The search for the real Matthew Fraser began last September with a phone call to the editor-in-chief’s office at the National Post. Fraser had left a shallow footprint in media circles up to his surprise appointment, at age 44, to the Post’s top newsroom job four months earlier. Nobody knew much about this guy who had suddenly become one of the most influential journalists in Canada. His success begged a profile.
“Mr. Fraser is too busy,” came the curt reply from Alexandra Macfarlane, his personal assistant at the time.
Will he be available at some later date?
If at first you don’t succeed, goes an old journalism adage, do an end run. I e-mailed Fraser, hoping to reach him directly. “Dear Adrienne,” replied the attentive Ms. Macfarlane on October 3. “Unfortunately, Mr. Fraser is not available for interviews at this time. Best of luck with your story.”
She wasn’t the only one who’d reject me and then wish me luck. I received that message again and again and again as I phoned and e-mailed my way through a long list of sources who might give me a better idea of what makes Matthew Fraser run.
Mark Stevenson, managing editor of the Post: “I’m too busy to talk to you.”
Alison Uncles, Stevenson’s predecessor: “I’m sorry I’m not able to comment. Good luck with your article.”
Jonathan Kay, editorials editor: “I can’t comment.” Even anonymously? “No, I’m sorry. I can’t comment.”
Terence Corcoran, editor-in-chief of the Financial Post. “Our contact – good, bad or indifferent – is just between us.” He added that he doesn’t like to talk about anybody.
Sarah Murdoch, associate editor of the National Post: “I’ve been talking to some of my colleagues, and we agree there’s no benefit for us to talk to you.”
Those are just snips from a tale of turndowns that spun from Christie Blatchford (“I’m not sure this is something I want to do…”) to Keith (“No comment”) Spicer, who was chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission when Fraser worked there.
Leonard Asper, chief executive officer of CanWest Global Communications Corporation, the media conglomerate that owns the Post and Global TV network, didn’t return my call. Neither did his brother, David, chairman of the Post and Fraser’s immediate boss.
The only Post person who talked to me for more than a minute or two was Gillian Cosgrove, who thought Fraser had refused to see me because my piece was certain to be a hatchet job. That would have been easy. Before his leap to the top, Fraser’s reputation, while sketchy (“He keeps to himself,” I kept hearing), was pretty negative. People saw him as an opportunist who rubbed shoulders with all the right suits in the ownership class of Canadian media. He was pompous and arrogant, a hothead who blustered against people and situations he knew little about. He was a pest who didn’t know when to stop needling. He had no time for anybody who couldn’t further his career. It was the reverse of the Jekyll and Hyde story, according to Antonia Zerbisias, The Toronto Star columnist who spent a season fighting with Fraser as co-host of CBC Newsworld’s Inside Media. “At the full moon, it was Jekyll who came out.”
But what about Fraser’s other side? The bright scholar who gathered post-graduate degrees – including one from the Sorbonne – like bowling trophies? The talented writer who has published three books, one of which, Quebec Inc.: French-Canadian Entrepreneurs and the New Business Elite is considered a seminal work in its field? The enterprising reporter at The Globe and Mail who made and kept great contacts? The charming lunch companion and boisterous one-of-the-boys? The wit with the perceptive eye for, and sharp insights into, business and politics? The tennis player who never questioned a call? These qualities came out as I struggled to get as balanced a picture of Fraser as I could. Here was a guy who could affect the lives and livelihoods of a lot of journalists at the Post and beyond, to say nothing of the course of Canadian journalism itself. What got him to that perch?
As we know, he wouldn’t tell me. Neither would anyone else in a position to know. So I tried looking at the circumstances of his success. Before his ascension, Fraser had three jobs. His main one was associate professor of communications in the School of Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University, while he moonlighted as a columnist for the Financial Post and co-host of Inside Media.
I looked at the column first. From 1999 to 2000, it was a tough-minded weekly look at the business and regulatory side of Canadian broadcasting, in which Fraser railed against the owners of the communications industry, particularly the late Izzy Asper and his Global television network, for using loopholes in CRTC regulations to build their empires. He agreed with the Friends of Public Broadcasting and its support for the CBC. “Global had built an impressive broadcasting asset in Canada,” he wrote in his second book, Free-for-All: the Struggle for Dominance on the Digital Frontier, “while giving precious little back to the country whose regulatory system had fattened its profits and financed its international expansion.” He slammed Global’s lack of Canadian content, calling it the “Love Boat network” and an “idea-free zone.” In October of 1999, Leonard Asper wrote to the Post criticizing Fraser for repeatedly and, in his mind, unfairly targeting CanWest Global. “Every time Mr. Fraser seeks to denigrate the broadcasting industry, he picks CanWest…. Perhaps Mr. Fraser could let us know what CanWest has done to deserve his persistent rage. He is so far removed from the industry that he shouldn’t be taken seriously, but nevertheless the national platform you have provided to him to pick his petty fights is something we would ask you to reconsider.”
By the summer of 2000, the prospect of a deal between Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. and CanWest Global to buy Hollinger’s Canadian newspaper chain was in the air, and Fraser was all for it. He argued that Izzy Asper “must now turn toward a ‘convergence’ strategy for CanWest Global, which is well positioned to leverage its powerful television network to seek synergies in multi-platform deals with other Canadian media groups. A more logical alliance for Global would be Hollinger Inc.” That fall, in a $3.2-billion deal, CanWest Global bought Hollinger’s 14 big-city dailies, 126 smaller papers and half of the Post (it would acquire the other half later).
But Fraser didn’t just buy into convergence. “At CanWest Global,” he wrote, “CEO Leonard Asper must feel unfairly treated by the regulators.” What Fraser described less than a year earlier as CanWest’s “tentacles” had now become “well-plotted acquisitions.” He turned on his friends at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, claiming spokespersom Ian Morrison, and his wife, Pauline Couture, had a conflict of interest and were not acting in the interest of the CBC. At the time, Couture was involved in a lawsuit with the Aspers.
Through 2001, as the convergence dreams of Bell Globemedia and others fell apart, Fraser insisted that CanWest’s strategy would hold up, referring to it as a “smart money merger.” To him, CanWest was a model of how a conglomerate should work. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone apologize for the owners of the communications industry so vigorously as Matthew Fraser has done in his column,” a prominent business columnist told me.
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In early 2002, Fraser interviewed the man he’d been lauding for the past two years. This was before Inside Media, when he was hosting a cable show on the i channel called i on media. His guest was Izzy Asper, chairman of CanWest Global and patriarch of the Asper clan. Asper was there to defend his national editorials and Fraser was there to give him a platform.
It was well known that CanWest had a draconian attitude toward its employees. Nobody at the Post or at CanWest’s 14 other major market dailies would forget the brutal tactics the company used to put down a newsroom uprising at the Montreal Gazette last year over CanWest’s national editorials. (This past February the Gazette finally reached an agreement with the Montreal Newspaper Guild that allows its reporters to speak out against CanWest without fear of reprisal.) Many Gazette journalists withheld their bylines and 77 of them signed an open letter condemning the must-run editorials as undermining local autonomy. Immediately, a “Reminder/ advisory to all staff” from management went up on newsroom bulletin boards. It reminded them of their obligation “of primary loyalty to [the employer],” and warned they could be suspended, or even fired, for revealing confidential information about the company and its owners or engaging in gossip or speculation.
David Asper, whom a group of Gazette writers called the “ideological pitbull of the Asper clan,” weighed in with a speech denouncing the protesters as childish and accusing them of leaking inside information to competitors. “If these people in Montreal are so committed, why don’t they just quit and have the courage of their convictions. Maybe they should go out, and for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is and start their own paper.”
“David Asper has come to my attention,” wrote the late Dalton Camp, “because of his remarkably abusive oratorical style, which is striking for its bullying tone. The most common kind of bully is the bullying son of a rich man. The world, alas, is full of them.”
But on Fraser’s i on media cable show, there was no need for the rich man to bully anyone. Throughout the hour-long interview, Fraser lobbed soft questions across a kidney-shaped coffee table and called his guest Izzy. The discussion touched on everything from the Hollinger buyout to Asper’s days as a Liberal politician. Still, he kept a professional distance. Some highlights:
“At what moment did you decide to get into broadcasting and get out of politics? What light bulb went off in your head?” Fraser asked.
“Good, very erudite question,” Asper responded with a flash of teeth. “I should never have gone into public life [but] I’m very glad for the experience I got. It really told me… how the world works… but I did not enjoy it.”
Later, Fraser asked about the critics who charge that Global has no quality Canadian programming.
“That’s a media myth,” Asper replied. “We do not broadcast, never have from day one, one minute more American programming than CTV does. And the rebuttal to that myth is that not only do we not run any more, we spend more money, proportionate to audience, on quality Canadian programming, drama, children’s programming and variety programming than CTV does.”
Fraser, who didn’t question Asper’s use of CTV as a model for quality Canadian programming, went on to ask about the CRTC. “Is it irritating to genuflect in front of regulators?”
“In the U.S., in Australia, in New Zealand, in Ireland, wherever we are, license renewal is automatic. You don’t have to bow and scrape and yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. It’s automatic. You write a letter. The whole license renewal situation in Canada is utterly archaic.”
Fraser asked how Asper saw himself as a media baron.
“I’ve often said that if you’re a press baron it doesn’t bring you any new friends, it only brings you a better class of enemies.”
Then Fraser got to the heart of the interview: national editorials. Asper’s critics, he said, “are beating you up about editorials and so forth… Do you think it has been concocted by the Toronto media?”
“When we bought,” Asper said defensively, “I said, of course, we intended to make our point of view heard. That’s one of the joys of being a publisher-in-chief… So we’re not doing anything we didn’t forecast and we’re not doing anything close to what the blind, one-eyed critics are saying we’re doing: threatening freedom of the press, ordaining censorship. That is just utterly misguided, and deliberate in some cases, mischaracterized garbage.”
“I can’t wait to write my next column, Izzy,” Fraser said and cut to commercial.
One year later, Fraser got a letter from Izzy Asper. It was a long letter of condolence in which Asper offered his sympathy on the death of Fraser’s wife, Rebecca Gotlieb, of cancer. “Izzy was at his Palm Beach residence at the time,” Fraser later wrote, “and he insisted that I come down to get away and reflect on the meaning of life. At first I balked at his invitation. But Izzy kept insisting, so a couple of weeks later I got on a plane and flew down to Palm Beach.”
(The account of his visit was part of an in memoriam Fraser wrote in the Post after Asper’s death on October 7, 2003).
“Izzy and his wife, Babs, welcomed me affectionately and put their magnificent beachfront estate at my disposal. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Izzy had already planned, and was ready to orchestrate an entire program to cheer me up.
“One day, we jumped in his vintage Mercedes and Izzy gave me a guided tour of Palm Beach’s most opulent mansions. We stopped in front of the resplendent residences of Conrad Black, Gerry Schwartz, and assorted American plutocrats whose names escape me.”
“In the evenings, Izzy and Babs took me to posh restaurants where Izzy recounted, with great flourish, hysterically funny details of his greatest triumphs and setbacks. Later in the evening, back at the Asper estate, Izzy and I sat up drinking until the small hours of the morning. As the brandy flowed generously, Izzy chain-smoked and told me more hilarious stories about his zany escapades in business and politics.”
“You were the perfect guest,” Asper told Fraser at the visit’s end
On April 30, 2003, CanWest announced that founding editor-in-chief Ken Whyte and deputy editor Martin Newland, the two defining figures of the Post, were fired. They were replaced by David Asper, as chairman of the Post, and Matthew Fraser as editor-in-chief. They were given three years to turn around a publication that was losing more than $20 million a year and showed no signs of staunching the bleeding.
Within two months of the announcement, a stampede of name writers had quit the paper. Gone were the marquee columnists Blatchford, Mark Steyn, David Frum and Paul Wells. There were other defections – Scott Feschuk, Robert Benzie, Mark Hume, Derek De Cloet, Maria Jimenez, Susan Delacourt among them – but not all of them were running from Matthew Fraser. Some left as a gesture of loyalty to Whyte and Newland, who had put together a quality newspaper with a quirky, cheeky style that they loved. Others, like Wells, who epitomized the style, were fussy about whom they’d work for. Wells had a list of preferred names. Fraser wasn’t on it.
Had he known Fraser would continue to put out Whyte’s paper, Wells might have changed his mind. For the new editor-in-chief has altered little since he’s been on the job. The Post has a new slogan, “Your Canada, your Post,” which reflects a mellowing of the anti-Canadian tone that hurt the paper’s readership and credibility. Otherwise, the formula of celebrities, sex and intriguing trivia remains unchanged. And, of course, the Post retains its role as the voice of Canadian conservatism, with the spun polls to prove it.
Some media watchers, such as Carleton University journalism and communication professor Andrew Cohen, say it’s too soon to judge Fraser’s performance. Others see Fraser’s sticking to the status quo as a welcome thing. “The good news is he hasn’t wrecked the paper,” a longtime journalist tells me. “It has really held up well, given the rather devastating nature of the sudden firing of the two people, the guys who founded the paper and put their personal imprint on everything. In their absence, Fraser steps into what I thought was a terrible void… and on that basis, I would say he’s done really well. The quality of the paper has been maintained.”
Others see some slippage. Donna Logan, director of the school of journalism at the University of British Columbia, feels that the quality of writing has dropped since the exodus of star writers such as Blatchford and Steyn, and she doesn’t think the present writers can make up for them. She may be right, given that they’ve been replaced on the op-ed page by the likes of Colby Cosh, a graduate (like Whyte) of the Ted Byfield school of journalism, and Ann Coulter, the she-wolf of the American right who once wrote that she wished Timothy McVeigh had chosen to blow up The New York Times instead of an office building in Oklahoma.
Christopher Waddell, another Carleton professor, sees an increase in CanWest shared stories, especially out of Ottawa. He believes this kind of boilerplate will ultimately lead to a decline in quality stories across the board.
As a caretaker editor – so few changes have been made, maybe curator is a better word – Fraser has kept faith with the Asper’s main concerns: the health of private television operators, lower taxes for rich people and unquestioning loyalty to the State of Israel. One of Fraser’s few innovations – CBC Watch, which invites readers to complain about bias at the public broadcaster – is itself open to accusations of bias in favour of the first Asper concern. “If Fraser were hit by a bus today,” a prominent writer told me, “his legacy would be CBC Watch, which is a standing insult to ethics because it has no disclaimer about Post ownership by a CBC competitor.”
The Post is clearly in the service of CanWest Global in another way. “It’s a crime,” the writer said, “the gushes they print about Global shows.” He pointed out that the Globe, though owned by the same company that owns CTV, doesn’t go in for that kind of self-serving programming.
Still, to Fraser’s credit, the Post remains recognizably the Post, the paper whose editorial verve since its birth in 1998 has challenged the other major papers to get better or get out of the way. Unfortunately for the Post, they got better.
As for Fraser, he barely considers himself a public figure – and that’s the way he wants it. Last February 6, I wrote him an old-fashioned letter and sent it special delivery. In it, I again asked for an interview “in the interest of getting all the facts correct and in order to do your career the most justice.”
On February 11, he replied by e-mail. “I do not give interviews,” he wrote in part, “except on issues concerning the media industries – and, recently, on the subject of my latest book. I sometimes speak publicly on behalf of the National Post, but I do not give interviews about myself.
“You should not feel singled out, as I have consistently turned down all interview requests by journalists wishing to write profiles of me. I am indifferent to whether a proposed article might be positive or negative; I simply do not give interviews.”
In that case, let me give the last word to Zerbisias, Fraser’s erstwhile sparring partner on Inside Media. Besides his lack of preparation and constant retakes, another thing that bugged Zerbisias was Fraser’s attitude toward the people who served him. He made no effort to learn the names of the crew or even that of the woman who did his makeup. “There was no point,” Zerbisias explained, “in sucking down.”