On February 23, the 93-year-old New Republic announced it would shift from weekly to biweekly publication and that CanWest–Canada’s largest media conglomerate–would henceforth own a majority share and would expect the magazine to turn a profit.
Reaction was swift. Commentators, well-wishers and ill-wishers alike focused on the watershed moment of America’s second-oldest weekly going biweekly. The Internet, the argument goes, has changed the game; what role, if any, venerable print institutions like The New Republic will play in the future is an open question. The magazine assured readers it has a plan; the glossy new biweekly will be twice the size of the old weekly, and the website will be enhanced to keep the magazine in the daily news cycle.
While the new strategy may make business sense, its new ownership structure raises critical questions for the public sphere, questions that grew more acute when CanWest announced just four days later that it was instead buying the whole magazine. Independence has long been an important condition for journals of opinion dedicated to making a contribution to the national dialogue. It’s no accident that of the four main such US journals, three (The Nation, National Review and TNR) were independently owned; only the late comer, Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, is not–and so far he’s allowed the magazine to run at a loss.
Ownership of an opinion journal has always been something like a trusteeship, and it remains to be seen if CanWest feels that way or regards the purchase as just another acquisition. Whatever CanWest’s intentions, over time conglomerates have a way of working their will, of flattening and homogenizing opinion. That’s certainly CanWest’s track record.
Like most journals of opinion, The New Republic has almost always run at a loss, surviving with the help of wealthy benefactors. The magazine’s editor in chief, Marty Peretz–famously married to a Singer sewing machine heiress–has bankrolled the publication since he purchased it for $380,000 in 1974.
So why is the magazine being sold now? After some bad investments, Peretz sought additional backing for the magazine, and in 2002 he brought in two New York financiers, who implied they would support the magazine to the tune of several million dollars a year. One, Michael Steinhardt, decided he was too conservative for the magazine and by the second half of 2006 wanted out, according to J.J. Goldberg, who maintains ties to Steinhardt’s circle, and whose paper, The Forward, was also once supported by the retired hedge fund manager. Peretz didn’t have to look far for a new backer. In January 2006 CanWest had purchased a 30 percent stake in the magazine for $2.3 million. Now, they are the sole owners, although Peretz retains his title.
CanWest’s road to The New Republic begins in 1975, when Israel “Izzy” Asper started a single television station in his hometown of Winnipeg. When Asper died in 2003, he left behind a global media empire that includes film production, newspapers and broadcasting stations on four continents. Leonard Asper, who succeeded his father, has said he wants CanWest, a family-controlled but publicly traded company with about $2.9 billion (Canadian) in revenues, to become one of the world’s five-largest media conglomerates.
Clearly The New Republic represents a minuscule portion of the company’s portfolio. But according to the New York Times, Greg MacNeil, a consultant to CanWest who has acted as TNR “interim publisher” since November, says the company nonetheless wants the magazine to be profitable within three years. Most experts think this is a tough goal. When Leonard Asper made a presentation about his company’s upcoming purchase at a January TNR editorial meeting, John Judis–a New Republic senior editor who helped launch In These Times and wrote a book on William F. Buckley Jr. and his National Review–asked Asper if he was aware that “publications like ours never make a profit.” Judis says Asper reassured the staff that he liked the magazine, and that he wasn’t planning on trying to turn it into a cash cow.
But in the past, MacNeil’s efforts to bring profits to a series of highly regarded but cash-short Canadian magazines have resulted in a series of shuttered magazines. And according to a 2002 Globe and Mail profile, MacNeil is deeply involved in the editorial process of his magazines, bragging about his hand in writing headlines and even editing pieces. “I think I know what works,” MacNeil told the reporter.
Under Peretz, day-to-day operations of TNR have been carried out by the editor of his choosing; for the past year that’s been Franklin Foer. But with the new ownership, will Foer be answering to Winnipeg? That’s what happened to publishers and editors of fourteen Canadian dailies after CanWest acquired them in 2000. CanWest mandated that the papers, from Vancouver to Halifax, print national editorials written in Winnipeg.
CanWest’s position, both on the editorial page and in the focus of its coverage, was clear, says Arnold Amber, director of Canada’s Newspaper Guild, which represents CanWest staffers at the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and five other major dailies. “It is a right-wing philosophy, and right-wing coverage,” he says.
Charles Shannon, a copy editor at the Gazette, the only daily serving Montreal’s 1 million Anglophone readers, says, “One definite edict that came down was that there should be no criticism of Israel. And by that I mean not even a mild rapping of the wrist.” Shannon says he was instructed to change Reuters copy to reflect CanWest’s position. “The message that was passed down to the copy desk was to change ‘militant’ to ‘terrorist’ when talking about armed Palestinians,” he says. “It was a political change.”
The most significant demands were rolled back after a public outcry, or gradually ignored. But media critics and union officials say an atmosphere of editorial intimidation still exists.
Despite their company’s contentious editorial policies, the Aspers’ personal politics may be as difficult to pin down as those of Peretz, described variously as neoconservative, neoliberal and postideological. David Asper, Leonard’s older brother and chair of the CanWest-owned National Post, endorsed Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper in last year’s elections. But the Aspers have long been associated with Canada’s Liberal Party; in the mid-1970s, before starting his media career, Izzy Asper was an elected member of Manitoba’s provincial assembly, where he led the Liberal opposition to the province’s then social-democratic government.
But there’s one area where the Asper family and Peretz’s politics are clear and in perfect alignment: Israel, where the Aspers’ foundation has spent millions sponsoring community centers, schools and museums. In fact, CanWest papers have published op-eds by Peretz on the Middle East, perhaps signaling one more reason the company might be interested in owning TNR.
In the past, like many content-sharing conglomerates, CanWest has asked its writers to sign over global publication rights for their work. And no matter what one thinks of The New Republic‘s politics, the public sphere will suffer if it becomes just another content provider in the CanWest media empire.