A Eulogy for Sun News

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Ezra Levant, even after he challenged me to kiss a man in a mosque.

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Feb 18 2015, 6:42pm

VICE parliamentary correspondent Justin Ling appearing on Ezra Levant's show "The Source." Screenshot via YouTube

"I work for Sun News."

People shudder visibly when you say that.

It became a sort of party trick, like pulling a quarter from behind someone's ear, or drinking a jar of pickle brine. The reaction is the best part.

I usually qualified with: "well, I'm just a freelancer. They have me on for the sake of 'balance.'"

"Balance" was usually in air quotes.

But, despite the jokes at the network's expense, I've generally positive things to say about the doomed experiment in conservative TV programming.

And, yes, I'm sad it's gone.

Because despite some poor business, political and taste choices—enough to fill a book—the network was something different.

I first started going on the network as a guest of David Akin—the straight-laced reporter hired as a fig leaf, to offer some journalistic cover for the networks' other commentators; namely, Ezra Levant, Brian Lilley, and Michael Coren.

Akin's show was a breakdown of electoral politics from coast-to-coast-to-coast. That meant he followed contested nominations in Nova Scotia, provincial jockeying in Ontario, municipal politics in Vancouver, and so on. If you're were a political nerd, the show was like catnip. It was easily more interesting than watching lobbyists talk over each other on CBC's Power & Politics or CTV's Powerplay. (Read Akin's post-mortem of the network here.)

I also, twice, got invited to go on with the network's loveable blowhard, Ezra Levant. Once, he accused me of hating Christians, because I wrote a story about an anti-gay Catholic charity that was getting Canadian aid money. Another time, he challenged me to make out with a dude in a mosque. (I'm not sure at which point I became Levant's go-to gay guy, but I did.)

At first blush, Ezra's breathless tirades about me, and others in the so-called 'Media Party' felt just petty and overblown—he once, on air, called me an "anti-Christian fascist" living in "his gay bastion of Montreal"—but the nut of Levant's grievances got stuck in my craw. Is there a media party?

Having lived in Ottawa for nearly two years now, reporting on federal politics from my office on the third floor of Parliament's Centre Block, it strikes me that, yeah, Ezra may have had a point.

It's not that reporters and the Liberal Party are sitting around scheming about how to screw with those slack-jawed Conservatives. It's a simple fact that the majority of journalists covering national affairs and federal politics happen to be politically and/or ideologically center-left. Some tilt more left, some slightly more to the right. And, for the most part, that's okay.

But it means we're pretty oblivious to the fact that there is a huge number of people out there who don't share the values that most of us hold, to varying degrees. It's true for the left, too.

The current triumvirate of CTV-CBC-Global doesn't amount to diversity. It's three networks doing the same thing. So evidently there's a sizeable gap on both flanks.

Was that gap adequately filled by Sun? No, not really. But, hell, they tried. What they did succeed in, at times, was keeping the media honest. In the same way that Jesse Brown's Canadaland has forced TV anchors to think twice about taking speaking fees, or gossip rag Frank Magazine has pushed high-profile journalists to fear for their personal lives, Sun grabbed a hold of right-wing issues and clobbered the big guys over the head with them. For good or for bad, potshots from the underdogs make us self-examine and adjust.

That's what made Levant so useful. The media lauds Theresa Spence as a hero? Ezra does a show outlining some really legitimate concerns that've been voiced about the Attawapiskat chief. The media won't show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Ezra will, with great aplomb. The media reports on anti-fracking protests? Levant does a show on how, for the most part, the science behind fracking really isn't all that conclusive. (He also wrote a book about it, and sent me a copy. I still haven't read it. Sorry, Ezra, I'll get to it.)

Did Ezra's shows venture into a racist gray zone sometimes? Yes. And they shouldn't have.

I also did segments with Coren—who, when the network launched, was arguably the most unpleasantly homophobic newsman in Canada. Somewhere along the way, though, Coren had his come-to-Jesus moment and penned arguably one of the nicest apology letters that the gay community could really ever hope for.

After a few months of occasional contributions, Sun bigwigs offered me a contract and asked if I'd be interested in regular appearances: twice a week. And, lo, it was actually sort of fun. My regular host, ex-Rob Ford flak Adrienne Batra, is actually one of the more compelling TV news hosts in the country. Segments with her—and a rotating panel, usually involving arch-conservative Catholic crusader Faith Goldy, reporter Marissa Semkiw, moustached cartoonist J.J. McCullough and former Liberal brass Ray Heard—were actually pretty fun. (They called it the "Sun News Fight Club.")

When you block off some seven hours a day exclusively for discussion and debate, you actually manage to rile up some pretty good TV. You had libertarians debating social conservatives on whether it's right for the state to take kids away from anti-vaccination parents. You had free-market capitalists advocating for legalizing the sex trade, to the objection of nuclear family puritans. It was just about the only network where people were saying: hey, maybe the Toronto Star is going a bit too far in trying to take down Rob Ford.

The channel also had a disproportionately high number of women and visible minorities on as reporters, panelists and anchors. (Alas, not so much for its primetime programming.)

It wasn't always good, but damn if it wasn't interesting.

What went wrong
Evidently, Sun didn't work.

To hear the Sun folks explain it, everything came down to that damn CRTC. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission refused to give Sun News mandatory carriage — meaning that cable providers would have to beam Sun into every household, whether they want it or not, just like they do with CBC and CTV's news channels.

"Our CRTC arbitration decision with Rogers last year basically meant things weren't economically viable for [our parent company] Quebecor," one former Sun staffer told me. They were, after all, losing $17 million a year for the corporate bosses. And with the Sun chain being sold off to Postmedia, keeping the network made little sense.

The problem, however, isn't quite that simple. After all, Sun shares a heap of blame for running with a business model entirely reliant on a government tribunal decision.

The fact is, Sun was getting a terrible rate from the cable providers that chose to carry it. Several others refused to put Sun on TV altogether. Those that did gave it bad placement, and refused to push the network. That's due, in part, to the incestuous relationship between Canada's media oligarchy and the news outlets they own. There's little room for a new guy.

But it's also because Sun did a terrible job at attracting viewers.

Many would say that the network made their own bed, there. Their sometimes offensive and often outlandish squealing was what turned off viewers, figure those sneering at their demise, and that's what did them in.

That's a very nice, pretty picture, but it's more complex.

For one, Sun seemed to disregard all basic necessities for a TV news network. They covered virtually no entertainment or sports news. They recycled stories far too often. They did hardly any advertising. Their online strategy was virtually non-existent. They spread their reporters too thin. Their production values were bargain-basement.

A lot of their woes come from the fact that their directors — vice-president Kory Teneycke, specifically — were ex-political staffers. (Teneycke was a former director of communications for Stephen Harper.)

"This is what happens when you run a TV station like a political party," said one former Sun employee of the overarching mismanagement at the station.

The station thought nerdy political back-and-forths would entrance more than the few thousand it pulled in at any given moment. That was wrong.

And it spent a lot of money putting those talking heads on the air. (They paid me very well.) That meant they were taking money from production budgets. It meant that they became increasingly reliant on round-table discussions in the studio, as opposed to actually reporting the news. That's the one thing that the CBC-CTV-Global networks actually get right — they deliver the news, instead of just talking about it. ("We were doing something that no one else does but...should you?" as one former employee put it.)

I imagine the network also assumed that the Harper Government would look kindly on the network and offer them exclusive interviews and big scoops. That's certainly what the network's left-wing critics said — that the network was an appendage of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Even the Liberal Party believed that. During Justin Trudeau's infamous "boycott Sun" stint, the brass of the Grits were convinced that the Prime Minister's Office was behind some of Sun's more critical stories about the Liberal leader. (That, not Levant's comments about Trudeau's mother, was the main reason for the tiff.)

In fact, the Conservatives thought of Sun as a headache. While their interests may have aligned from time-to-time, Tory staffers often found Sun's bombast to be more annoying than useful. And on the occasions when Sun drove criticism of the Prime Minister from the right, it proved arguably more damaging than attacks from the left.

So the network never really materialized as useful for the Conservatives. The Liberals hated the thing. The NDP liked them, insofar as the network was sometimes friendlier than the old boys club reporters who were used to the two-party structure, but not many NDP-friendly voters watched Sun.

What was Sun left with? A political network that didn't appeal to any political party. A network with ideas and perspective may have played well with a good chunk of Canadians, but with such cheap and slapstick production value and programming that few could sit in front of the channel too long. A channel with some interesting and provocative personalities, but also with its fair share of grating and unlikeable caricatures.

It was a marriage of the Sun newspapers and right-wing talk radio — two of the most popular formats in their respective medium. It should have worked. It didn't. When it became obvious that things were in a nosedive, they needed someone to grab the controls and pull the thing up. Teneycke didn't do that.

So some very good journalists, panelists, hosts and technicians are out of the job.

But don't feel too bad. I'm told that the former staffers are being kept on payroll for four months. Some, maybe all, are getting severance on top of that.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.