The U.S. and Canada face different threats to information freedom

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Sean Spicer

U.S. press secretary Sean Spicer vs. the press

One sure way to stop a farmer from producing sustenance is to cut off his access to seed and fertilizer. The other is to eliminate the farmer.

Donald Trump has already begun to attack the seeds of an informed populace with a gag order on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that forbids employees from communicating via social media or to reporters on EPA activities. Similar restrictions have been issued in the agriculture, transport and interior departments. As Reuters reports, “all of the agencies affected by the actions have some input on issues related to the environment and have been involved in various efforts related to climate change, including effects on natural resources and human health.”

These moves are all intended to muzzle scientists in a way that Canadians know well from 10 years under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Not only did Harper forbid federal climate scientists from sharing data with colleagues and opinions with journalists, his government even ordered the physical destruction of decades of fisheries data that exist nowhere else.

Already, references to climate change, which Trump has described as a Chinese hoax, have been disappearing from White House web pages. As the new government attempts to rewrite the narrative in a scene straight out of 1984, groups like the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative are vowing to track every change made by Trump’s minions.

Last week “data rescue” volunteers — who fear a Trump government will attempt a Harperesque purge of scientific data relating to climate change and other issues that run counter to its “alternative facts” narrative — were busying scraping key government websites, copying data and moving it to European servers. As Trump was being sworn in in front of 7 billion people on Washington’s National Mall last Friday, the Quartz website reported a few dozen librarians, scientists, archivists and hackers were gathered at the University of California’s Department of Information Studies to protect government data involving everything from solar power to fuel cell research.

Initiatives like these may preserve existing data, but with the administration of agencies like the EPA and the department of the Interior being handed over to Trump appointees determined to cripple their activities, the world’s ability to track pollution and climate and its effects could be severely hampered. NASA, for example, has played a critical role in mapping global temperatures, carbon dioxide production and Arctic ice conditions. How much longer that will last under Trump is likely a matter of months, if not days, especially as he moves to slash the federal payroll.

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In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken the government’s foot off the necks of our scientists, but he does so at a time when Canadian media has been eviscerated by six years of massive job cuts at Postmedia newspapers. With 3,000 jobs slashed in six years — amplified with the Postmedia purchase of 175 English-language media outlets from Quebecor in 2014 — newspapers like the Montreal Gazette and Ottawa Citizen have become emaciated shells of their former selves.

This week Postmedia confirmed it will lay off nine more employees at the Gazette and six each at the Citizen and the Hamilton Spectator as part of its efforts to shrink its staff by an additional 20 per cent. This is the first time Postmedia has resorted to forcing out workers. Years of voluntary buyouts have emptied newsrooms so thoroughly that the people who remain are mostly hardcore survivalists, determined to be among the last to leave the ship, explaining why the latest round of buyouts failed to produce enough people willing to walk the plank. (Readers should know that I took a buyout from the Gazette in 2012.)

Some of the job losses can be attributed to declining newspaper revenues, but much of Postmedia woes can be traced back to a series of expensive acquisition plans that drove the chain’s previous owners, Canwest Media, out of business and its assets into the hands of U.S. vulture capitalists in 2010. Not content with draining the corpses of its 11 daily newspapers, the newly created Postmedia bought Quebecor Media’s English assets four years later, adding papers like the Toronto Sun and Ottawa Sun to its blood bank while further indebting the company.

The unprecedented concentration of ownership allowed Postmedia to merge the newsrooms of nominally competing newspapers in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, all while concentrating the production of its print products out of a single facility in Hamilton, Ontario. That’s where the bulk of content for “local” newspapers like the Gazette is now selected and edited, and ever-shrinking news holes for Montreal-produced stories are now the only major distinction between the Gazette and its cookie-cutter counterparts in the rest of Canada.

Although there are still some great journalists working at the Canadian papers like the Gazette, there are inarguably far fewer there today than just 10 years ago. The ones that remain are spread thinner and their value to the chain ownership is measured by their costs rather than the quality of their output. Buyout agreements from prize-winning reporters are snapped up with an eye to the bottom line instead of the byline.

So while the seeds of information in Canada may finally be out of the Harper shadow, the information farmers who can nurture the crop and bring it to harvest are on the brink of collapse. Postmedia has been trying to capitalize on its own cannibalization strategy by demanding tax breaks and increased ad buys from the federal government to make it more competitive, but all this would do is grant a temporary reprieve so that the chain’s hedge fund owners can siphon even more revenues from assets they have condemned to a certain starvation diet.

This factory-farming approach to mass media in Canada has stripped most of the nutrients from its products. It would be better to allow Postmedia properties to die out and make room for a new crop of independent media to take their place before offering a helping hand. If Ottawa agrees to tax breaks and increased ad support while the chains remain in control, it will be the equivalent of fertilizing the weeds. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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