Riding with the Right
Can a magazine that serves up so much controversy and attitude really do serious political journalism? The rowdy boys at the Western Standard say yes. Critics aren't so sure
The poster is everywhere in the offices of the Western Standard-in the foyer, in the coffee room, beside individual cubicles and on the walls by the office of Ezra Levant, the magazine’s publisher and co-founder. Professionally done and beautifully rendered, it could be mistaken for actual advertising for The Sopranossecond season DVD box set. Up close, the faces of Jean Chrétien, Jean Brault, Alfonso Gagliano and a somewhat bewildered looking Paul Martin are as clearly discernible as the heads on Mount Rushmore, sitting atop a stylized logo proclaiming The Librano$ in all its politically incorrect glory. “I love that poster,” says a grinning Levant. “It’s so beautiful. I have it wallpapered all over my bedroom at home.”
Based on his reputation, you wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. You might, however, be surprised that Levant himself isn’t a larger-than-life western caricature, a cigar-chomping Bunyanesque lumberjack wearing a stetson and drinking mug after mug of steaming hot crude. Instead, what you get is a stocky, dark-haired, bespectacled, 34-year-old man with a gregarious personality and an interesting lisp that accentuates his enthusiastic always-politically- on comments.
Levant bounds out of his office past the poster and the mezuzah affixed at an angle to his doorframe, sporting a white shirt, black slacks, shiny black shoes and a natty bow tie. Noticing the glances he’s receiving for his tie – also affixed at an angle on his collar – he smiles boyishly and starts into a bit of the political comic relief he’s famous for. “There are two things bow ties are usually associated with,” he explains. “The first is U.S. senators, especially southern ones. The second is journalists.” Like Tucker Carlson, for example? “I don’t know,” he jokes skeptically, “he wears his as a bit of an affectation.”
Critics of the magazine have dismissed the Standard as one big right-wing affectation – indeed, stunts such as The Librano$ tend to detract from the notion of “serious political journalism,” whatever that means. On the other hand, there’s no denying that the Standard has done some interesting things with the medium, extending its content and political agenda beyond its glossy eight-byeleven inch confines. It has established a strong presence in the Canadian conservative blogosphere, with its website and lively The Shotgun Blogreceiving over one million unique hits per month. It’s on the airwaves with Western Standard Radio, a talk-radio show co-hosted by Levant and Grant Farhall, which, combined with four other shows, gets an estimated 80,000 listeners a week. And it continually revels in its self-styled identity of brazen political incorrectness by cranking out gimmicks that elicit chuckles from the right and sneers from the left – from the poster, derided as racist by former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Joe Volpe, to the buttons excoriating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“It’s the Stupid Charter”) during the 2005 federal Conservative convention to the annual cruise that features prominent wonks on the Canadian right talking politics over crab legs and sunning their pale skin in the sun.
The Standard has gained a respectable following since the first issue rolled off the presses in March 2004, claiming a circulation of 40,000 and a readership of 240,000. Compared to its left-of-centre competitor, The Walrus (circulation: 56,000), that’s not bad at all. Levant makes no bones about his mission: to provide a counterweight to what he calls the country’s “mushy, left-wing, politically correct media” and to forcibly insert the views of Red State Canada into the national news narrative. In two years, the Standard has certainly delivered on that promise, covering stories and issues of interest mostly to western conservatives – from the federally imposed environmental programs to warning shots fired by western separatists to raising the spectre of the infamous national energy program. The result is everything a central Canadian would expect it to be – a provocative news-and-views publication that is pro- West, pro-conservative, pro-Christian and, in Levant’s own words, “pro-beef.”
But to attain the golden grail of “serious political journalism,” a magazine has to have a greater impact on national political discourse over and above its actual circulation and niche readership. There’s an idea that through the savvy use of the medium a journal can punch above its own weight in political thought. American publications like The Nation and Harper’s embody this phenomenon on the left of the political spectrum, The National Review and The American Spectator on the right. The Standard is a cocky new entrant in the arena that just might be the voice that helps shift the Canadian political landscape towards the right, from the right.
Kevin Libin, the 34-year-old editor-in-chief of the Standard, leans back against his own doorpost, placidly observing The Ezra Show with a look of amusement. He’s as low-key as Levant is naturally brassy, which is a good thing: he provides journalistic focus that counterbalances Levant’s energy.
The Levant-Libin duo goes back to the early 1970s, when they were members of the small Jewish community in Calgary. “We went to the Jewish day school together,” recalls Libin, “and there were like ten kids in our class. It wasn’t exactly a big group.” He says Levant’s political zeal can be traced back to his father, Marvin, a Calgary radiologist. “Ezra was certainly more political than your average child,” Libin says. “He used to live in the country, and his dad would drive him to school in the morning. They’d listen to the CBC on the way, and his dad would discuss politics with him.”
In class, Levant was never embarrassed to show his allegiances, pouncing at an opportunity to savage the Liberals in a Grade 5 drawing assignment. “We had to draw something to do with current affairs,” Libin says. “Ezra drew this picture of Pierre Trudeau as a bird of prey – the head was Trudeau, the body was a bird with its talons sunken into planet Earth. It was 1982, right about the time of the national energy program, so,” he says with a chuckle, “that’s probably one of the things they were talking about on the way to school.”
It’s that unapologetic tone that defines the Standard. “Strident, partisan, relentlessly regional” is how Graham Fraser, a columnist for The Toronto Star, describes the magazine, likening it to Ted Byfield’s ultra-conservative Alberta Report, the Standard‘s predecessor. “That is Ezra’s style,” says Fraser, “and from what I’ve seen, it follows in the footsteps of the Byfields.” But while Levant’s political enthusiasm may set the tone, Libin is the arbiter of all editorial issues. He’s the one who scans the news, picks the important stories, fields the proposals from writers, rewrites articles when needed and composes the provocative headlines. His mission: to provide a fortnightly news and opinion magazine that appeals to western Canadians – something he says is sorely missing in mainstream Canadian media.
Still, it’s hard to believe that Levant’s history as a political backroom operator doesn’t seep into the Standard. But he insists that his role is publisher, not journalist. “My own partisan background is certainly interesting,” he explains, “but it’s not a defining component of our content. It’s fair to say that there is zero correlation between who I was allied with or worked with or worked for and what we write in the magazine.” A pause. “Well, not zero correlation. Because we often criticize people who were my political friends, and we sometimes praise people who were my political foes.”
If Libin is the head and hands of the magazine, Levant is its heart, pumping to the beat of the hard right. That beat has always manifested itself in what Levant calls “a revolving door between politics and the media,” even when he worked as a reporter for the Alberta Report, wrote columns for the Calgary Sun and served for two years on the editorial board of the National Post. He’s also been extensively involved in party politics, as a member of the old Reform and Canadian Alliance parties and a supporter of Ralph Klein during the Alberta premier’s early days. “I’ve known Ezra since 1992,” recalls Don Martin, political columnist for the Post and theCalgary Herald. “The first time I saw him, he was chanting ‘Ralph! Ralph! Ralph!’ when Klein was announcing his first election campaign. He’s been rooted in fiscal and social conservatism for a long time.”
After the 2000 federal election, Levant signed on as director of communications for Stockwell Day, the former leader of the former Canadian Alliance and current Minister of Public Safety. While displaying his marketing savvy during Day’s campaign to become prime minister – Levant was the man behind the catchy Stock-a-holic moniker – it was, by most accounts, a failed tenure. “A very short and gaffe-plagued reign,” says Martin, “He was just in way over his head. He couldn’t handle his staff, morale was terrible, his timing was awful. He basically sent Day down the tubes.”
Levant had always had aspirations to sit in Parliament, which led him to seek and win the federal nomination for the Calgary Southwest riding in 2002. But internal forces within the Alliance were against him, erupting into messy battle for the riding between him and the current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. After initially refusing to resign the nomination, Levant stepped aside under vocal pressure from party bigwigs and grassroots voters, adding even more colour to his political history.
Four years later, Levant seems to have left behind the rough-and-tumble life of partisan politics. Does he miss it? “Surprisingly no,” he responds. As proof, he cites an agreement that he signed willingly with one of the magazine’s largest investors that specified Levant would not run for public office for the next five years. “I understand why they wanted me to do that,” he says. “They saw I had politics in my blood.” But he’s adamant that the siren call of the new Conservative government won’t lure him back to Ottawa. “I wouldn’t even dream of it,” he declares, “at least not until the magazine is big and strong.”
Publishing the Standard seems to have tempered Levant, oddly enough, by shifting him even farther to the right. He’s learned some hard lessons, and now he applies his energy to an environment that is more controlled, focused and far more ideologically consistent. “This job has all the satisfaction of partisan politics,” he says, leaning back into his chair with a satisfied grin. “We’re still talking about the issues and shining light on things that need to be given scrutiny.”
That includes the Conservative Party itself. In a stroke of irony, Levant has parlayed his current non-partisan status into what he considers an important role for the Standard as a watchdog of the right. While Prime Minister Harper slides towards the middle and backslides on issues like abortion and Iraq, the Standard is more critical of the federal Conservatives than you would suspect. “We’ve become a loyal, friendly, sympathetic critic of the Conservative Party,” he claims. Levant himself is not a member of the party, having given up his Alliance party membership to start up the magazine, “and that allows me to thoughtfully criticize the Conservative Party from the right.” He pulls out a special souvenir edition of the Standard, distributed at the Conservative Party’s convention in Montreal in March 2005. “We had a hospitality suite where they handed these out. The theme of the edition was: Is the Conservative Party going too close to the centre? Are Conservatives too afraid to stand up for principles?” He shakes his head. “That’s not a love-in. And that’s my freedom. If I were an MP, I’d be whipped – I’d either have to accept the party line or quit the party. Here, I can be true to our core values.” And, presumably, true to his.
The Western Standard emerged from the pile of spent shell casings that was Ted Byfield’s Alberta Report. During its colourful twentyfour- year run, the Report faithfully reported news and views with an ultra-conservative, pro-Christian, pro-life mandate, becoming the rallying point for all the rage and anger and grievance during Trudeau’s national energy program, reporting the every move of the Reform Party, and continually hammering away at the enemies of the West and God Almighty.
But while the magazine – disparagingly termed “Alberta Distort” by some wags on the left – was completely frank about its political bias, the years matured it into a quality publication, earning plaudits from readers across the political spectrum. It’s something the Standard has yet to achieve, according to critics like Brian Laghi, The Globe and Mail‘s Ottawa bureau chief and former western Canadian correspondent, who was a faithful reader of the Standard‘s predecessor. “I thought it was a pretty decent and effective magazine,” he says, admitting that his fondness for the Report colours his opinion of the Standard. “What I used to like about Alberta Report was its focus on news stories – something the Standard lacks. It used to delve into nooks and crannies to illuminate the day-today lives of people…even if it was kind of one-dimensional.”
Despite its reputation, Alberta Report, which became simply The Report after merging with its two other editions, B.C. Report and Western Report, folded in the summer of 2003 under the rocky steerage of Byfield’s sons, Link and Mike. Its demise elicited an outpouring of nostalgia in the province – more a reflection on its contributions to Alberta heritage than endorsements of its politically incorrect, fire-and-brimstone declarations. But it also precipitated a sense of satisfaction from elements of the Canadian left – at least according to Levant. “It felt as if someone was saying, ‘Oh, good, I don’t have to debate any more! Ha! Your ideas are obsolete, the market just proved it! Ha ha! Sweet irony, that!'” He leans back in his chair and snorts. “One should never celebrate the demise of another voice in the debate. Either you challenge or rebut that voice.”
At the time, Levant was busy with his law practice, but his impression of smug lefties laughing at the corpse bothered him. “I felt this gnawing inside,” he admits, “so I drove up from Calgary to Edmonton to meet with some of the old editors and writers. What struck me was no one was being the entrepreneur; no one was saying, ‘Here’s the plan, here’s the money, here’s the talent, put it together, make it go.’ It dawned on me, to my regret, that no one was going to do this if I didn’t do it.”
Nineteen other right-minded Canadians rose with Levant to pick up where the Report left off, a group he calls “conservative ethical investors” – ideologically driven backers who wanted a financial rate of return, but who were willing to receive a lower return to put out a magazine that delivered “a moral rate of return,” presumably, the satisfaction that comes with putting out a right-wing read they could be proud of.
With chairman Lyle Dunkley, a wellknown oil patch executive and also the chair of Rider Resources, theStandard financial team raised just over $750,000. With the joint endorsement of Ted and Link Byfield, Levant left his law practice, partisan Conservative politics and riding squabbles with party leader-elects behind, and moved into a world with more ideological consistency. And a lot more fun.
“A pretty face and a nice pair of thighs.” David Warren, columnist for the Standard, isn’t the originator of the pejorative quote used to describe the current Governor General. (He attributes it to one of Micha?lle Jean’s former colleagues at Radio-Canada.) But Warren does start off his September 19, 2005, column with the quote, commenting that it was “refreshingly sexist,” and then goes on to refer to Jean as “governess general of our nanny state” and “the spaciest vice regal selection in the whole history of our Dominion.” All in the first paragraph, no less.
In the February 13 issue, Standard columnist Ric Dolphin took on Colleen Klein, the wife of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, theorizing that she is the primary reason for the premier’s extended tenure. Controversy erupted when Dolphin quoted an anonymous source – purportedly “one of Klein’s fishing buddies” – as saying that Mrs. Klein’s motives are less than altruistic and accusing her of being fond of the trappings of office. “Once she stops being premier’s wife, she goes back to being just another Indian,” Dolphin reported, leading to accusations of shoddy journalism and outright racism against the magazine.
And in the February 27 issue, the Standard published the Danish cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed that enraged much of the Muslim world. Aside from the fact that the cartoons were “the biggest story of the week,” Levant told the Herald, he published the offending cartoons to highlight the hypocrisy of the mainstream media. “They mock Christians and Jews,” he said, “and they’re not afraid of offending them because they know Christians and Jews won’t cut off their heads.”
The Standard certainly pushes the envelope in its quest to provide what it considers to be an entertaining political read. It is, however, all part and parcel of being provocative and true to its mandate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the headlines that grace the covers of the magazine. “The Big Heist.” “A Nation Torn Apart.” “Puppets of Beijing.” “Profiles in Cowardice” (referring to the Paul Martin minority government). “Wild and Sensationalistic,” sighs Don Martin. “Screaming banner headlines in the front. Well, that’s just Ezra’s magazine. If you’re going to plunk down your five bucks on the Standard, prepare to be regaled with hard-done-by, ripped-off, mistreated Alberta kind of features and columns. That’s just what you’re gonna get.”
Libin, however, shrugs off such criticisms. “Magazines aren’t very good unless they’re interesting,” he says. “I’d rather err on the side of drama than on the side of dullness.” He compares his headlines to movie titles: “It has to sound dramatic to catch the reader’s eye. You can’t be benign or watery when you’re competing against seventy-five other titles on the magazine stand.”
“Benign” and “watery” are certainly not words you’d use to describe the bounty of oped pieces in each issue. The Standard‘s editorial mix tends to be heavy on opinion, especially compared to other mainstream publications. Libin says it’s necessarily a function of catering to the readership. “I was worried about it at first,” he admits, “but I’ve discovered that our readers like the balance. We bring value to the reader in a number of ways, and one of them is through great opinion pieces. That’s not at all tiring for the reader when you have writers like Mark Steyn and Ted Byfield. They’re always a pleasure to read.” Indeed, recruiting Steyn – former writer for the Post and current book reviewer for Maclean’s – for its pages was a coup for the upstart magazine. “The Standard isn’t one of those religious reads for me,” says Martin, “but I do flip to the back and read Steyn. He is one of the great writers on political commentary in this country.”
Beyond the swaths of opinion, the Standard does make an effort to include news and reportage. To Libin, it’s a necessity based on its mandate. “Canada’s such a small country relative to the U.S.,” says Libin. “We can’t afford to be like the National Review and be strictly political opinion. We need to bring value to the reader in other ways, including the news. Our readers think that western news isn’t getting enough representation in other publications out there. We’d be remiss if we didn’t fill in some of that gap.”
Laghi agrees, but he believes the Standard comes up short. While the current foundation of news reporting comes from several writers who cut their teeth as shoe-leather reporters for the Report – journalists such as Dolphin, Colby Cosh, Kevin Steel and Terry O’Neill – Laghi feels that the Standard is still too heavy with columns. “And hence,” he says, “it’s a little less useful to someone like me. It tries to be a political magazine more than a news magazine, and in skimping on the latter, its political coverage suffers.”
Which is not to say that the magazine’s political coverage is necessarily light – especially on the controversy scale. One of the topics the Standard covers regularly is the spectre of western separatism. The August 22, 2005 issue featured a poll conducted by a political science professor at Lethbridge Community College and commissioned by the magazine. The poll indicated that 35.6 per cent of respondents from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia were interested in “exploring the idea of forming their own country.” While the poll and the story did garner interest from a number of media outlets – the Post ran the poll on the front page of its August 9, 2005 issue – Martin, for one, felt that as a news report, it was dubious at best. “Frankly, I don’t think it’s that accurate a poll,” he says. “I just don’t think that Albertans think that way about Canada.” He believes the Standard inflates the issue of western separatism, which he says is still very much on the fringes – and only in Alberta at that. “I’ve been to the Saddledome for hockey games where ‘O Canada’ is sung,” he says, waxing anecdotal, “and it’s the loudest, most boisterous ‘O Canada’ in the country. Albertans are Canadians first and Albertans second. The average Albertan might find the federal government irrelevant – a black hole where their money goes, never to return – but the magazine makes things out to be bigger than they are.”
Cosh, the Standard‘s sports columnist, whole-heartedly disagrees. “You’ll find in talking to the people behind the Standard that many of them believe a serious debate about the West’s place in Confederation is a real short-term possibility,” he said in an interview prior to the 2006 federal election. “There is a prevailing belief that Ottawa simply won’t allow the economic reordering of the country; that if the West threatens to become too powerful and attractive, it will be punished for its insolence.” They’re strong words, full of grievance, and Levant thinks that it’s fair game for discussion in the pages of the Standard. “We have three columnists who are separatists,” he says, “Byfield, David Warren in Toronto, and Pierre Lemieux lives in Montreal.” He chuckles. “Funny, only one of them is in the West. But with them, you can have a debate. What would be unreasonable and unfair would be to marginalize or demonize an opinion held by forty-three per cent of Albertans.”
But if the Standard wants to have an impact on political discourse over and above its own constituency, it has to have appeal beyond Alberta’s borders. “People outside Alberta don’t use it as a definitive voice of the West,” Martin says. “They look at it as a very strong voice, but more for a fringe of Albertans. It might be a good and lively read, but it’s not something you look to for to take the true pulse of the West.”
Back East – and, arguably, where it counts most, on Parliament Hill – the Standard gets mixed reviews. At least prior to this year’s election, it didn’t make inroads with a key political demographic; prominent Canadian political journalists like Jeffrey Simpson, Richard Gwyn and Lawrence Martin, for example, don’t read it. “I’ve never read the Standard,” remarks Hugh Winsor, long-time columnist for the Globe. “When I want to know what is happening in the Canadian right, I just look at the National Post.” Other columnists, including John Ibbitson, Graham Fraser and Chantal Hébert, glance at it in varying degrees in the interests of their job as political writers. Unsurprisingly, the journalists who do read it regularly tend to have links to the West themselves, like Martin or Laghi, or tilt towards the right of the political spectrum, like John Ivison.
The problem, Martin says, comes back to controversy. You get the feeling that The Ghost of Ezra’s Past is floating above copies of the Standard on Parliament Hill, and not for the better. “Levant has a reputation in Ottawa,” Martin says, “as being the ‘Western-Dial-a-Rant.’ If you need a quote from someone who says anything that conforms to the old western stereotype, he’s the one to call.” Specifically, Martin refers to Levant’s failure as Day’s communications director as the reason the magazine isn’t taken more seriously. “That kind of reputation lingers,” he says.
It doesn’t sound fair, but that’s politics, and, as Levant insists, he doesn’t do politics anymore. He still does controversy, though, and it has erupted around the magazine in the past few months – with repercussions. “A handful of advertisers have decided to cool off for a bit,” he admits. Two of the more high-profile losses include Indigo Books & Music Inc., which pulled the magazine off its shelves, and Air Canada, which temporarily suspended distribution of the 5,000 copies per issue it placed on selected flights and in their elite Maple Leaf Lounges, primarily because of security concerns based on the republished Danish cartoons. “We value our relationship with Air Canada,” he says, “and hope to have them back.”
Levant says that there is still a plus side, claiming that individual subscriptions have increased, largely on the basis of support for the Standard‘s approach to freedom of speech. “We’ve had two walk-up ad sales because of the hype by advertisers seeking to capture our larger number of eyeballs,” he says. “Most advertisers are in the business of buying eyeballs, not engaging in a navel-gazing editorial debate.” He dismisses the speculation of the Standard‘s economic losses as schadenfreude by what he calls “politically correct journalists.” “Much of the media speculation about this issue is a projection of other journalists’ mixed feelings about not demonstrating their own commitments to journalistic ideals like free speech and independence,” he claims. “Some journalists want to see evidence that our publishing the cartoons was economically dangerous to justify, ex post facto, their own meek decisions.”
Polarizing controversies aside, Levant insists that the Western Standard is serious about journalism. “We’re building a large national reputation as an independent magazine that doesn’t take orders from anyone,” he says. “It’s been a real coming of age, where we showed we are real journalists who care about the ideals of the craft.”
The publisher and the editor-in-chief get together near the back of the office, beside a Warholian display ofLibrano$ posters plastered over the wall. A photographer snaps pictures of Levant hamming it up, grabbing Libin by the neck and giving him a mock noogie. It’s consistent with the Standard‘s self-styled brand: feisty, irreverent, over the top.
“We aren’t as immediate as daily newspapers or television,” Levant says, holding up a copy of the poster. “So we have to do stuff like this to compete. You have to rely on the strengths of your medium – the chance to be more reflective, to come up with neat ideas that couldn’t be executed in a twenty-four-hour news cycle.” He chuckles. “It was such a hit. All over this country there’s this Librano$ poster up in peoples offices all over Parliament Hill.”
Gimmicks aside, any impact the Standard has had so far as “serious political journalism” is questionable – at least on an official level. It does seem to have made inroads at the grassroots level, notably among closet conservatives in the middle of Liberal-land. Jane Taber of the Globe reported on January 12 that a mole had leaked copies of the Liberal Red Book to members of the press corps. The Standard was one of the first recipients. “We posted it on our blog about ten hours before the Liberals announced it,” says Libin, noting that it was interesting that the mole, which he suspects is “very highly placed in the Liberal organization,” leaked it specifically to the magazine. With its outspoken brand of conservatism, the Standard may be garnering a guerrilla force of disgruntled central Canadians chafing under years of rule by the natural governing party.
Which is a thing of the past – for now. As of January 24 the Canadian electoral reality is blue: Conservatives, 124 seats; Liberals, 103; the rest, 81, plus or minus one due to partisan shenanigans. The West wants in? The West is in. “Most of our sources in the Tory party, are moving into the centre of the action,” Levant says. With the new government, the theory goes, a whole new range of people might pick up the Standard, and he’s considering adding a reporter on the ground in Ottawa. “I think we’re favourite bedtime reading for some of the cabinet ministers,” he claims. “People who want to ‘get’ Harper and the West will definitely find us of use.”
But being a primer on who runs Ottawa now doesn’t imply the Standard will be any less vigilant, vows Libin. “This Tory party isn’t exactly the conservative party that westerners really desire,” he says. “We’re not a Conservative Party magazine. We’ll be watching them just as closely as we watched the Liberals. If they implement stupid policies – which they surely will – then we’ll say so.”
It’s a bold promise, and one that stays true to the proud western nature of the magazine, which Levant is only too happy to espouse. “Our heart is in the West, our headquarters is in the West, our emphasis is on the West,” he declares. “‘Western is our brand. It means entrepreneurial, pioneering, swashbuckling, politically incorrect, growth, youth.”
The Standard, in being too western, misses the mark in punching above its own weight and having a real national impact. Yet does it matter, if the principals involved are being true to their principles and having far too much fun to care? If the goal is serious political journalism, it does. In order to influence the national discourse, a publication needs to engage a political system as much as it agitates it. The controversies that develop over the magazine’s attention-grabbing antics ultimately detract from its news coverage – there’s only so much influence you can have when people are talking about you, and not with you.
by Terry Woo
Terry Woo was the Front of Book Editor for the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.