1986’d, Pt 1: ‘Canadian Mockingbird’ origination, Private sector censorship

Updated March 3, 2024

Operation Mockingbird was just one of the major public revelations disclosed during the United States Senate’s 1975 Church Committee hearings “to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.” Without offering much detail, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby testified that the agency had “people who submit pieces to American journals.” The director then refused to say whether the CIA also contributed to television networks or national news services like the Associated Press and United Press International. He preferred to discuss those details in “executive session” rather than in public.

But the secret was out. Two years later, Carl Bernstein reported in Rolling Stone magazine that the CIA maintained a network of more than 400 friendly journalists who would report on their trips internationally.[1] The CIA also used the press corps as conduit and cover for international intelligence gathering. Some reporters, said Bernstein, were paid to turn over their notebooks upon return to the United States. For others it was a matter of duty.

Deborah Davis gave the operation a name in her 1979 biography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. “Mockingbird” had apparently been established by Frank Wisner, a CIA founding officer. According to Davis, it was a response to Communist infiltration of Europe-based International Organization of Journalists.

… Wisner, knowing [then Washington Post publisher Phil Graham’s] frustration at being unable to afford foreign correspondents for the Post, reciprocated by paying for Post reporters’ trips, which was not the same, Phil believed, as the CIA “owning” them, and which future investigators could not say was proof of a relationship. Reporters whose stories appeared in the United States played up the Russian threat, which was said to be growing daily, and urged President Eisenhower to develop air power, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, which, because of mounting public pressure (and pressure from what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”), he finally agreed to do.[2]

The press couldn’t be censored if the United States professed to be a functioning democracy, as freedom of speech defined American democracy. This freedom was the context of the first constitutional amendment, also establishing freedom of the press and of assembly, and the right to petition government to redress grievances. But according to Bernstein, “leading publishers and news executives allowed themselves and their organizations to become handmaidens to the intelligence services.”[3] Public laws were no match for the agency’s ability to sidestep them. And some planted stories might not offend a publication’s own editorial mission or owners.

Questions regarding the extent of the CIA media manipulation still circulate in academic and popular works. But Bernstein’s and Davis’ descriptions were confirmed by the mockingbirds themselves in public session and by former agents such as Ralph W. McGee. “The Agency had hundreds of people working [in] various capacities in the world’s news media from executives to stringers. Through them it disseminated propaganda designed to shape world opinion.”[4]

Operation Mockingbird is the sort of covert control apparatus that media scholars might expect to exist given the United States’ global dominance. It grew after World War II with the acquisition of Nazi Germany’s Reinhard Gehlen European spying network[5] in order to nullify global threats. During the war, Wisner had worked for the Navy’s censor before heading the Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) Southeast Europe section. The OSS preceded the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Operation Mockingbird is not the only U.S. influence network. Nominally free textbooks for peoples looking to rebuild and grants for overseas ethnography come with other costs.

The CIA and Ontario textbook gatekeepers both sought to avoid scrutiny by obscuring their influence. This is expected from a spy agency, but from the Ministry of Education? At the onset of Ontario’s program some of its administrators had been wartime leaders used to the benefits and mechanics of secrecy, from the premier and education minister downward. Premiers George Drew, Leslie Frost and John Robarts all served in world wars. Minister William Dunlop was a lieutenant instructor in the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps during the first; in the second, he was acting manager of the University of Toronto Press and responsible for troop education in Military District 2.[6]

The comparison isn’t perfect but Ontario’s control over Canada’s young media consumers, when Circular 14 was influential, was arguably more totalitarian than the CIA’s control of domestic and foreign media. The province’s influence was greater than other contemporary school censors. Jonathan Kay listed 37 books censored by an unnamed Ontario school board signals that appraisal by local fiefdoms await books that successfully navigate provincial judgement.[7] In 2021 Ontario had 76 public boards, 38 of them “separate” (usually meaning publicly funded Catholic, but historically also including segregated schools for Black children), and seven education authorities operating within treatment centres. Given the arrival of complaints from concerned parents and others at the Ministry of Education, counties must have also been targeted. But each board’s influence stopped outside its jurisdiction. In addition to these local fiefdoms, a contingent of Catholic school attendees of the Baby Boom generation remember the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Vatican’s “List of Prohibited Books”) filtering what publications could be found at school. But knowledge of such prohibition also created enough interest that school kids would seek out the material elsewhere.


 In May 2014 Bell Media program director Sarah Cummings sent an email to radio stations asking on-air personalities not to discuss allegations that Marineland, an amusement park and zoo in Niagara Falls, was mistreating its marine mammals.

I know there are many opinions but I am asking that you please refrain from talking about them on air. We will stick with the facts in our news coverage but beyond that I suggest we totally avoid talking about it. They are an enormous client of Bell Media and I think keeping our coverage to news only is best.[8]

Marineland wanted to maintain a warm and fuzzy identity that would attract visitors, as owner Marie Holer explains on the company’s web site:

We have a strong record of providing for the welfare of our animals and will continue to prioritize their health and wellbeing as a central focus of our mission. We are proud of the positive impact we’ve had on millions of visitors over the years and the positive contribution Marineland continues to play in inspiring people to care about the animals we share the planet with.[9]

Marineland buys a lot of advertising – summertime replays of the jingle “Everybody loves Marineland” can be difficult to excise from one’s mind. Cummings called it an “enormous client” for Bell Media. Canadaland, a web-based publication, reported old-school competitor Bell Media’s directive two years later after obtaining the leaked email message, which had gone to employees at the three of seven radio stations Bell owned near Marineland:  610 CKTB in 105.7 EZ Rock in nearby St. Catharines and 102.9 K-Lite FM in Hamilton. (Canadaland later reported that CKTB had interviewed former Marineland trainers after Cummings. sent the memo.)

Such unseen direction and editing of public information to suit corporate clients is endemic to private sector media. Robert Hackett and Richard Gruneau’s The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press details the pressures Canada’s news media was under at the turn of the millennium, a time when news media was primarily still print newspapers and broadcast and satellite television, terrestrial radio and movie borrowing. The introductory chapter, “Is Canada’s Press Censored?”, asked readers to remember that censorship is a politically loaded word.[10] Unconscious biases and even laziness maybe be mistaken for censorship. The communications professors also warned that for an advanced understanding of media influence, “it is necessary to know more about the cultural, institutional and organizational dynamics that shape the news process.”[11]

The authors claim that both governments and citizens in liberal democracies “accept the principle of certain limits on freedom of expression … that press freedom needs to be balanced against important social interests (such as military security or public decency), as well as individual rights, such as the right not to have your reputation unfairly damaged by false and libelous statements.”[12] The most notable form of overt government regulation in Canada limiting news reporting, according to Hackett, is legal limits on court reporting, whereas the leading private sector restriction is media owners’ need to be economically viable.

Following the 2010 acquisition of the Asper family’s chain of newspapers by a group led by National Post CEO Paul Godfrey – making it Canada’s largest newspaper conglomerate by circulation – Postmedia Network Inc. reported 2011 advertising revenue of $675 million, almost triple circulation’s $234 million. For the year ended August 31, 2011, “Digital” was then contributing another $90 million to revenue and “Other” $20 million. One customer class paying three times as much as readership creates a strong rationale to shape editorial to maintain that business.

Reader-supported media can offer a different perspective, sometimes called “radical.” But alternative media may be specialist rather than radical, such as the weekly Novae Res Urbis, which since 1997 has reported on the municipal affairs of the City of Toronto with more detail and from a different perspective than possible at the print dailies. In Ottawa, staff-owned Blacklock’s Reporter breaks news about public accounts and Federal Court, including bills and regulations, reports and committees. The publication was named for pioneer publisher, war correspondent and former Ottawa press gallery president Thomas Hyland Blacklock. Its reporting criticizes all sitting governments no matter the party, following leads that could threaten mainstream journalism’s government advertising. However, reader-paid journalism can be held back by the size of its audience and subscription fees. (A Blackrock’s Reporter subscription cost $314 as of 2024, its only major revenue source). Relying on ad revenue can injure the publications’ independence.

Especially in Ottawa, the Government of Canada is another class of ad buyer with ultimate clout. During Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administrations, the annual ad spend has totaled between $36 million and $59 million, a decline from the preceding Stephen Harper years.[13] On the surface 2019/20 was a normal fiscal year with a $50 million budget reported in the federal Advertising Services Director’s annual report. But in 2018, Finance Minister Bill Moreau had announced $600 million in tax credits and incentives to be spent over five years through the repurposed Canada Periodical Fund. To create some distance between itself and distribution of the funds, the government named eight press associations to sit on an advisory panel.[14] The funds were presented as a bailout but also criticized as a bribe. Either way, it is easy to suspect that handing out an average of $120 million a year on top of the traditional ad budget might result in some friendly coverage.

*Canadian Mockingbird is a newly available story on textbook censorship.



[1] Bernstein, Carl. 1977. “The CIA and the Media: How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up.” Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977. Reprinted on Bernstein’s web site. http://carlbernstein.com/magazine_cia_and_media.php

[2] Davis, Deborah. 1979. Katharine The Great: Katharine Graham and The Washington Post. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich , p.151.

[3] Ibid.

[4] McGee, Ralph. 2002, orig 1983. Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA. New York: Ocean Press, p. 180.

[5] Talbot, David. (2015). The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. New York: HarperCollins; Yeadon, Glen and John Hawkins. (2008). The Nazi Hydra in America: Suppressed History of a Century. Joshua Tree, CA: Progressive Press.

[6] Pitts, C.M. (1961). William James Dunlop Awards. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from http://heritagelodge730.ca/william-james-dunlop-awards/

[7] Kay, Jonathan. (2021) [Accessed on Twitter February 25, 2021; since deleted] 24 February.

[8] Hiltz, Robert. (2016, July 18). “Bell Media Radio Hosts Ordered to Keep Quiet About Marineland.” Canadaland. https://www.canadaland.com/bell-marineland/

[9] Holer, Marie. “A message from the Owner”. https://www.marineland.ca/about-us/, accessed December 30, 2021.

[10] Hackett, Robert A. and Richard Gruneau, with Donald Gutstein, Timothy A. Gibson and NewsWatch Canada. (2000). The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press. Aurora, Ontario: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Garamond Press., 17-45.

[11] Ibid, 33.

[12] Ibid, 19.

[13] Advertising Services Director. “Advertising expenditures over 10 Years” Annual Report on Government of Canada Advertising Activities, 2019-2020. p.3. https://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/pub-adv/rapports-reports/documents/rapport-annuel-annual-report-2019-2020-eng.pdf

[14] Zimonjic, Peter. (2019, May 24). “Federal government names organizations that will help spend $600M journalism fund” CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/journalism-support-fund-panel-1.5144282