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
Leading journalism figures from the time are brought to life through reenactments. British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting for the Manchester Guardian, reflected on being raised in a socialist household and how he was enthusiastic about traveling to the Soviet Union to report on the utopia being created there. When he saw the reality, he evaded Soviet censors by sending his dispatches home via the British embassy’s consular pouch.
One of the heroic figures of the story is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who risked his life to bring the truth from Ukraine. He convened a press conference in Berlin, on March 29, 1933. But the timing was terrible. The Soviets were about to launch a show trial against six U.K. citizens, accusing them of espionage in what would become known as the Metro-Vickers Affair.
In order to remain in the USSR and report on what promised to be a trial of global importance, journalists had to stay on good terms with the authorities.
“It would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine then,” one reenactor remarked. “So, none of us supported Jones.”
Lauren Shore is a student in King David’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 course. The class, created by teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, is delivered during lunch hour and, while students receive credit, they take the course in addition to their full complement of other classes. A province-wide genocide studies elective course is part of the new B.C. curriculum and will be offered next year at schools that opt-in.
Shore, with a partner, did a project on the Holodomor.
“Since there is a lot of debate on whether it’s a genocide or not, and how it was planned, we decided to focus on that,” she said. “We were focusing on the different steps of genocide [and] people were debating whether it was a genocide or not, since it wasn’t necessarily planned as exactly as other genocides were. As we looked into it, we found that it was planned just as much as the other genocides, just in other, more subtle ways.”
Solly Khalifa, also in Grade 12, was impressed with the interactivity of the Holodomor tour.
“I was astonished at how innovative it is,” he said. “They really get everybody participating and it’s very interesting and an easy way to participate also.”
Classmate Noah McNamara saw parallels between the Holodomor and the Holocaust.
“All genocides are kind of similar, in that it’s a governing body that takes advantage of their power to push a goal,” he said. “In the Holocaust, [it was] the Aryan race that they wanted to push. In this case, it was communism that they wanted to push. I think it’s important for us now to be aware of aggressive governments and governments that are trying to radically push things, because that’s definitely a precursor to genocide.”
Ava Katz, who worked with Shore on their Holodomor project this year, noted that studies of the Holocaust enforce the dictum “never again.”
“But I feel like sometimes that’s overlooked with other genocides,” she said. “Not a lot of people will say that. But when you really study other genocides in-depth and see how severe they are, it’s important that we never let any of them happen again.”
The cross-country tour operates with a shoestring staff. Alexi Marchel leads students though the experience. Kevin Viaene drives the bus and supports the program.
Journalist Jesse Brown takes a humourous look at his homeland in The CANADALAND Guide to Canada (Published in America), written with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki.
Jesse Brown has emerged in the last few years as an important voice in the Canadian media landscape, hosting popular podcasts on media and current affairs. Brown’s CANADALAND, which started as a single weekly podcast about Canadian media hosted by him, has expanded to include a permanent staff producing a full website and a roster of podcasts covering politics, arts, media and current affairs.
A former CBC documentary producer and host, Brown is most known for breaking the Jian Ghomeshi scandal in the Toronto Star with Kevin Donovan in 2014. But it’s Brown’s media startup and podcast roster that will likely make a more lasting mark.
Brown’s pugnacious self-assurance sometimes teeters on the edge of the obnoxious, but his dogged fair-mindedness mostly outweighs small annoyances. More importantly, his content fills a necessary niche: media analysis that lacerates Canada’s haughty self-image, provocative critiques of specific people and organizations, and deep dives into under-covered Canadian stories. The mixture of salaciousness and nerdiness create an alchemy that puts the listener in the thick of critical conversations in Canada.
In addition to the growing news organization, Brown hasn’t lost touch with humour, arguably the way that he gained some of his first public exposure, through elaborate jokes and pranks in his university years. His book The CANADALAND Guide to Canada (Published in America), with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki, came out this spring. It’s an irreverent rundown of Canadian history, politics and social mores, including a ranking of how f-able Canadian prime ministers are and a cover illustration of Drake tenderly embracing a moose.
Brown can easily pass as a generic Canadian. But he is a Jew – a fact he neither hid nor discussed until recently. In an episode of CANADALAND this spring, Brown highlighted his Jewish identity in a discussion with members of the Jewish ethnic press about being Jewish in public, given attacks on Jewishness from both the left and the right. The CANADALAND website has begun to cover additional Jewish media stories, including the circumstances of the recent resignation of left-leaning columnist Mira Sucharov from the Canadian Jewish News.
The Independent interviewed Brown recently to ask him about his business, Jewish media in general and his new book.
Jewish Independent: CANADALAND started as a podcast where you had a single weekly conversation with someone in the media. You’ve expanded. Is everything going as planned or are you surprised at the success of this project?
Jesse Brown: Wildly surprised. When I launched the crowdfunding campaign a year into the project, I was terrified I wouldn’t get to the first goal: $1,000 a month so I could keep making the show as a part-time job. I threw “$10,000: CANADALAND the news org/podcast network” up as a fantasy reach-goal. I never expected to get it.
JI: CANADALAND the book is on-brand in the sense that it’s an irreverent takedown of fusty Canadian tropes, but it’s essentially a comedy book, which seems outside of your core mission. How did this come about?
JB: If you’re going to stick a pin in Canada’s smug superiority and its convenient mythologies, I can’t think of a better way to do that than in an hilarious book of rude jokes with good cartoons. Anything else would be a grim slog.
JI: For CANADALAND the media startup, about $200,000 comes from subscribers and another amount from sponsorship. Is it self-sustaining?
JB: It’s totally self-sustaining from crowdfunding and sponsorships. It’s not my vanity project, not something I’m ever going to bankroll out of my private bank account.
JI: In a sense, it’s not so different from what the JI does (subscriptions and advertising). The product is available for free (online, at coffee shops), but some people still buy subscriptions to get it mailed to their door. But this and other newspapers continually struggle financially. Do you think your funding model is applicable to ethnic presses?
JB: Similar model, yes. Also similar to NPR, who pioneered the model of flipping “exclusivity.” Instead of paying for content that nobody else can have, people pay for content so that everyone can have it. Ten percent of our readers and listeners make it possible for everyone else. As for tips … podcasts are generally more successful than articles at inspiring support. It’s the intimacy of the medium, the relationship between podcaster and listener. So, you should make a podcast!
JI: Community papers need to balance freedom of speech and the financial reality that the people who pay for the product are usually older and more conservative than the ones who are getting it for free. Subscriptions are lost when something controversial is published, but nothing is gained from the people who appreciate the content but don’t pay for it. Do you feel any pressure not to cross certain lines because of audience or advertisers?
JB: Not really. We only take ad money from people we don’t cover and, as for our patrons, they are of no one political stripe. I’m mindful of what I say for fear of being dumb or wrong. I don’t mind offending people when I believe what I say and, generally speaking, if I lose one patron because they disagree with me, I gain another who likes what I said. Most patrons understand that they are funding an organization with many voices, that does important original journalism in addition to punditry, and that it’s not mandatory that they agree with me in order to support CANADALAND.
As for people not paying for a Jewish newspaper, the problem is that it’s a newspaper. If someone did something like Tablet [an American Jewish online magazine] in Canada and it was really good, people would pay for it.
JI: You don’t think our community is especially thin-skinned?
JB: I think smart Jews, of which there are many, value good debate. I think some older Jews are getting calcified in their opinions, are drifting rightwards as they age, feel like they are under siege, and see themselves as defenders of the tribe, not as people engaged in a good faith conversation.
JI: In the CANADALAND podcast “Being Jewish in Public,” you said that, because attacks on you as a Jew had reached a certain threshold, it wasn’t tenable any longer to be taciturn about your Jewishness in the media, and you wanted to foreground it in a discussion with a few people who explicitly talk about Jewishness all the time. Did something change for you after doing that episode?
JB: Yes, but I’m still working it out. I increasingly feel that the public discourse around all things Jewish has been abandoned by everyone except for those with radical positions: hawkish Zionists on the one side who are increasingly in cahoots with flat-out racists, Islamophobes and even neo-Nazis. And anti-Zionists on the other side, who decry Israel in absolute terms while, in my opinion, offering little in the way of viable solutions to the conflict. So, these two camps scream at each other and the rest of us have left the building.
JI: It sounded on that episode like you thought you were the only person who believes in Israel’s existence but has strong criticisms of the government. Do you really feel so isolated in your views, which are pretty typical for centre- or left-leaning Jews?
JB: I suspect most Jews feel the same, but we keep quiet because we don’t really know what to say. I don’t pretend to know what should happen in the Middle East, but I don’t like the way that extreme views from extreme people are increasingly defining not just the Israel debate, but Jewishness itself.
JI: Ezra Levant, another notable Canadian Jew, is also running a website media startup – The Rebel – which you talk about a fair bit on CANADALAND. Is the sparring between the two of you a symptom of a healthy rivalry?
JB: Ezra is not my rival. Nobody who funds The Rebel would dream of funding CANADALAND. Our business interests are not in conflict. We cover him a lot because our job is to cover the media and The Rebel is a media company (among other things) that is being ignored in large part by the big news organizations. They claim he is beneath their contempt or that they don’t want to feed a troll but, in truth, he is very litigious, he fights dirty, and they can’t afford to hold him to account. So we do it.
JI: How can you afford it?
JB: I dunno, maybe because we have less to lose? I don’t live in fear of a legal challenge from Ezra, and his doxxing and public mobbing tactics don’t scare me. I think he’s building a hate machine, I agree with the courts that he has no regard for the truth, and I consider his harassment and disinformation campaigns quite dangerous. So, I’m not sure what we’re here for, if not to scrutinize him and hold his organization to account.
JI: You just did a show recently about the newspaper bailout proposal suggested by a newspaper industry group. Under the proposal, it sounds like small community papers like us would be eligible but not web-native reporting startups like you. You’re against the proposal. Do you think there’s a way to subsidize news that would be good?
JB: Maybe, but I’m doubtful. I think various approaches would do some good for some people, but the overall effect would be terrible, for reasons explained on the show. But there are other things the government could do that would be very helpful; for example, removing the policies that inhibit charities from doing journalism. Nonprofit donor-based models would be a good choice for the ethnic press. And prohibiting the CBC from selling digital ads, but funding them well to do (mandatory) local news reporting online, which would be available for any publication to run or build on as free wire copy content – this would be a huge boon to small news organizations.
We make the most popular Canadian podcasts. We sell companies ads on them. We turn a small profit and pay our taxes. Meanwhile, the CBC is making podcasts with tax dollars and selling ads to the same companies that we do, and they can undercut us on ad rates because they don’t need the money to survive, as we do. I support a strong public broadcaster, not some weird commercialized but subsidized broadcaster that competes with tiny startups.
Maayan Kreitzmanis a PhD student in conservation biology at the University of British Columbia, who dabbles in editing, podcasting, and knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @maayanster.
The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, released on Jan. 26 by the Public Policy Forum, shines a light on the news industry in Canada, revealing it is reaching a crisis point as the decline of traditional media, fragmentation of audiences and the rise of fake news pose a growing threat to the health of our democracy.
When the PPF began thinking about a study on the state of the news media in Canada, in early 2016, the headlines were all bad. Within a fortnight in January 2016 alone, Rogers Media and Postmedia announced new rounds of staff reductions, Torstar revealed plans to close its printing plant, and Confederation-era newspaper titles in Guelph, Ont., and Nanaimo, B.C., were shuttered, the first of six daily papers to close, merge or reduce their publishing schedules before year’s end. The situation wasn’t much better on the broadcast news side, where revenues, especially in local television, followed the downward track of the newspaper industry, inducing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to step in.
A parliamentary committee was formed. News companies and industry associations queued up with complaints of inequities in the marketplace. The Government of Canada contracted with the PPF, a non-partisan and independent think-tank, to assess the situation and make recommendations on what, if anything, should be done.
“The question for Canadian policy-makers is not whether given news outlets are in trouble, but whether democracy itself has been placed at risk in the process,” states The Shattered Mirror. “To the extent public policy has a role to play, it should be focused on maintaining the flow of information essential to a healthy society and ensuring the development of the digital arteries of the new information system – not preserving the press as we know it. The digital revolution is real, but with it have arisen challenges: fragmentation, distortion and adjusting to new business and storytelling models.”
After six months of study and discussions with close to 300 people, the report proposes recommendations aimed at ensuring that the news media and journalists continue in their role as the watchdogs over elected representatives and public institutions, and the connective tissue within communities.
“This report is not about the journalists, with whom I feel great solidarity, but rather the role they play, and what we may be putting at risk if we are inattentive,” writes Edward Greenspon, president and chief executive author of the PPF and the report’s author. Greenspon spent more than 30 years as a journalist before joining the PPF.
“[Digital] platforms, with daily audiences 10 times larger than those of major newspapers or TV broadcasters, are not just the new intermediaries of the public square but control the commanding heights of the marketplace of ideas,” the report says. “Their models are based on truth neutrality. Moreover, they only give the appearance of being a common space. Rather, they calculate and reinforce the prejudices of the like-minded, who either assign themselves to echo chambers or find themselves invisibly assigned by algorithms into filter bubbles. Both run counter to the concept of the media as an agent of common understanding.”
The dominance of Google and Facebook delivers another blow to Canada’s main providers of news: the loss of revenue with which to fund quality journalism at scale. “They pocket two of every three digital ad dollars spent in Canada and, in recent months, have generated 82% of the ads served up with digital news.
“Google’s share of the Canadian digital market is almost 10 times that of the daily newspaper industry and 60 times that of community newspapers. A comparison of digital revenues for all newspapers and TV programs shows they bring in about one-seventh of the total of the two U.S. platform giants.”
One result of this inequity? “Since 2010, there have been 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers lost to closure or merger in more than 210 federal ridings,” notes the report. Small market TV stations have closed and many others, like surviving newspapers, have cut service and journalistic staff. Information supplied by Canada’s main media unions points to an estimated 30% reduction in journalism jobs since 2010.
Among the 12 recommendations are proposals for a new “local mandate” for Canada’s national wire service, The Canadian Press, ensuring there are more journalistic “boots on the ground” to supplement coverage of courts, legislatures and city halls; an indigenous journalism initiative to put more resources into communities and governments that are often overlooked; the launch of a service that provides much-needed legal advice to smaller outlets providing investigative and accountability journalism; and the creation of a research institute that would examine news and democracy issues more closely, including the distribution of fake news.
The report also calls for changes to Section 19 and 19.1 of the Income Tax Act to support civic-function journalism in Canada, whether by incentivizing Canada-centred news organizations to do more reporting or, for those that don’t, creating a revenue stream to support a Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund.
Three recommendations deal with CBC’s special role in Canadian news, including a call to relieve the CBC of the need to sell online advertising in order to promote production of civic-function journalism over chasing clicks.
Included in the PPF study is public opinion research by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, which conducted focus groups and surveyed more than 1,500 adult Canadians. Respondents “were very aware that ‘a lot of bogus and untrue news and information appears online’ (83%)…. Whereas seven out of 10 respondents completely or mostly trust their newspapers, radio and television, the figure drops to 15% for news acquired via social media.”
As chronicled by Craig Silverman, media editor of BuzzFeed, false news stories in the United States began to spike in August after the firing of Facebook editors, on top of the downgrading of material posted by established news organizations. Between August and election day in November, stories from hyper-partisan and hoax sources actually pulled ahead of real news, registering 8.7 million acts of engagement versus 7.4 million.
“While fake news takes just moments to make up, real news often requires days, weeks and even months of digging and verifying,” notes the PPF report, the title of which, The Shattered Mirror, pays homage to the 1970 groundbreaking Senate report on the mass media called The Uncertain Mirror. “Unfortunately, the state of the news media’s job in reflecting society back to itself is no longer uncertain,” Greenspon said.
“Never have Canadians had access to more information,” states the report. “But the capacity to produce original news, particularly of a civic nature, is severely constrained by the unsolved riddle of how to finance the cost of journalism in the digital age.”
The PPF media study was partially funded by Canadian Heritage and ISEDC (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada); the McConnell, Atkinson and Max Bell foundations; and four corporations, CN, TD Bank, Ivanhoe Properties and Clairvest Investments. However, the findings and recommendations are the PPF’s alone.
Greenspon concludes that Canada has already reached a “crunch point” in terms of the state of the news industry and its ability to fulfil its democratic responsibilities. “This report is meant to offer insight into the state of news two decades into its existential crisis, as well as ideas for how to respond,” he writes. “We hope it will stimulate a necessary debate and necessary action, while understanding no story is ever at its end.”
Teaching Racism, which looks at discrimination against Roma in the Czech Republic, is one of nine videos currently comprising the Global Reporting Centre’s Strangers at Home project. (photo from strangers.globalreportingcentre.org)
Shayna Plaut has long been concerned with the plight of minorities in Europe. Her doctoral thesis focused on the Roma, and she has gone back and forth to Central and Eastern Europe to advocate for migrants, refugees and minorities since 2001. She speaks Romani fluently and, during her phone interview with the Independent, words from the Romani and other languages came out of her mouth with ease, pronounced perfectly. Plaut is clearly someone who deeply respects the details and uniqueness of different cultures.
In January 2014, Plaut began work as research and project manager on Strangers at Home, a Global Reporting Centre initiative featuring short films by a range of talented people in Europe – filmmakers, writers, cartoonists, musicians, scholars, as well as average citizens. The film project was aired at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in April 2016, and had its Canadian debut at Simon Fraser University Harbor Centre in September. It will screen at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Nov. 19 during Media Democracy Days.
Most of the films are from the perspective of minorities – Jews, Roma, Muslims – but some are from the perspective of nativists who are acting out of fear of the increased presence of migrants and refugees. As the project website says, “Extremist voices are gaining political power, inspiring white Europeans to take to the streets to ‘claim back’ their place in Europe. As a result, millions of people in Europe are feeling like strangers at home.”
The nine videos, which can be viewed online, are rich and varied. Hate Poetry features Germans with “foreign sounding last names” reading hate mail, Queen of the Gypsies discusses how life has improved for Roma in Macedonia, Fascist Logic details the fear of immigrants felt by an Italian national, Teaching Racism looks at the discrimination against Roma in the schools of Czech Republic, Exceptionally Greek looks at the struggles of migrants in Greece, Hatschi Bratschi features a racist children’s book that continues to be a bestseller in Austria and Defending Russia presents the perspective of a paramilitary warrior in training to protect what he considers traditional Russian values.
Two videos deal specifically with Jews in Europe: Chasing Ghosts, by a non-Jewish cartoonist, examines the antisemitism present in Serbia despite the virtual absence of Jews, and Breaking the Silence looks at what the filmmaker sees as a conspiracy of silence about rampant antisemitism in Malmo, Sweden.
“We asked them, ‘What do you want people in North America to know about what’s happening in your country?” explained Plaut. “News coverage here can be sensationalistic, or overly simplistic. We wanted to hear from the people themselves, their stories. The way to do this is not to send another American journalist but rather to solicit the stories from the storytellers themselves.”
In Plaut’s view, the media jumps too quickly to simplistic narratives like “it’s 1938 again,” or lumps different countries with different problems together too quickly.
“Take Greece, for example,” she said. “The media is often quick to associate the rise of the right-wing with austerity, but we found Greek xenophobia to have more to do with deep cultural ideas about fears of impurity. When countries are portrayed in caricatures, that’s how they are engaged with. If diagnosis is incorrect, then the solution will be incorrect.”
Of the pieces that present the perspectives of nationalists themselves, Plaut said she was torn over whether to pay nationalists to present their views, but decided that, ultimately, it is important to hear their stories and understand where they are coming from as human beings as well.
“We can’t just write people off and say they are crazy,” she said. “People need to hear and understand that story, too. We can’t just shut off stories we don’t like.”
While the Strangers at Home project currently consists of nine pieces 60 to 90 seconds long, Plaut would like to see it expanded into 10-to-15-minute films comprising a feature-length documentary to go on the festival circuit, as well as being used online as an educational tool. Fundraising efforts are underway. For more information and to watch the videos, visit strangers.globalreportingcentre.org.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Israel’s Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make it illegal to distribute free newspapers. On the face, it seems an odd move. Why prevent the (literally) free circulation of ideas? On principle, it is worse. Democratic governments should not be getting involved in who can print news and how much they must charge to distribute it.
A nearly identical bill was defeated in 2010, and the target of both bills is Israel Hayom, a free-distribution newspaper that is owned by Sheldon Adelson, the mega-rich American casino owner and right-wing funder. Israel Hayom has shaken up Israel’s media and political scene, recently becoming the country’s most-read (or, at the very least, most-printed) newspaper. Critics see the paper as a shill for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and causes associated with the political right.
The Labor party MK who initiated the bill puts it another way.
“This is a bill in favor of pluralism and multiple opinions,” said Eitan Cabel, according to JTA. “It is a battle so that, in a few years, we do not become a country with only one newspaper. Sheldon Adelson wants to bury a market that is fighting for its life. Israel Hayom does not exist because of its success as a newspaper but because of the hundreds of millions in gambling funds that are funneled to it from overseas. Does anyone in this room honestly think that this is how a model for a normal newspaper looks? That this is how fair competition looks?” He assured the public, Israel Hayom “will continue to be published after the law comes into effect, and can even be sold for a symbolic price.”
He is certainly correct that print media is fighting for its life, and he is likewise correct in his implication that print media plays a crucial role in the diversity of ideas and information. But he is wrong to condemn the business model Adelson has employed. For one thing, in an ostensibly free market (society), the government should not be making arbitrary judgments about how a business funds its operations, even when that business is one as vital as the news industry, whose freedom is integral to the health of democracy.
The recent bill “would ban distribution of a free daily newspaper that is published six days a week and has at least 30 pages on weekdays and 100 pages in its weekend edition. The bill allows free distribution only for six months.” According to the Jerusalem Post, the text of the bill claims it seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” but the bill is impotent, its rules easy to circumvent. Even if they weren’t, the drowning out of voices is not the way to increase competition and free speech.
There are many threats to traditional newspapers – the internet chief among them and, if that hasn’t bled print dry yet, then neither will Israel Hayom.
A robust democracy requires a chorus of competing ideas and free-flowing public discourse – and not just for the sake of freedom. It is only on such a path that we can hope to find solutions to the problems we face, from poverty and illness to what form our news media takes.
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin probably summed it up most succinctly. “What is this?” he asked. “Since when do parliaments close newspapers? Are we Bolsheviks?”
It is heartening to see that, according to the Jewish Press, 77 percent of Israelis oppose the bill. Banning newspapers is not the way to save newspapers. Let’s hope that after the second or third reading, this bill ends up in the Knesset’s recycling bin.