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The suburban hotel ballroom was packed with more than 400 conservative activists, college students and curious reporters. On stage, a bespectacled Calgarian was railing against what he called the “fascist theocracy” of militant Islam. This was in Sainte-Foy, Que., but the crowd didn’t seem to mind that he was speaking English. They laughed, cheered and applauded throughout his speech.
That’s how I first met Ezra Levant. It was October 2010 and I was covering the launch of Réseau Liberté-Québec for CTV. The “Quebec Freedom Network,” which claimed inspiration from the U.S. Tea Party movement, aimed to boost right-wing politics in a province traditionally dominated by the debate between sovereignty and federalism.
Levant was still months away from launching his show on Sun News Network, which preceded his current project, TheRebel.media. Back in 2010, Stephen Harper was the leader of a minority government. Donald Trump was still hosting The Apprentice on NBC. Just down the road from the hotel in Sainte-Foy, it would be another six years before the boom of rifle fire cut short the evening prayer at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.
A terrible mistake
I lived in Montreal and Quebec City from 2007 to 2011 as controversy deepened over “reasonable accommodation,” then “religious symbols” – both polite ways of talking about Islam. I watched columnist Richard Martineau wear a burqa on television and listened as talk radio hosts whipped up fears around honour killings, sharia law and terrorism.
Last month when news of a mass shooting at a mosque splashed across my TV, I felt horrified – but not entirely surprised. As it turned out, police arrested a young man named Alexandre Bissonnette whom former classmates described as a pro-Trump, anti-immigrant Internet troll.
But police also arrested a Laval University student of Moroccan descent, who later told reporters he had been shoveling snow outside the mosque when the attack began. Released in the morning, police took pains to stress that Mohamed Belkhadir was a witness, not a suspect – but it was too late.
Hours after Belkhadir had been freed, social media users, news outlets and even the Trump administration were still using his arrest to feed a narrative about violence by immigrants.
“It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant, and why the president is taking steps to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer, amid pitched debate over the administration’s travel ban.
The same morning, Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media launched the website QuebecTerror.com and began to solicit donations. “What’s going on here? What are the facts?” asked the crowdfunding pitch. “Can we trust the mainstream media to tell us the truth about such a controversial and sensitive subject?” A video crew was dispatched to Quebec City to “uncover the truth.”
Levant defends Rebel coverage
“Quebec has become home to a lot of radicalization,” reported video host Faith Goldy from outside the bloodstained mosque. “There are several teens that have fled the province and are understood to be fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.” Goldy then drew a link to a supposed “rivalry” with another mosque. Her video was uploaded to YouTube, where The Rebel boasts more than 580,000 subscribers.
“Canadians can make up their minds as to whether our reports are relevant or not,” Levant told me in response to questions sent by email last week.
Police, he points out, held a formal press conference announcing the arrest of two suspects. “Several hours later, they changed their minds. I think that surprising about-face, and the PMO’s bizarre demand that journalists delete contemporaneous reports of the police’s first statements, deserves more journalistic inquiry,” said Levant. “But I don’t dispute the latest official version.”
I wrote back: “Is it important for The Rebel to base its independent journalism on facts?” “Of course,” he replied. “And to ask who-what-why-where-when-how questions about those facts. Like what is the explanation for the eyewitness account of someone shouting Allah Akbar?” Levant continued: “Normally journalists ask questions like those before trial. But in this case, the needs of the political-media narrative about Islamophobia took precedence.”
Levant and Goldy were both speakers at a rally in Toronto last week organized by The Rebel to protest a motion by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which calls on the government to “condemn Islamophobia."
More lies from the White House
The Friday following the attack, I attended a public funeral for three of the victims in Quebec City’s cavernous convention centre. During the ceremony religious leaders, diplomats and politicians worked together to weave a common message about tolerance and inclusion. “It falls on us to defend the values that are important to us,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a speech.
The same morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway went on live TV and talked about a terrorist attack that never happened. She called it “the Bowling Green Massacre”. Challenged by reporters, Conway later backed down, saying she “misspoke”. But soon the president upped the ante, accusing journalists of ignoring terrorism.
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” said Trump. “And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.” Trump has yet to publicly acknowledge the shooting in Quebec City, which claimed six lives.
This past weekend he referred to another supposed incident in Sweden. “You look at what’s happening in Sweden,” he said at a rally in Florida. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.” Hundreds of journalists around the world then had to clarify that nothing of note had happened recently in Sweden.
It might be funny, if fact-checking Trump weren’t such a Sisyphean task.
The resources expended by news outlets to correct, challenge or debunk the administration’s “alternative facts” far outweigh the effort it takes for the president to go on TV and invent new ones. This endless game of whack-a-mole proceeds while Trump undermines the media itself, belittling White House correspondents and branding outlets like the New York Times “fake news.”
Winning, winning, winning
The president’s lies and fabrications have caught progressives off guard, as it becomes clear that huge swathes of the U.S. electorate believe Trump rather than the reporters who cover him. His feud with the press is not a liability – it’s a powerful part of his brand.
“The only profession people despise more than politicians is journalists,” says Ezra Levant. “The joy that average Americans take in watching Trump abuse self-important journalists is something that can unite all of us.” Polling would appear to support that.
Gallup’s 2016 annual survey of Americans’ trust in the mass media found just 32 per cent of people have a “fair amount of trust and confidence” in newspapers, radio or TV outlets “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly”. The number drops to 14 per cent among Republicans.
Earlier this month, the same polling firm registered President Trump’s approval rating at 40 per cent.
Here in Canada the numbers aren’t as low, but the trajectory is startling. The Edelman Trust Barometer registered a 10 point drop over the last year in public trust toward both government and news media, which now sit at 43 and 45 per cent respectively. Thirty one per cent went so far as to agree that “the media” was to blame for the country’s problems.
At the same time, 49 per cent said they “never or rarely change their position on important social issues.” Fifty five per cent admitted to ignoring “people or organizations with whom they often disagree,” suggesting increased polarization, even disagreement over basic facts.
Stranger than fiction
This much I know firsthand: the bullet holes in the windows of the Grand Mosque of Quebec are real. I saw the caskets with my own eyes, talked to grieving members of the congregation, watched a kid cry who had lost his father. But to piece together the overall event – what happened that night, who the suspect is – I still rely on facts gathered by professional reporters. Most of us do.
That search for a shared truth is more fraught than ever. Journalism faces huge challenges already as audiences scatter, revenues drop and resources for in-depth coverage melts away. Now the fourth estate is facing a frontal assault by the most powerful public office holder on the planet, while not-quite-news sites chew into the market.
However you classify The Rebel, it is one of Canada’s fastest-growing media brands, providing a home to hundreds of thousands of viewers fed up with legacy news outlets.
On this side of the border those voters are waiting for a political vehicle to channel their anger, to accelerate the dismantling of what they see as a misguided liberal cultural and economic consensus. In that context, last month’s mosque attack can be seen as a test case for challenging what Levant called the “political-media narrative.”
One of the speakers who joined Levant on stage that day in Sainte-Foy back in 2010 was Maxime Bernier, now vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party. At The Rebel’s “Freedom Rally” last week in Toronto, four other Conservative candidates hopped on stage, including Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander, Pierre Lemieux, and Brad Trost. These are not fringe characters. One of them may be chosen leader of the Opposition come May.
In the meantime, two things are likely: public trust in institutions will continue to crumble, and confusion over what is real will grow. Politicians who tap into both trends may be in a position to deliver big surprises.