Obama inaugural address

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Reference to the Bush administration in a report about the inaugural address of Barak Obama as President of the United States

You wrote to complain about a report on CBC Radio's The World at Six newscast on January 20, 2009. The report, by Washington correspondent Michael Colton, concerned the inaugural address of Barak Obama as President of the United States.

Initially, you said that Mr. Colton had “quoted…a passage from Obama which had to do with fairness or justice and, without even taking a breath, continued with a comment along the lines of ‘compared to the Bush administration's laxity/disdain/adherence to the law.'” You said that Mr. Obama said no such thing in his speech and that Mr. Colton “appeared clearly to have allowed his feelings about President Bush [to] distort his reporting of the facts…”

Jane Anido, the Director of CBC Radio News Programming, replied that you may have “misheard or, perhaps, misunderstood what was said.” She reviewed the item and included what she said was an excerpt from the transcript. In the relevant portion she quotes Mr. Colton as saying:

“He didn't dwell on race or the fact that he is America's first Black President, but his few words on race were sharp as he recalled those who endured, as he put it, the last of the whip. In all he spoke little of himself, said much to and about his nation. And to the world at large, he promised that America would lead once more with a clean break from the Bush Administration's loose respect for the law.”

She said that “seen in context, I think Mr. Colton's comments are distinguishable from the words he quoted from Mr. Obama's speech. She did not address directly the charge that the term she quoted, “loose respect for the law” was, in effect, an assertion of fact by Mr. Colton. You rejected her explanation and asked for a review citing two grounds: that Mr. Obama did not directly accuse former President Bush or the Bush administration of having a “loose respect for the Law”; that listeners would take away the notion that Mr. Obama actually said something like that.


Careful language and appropriate context are two of the most important aspects of good journalism. Curiously, both you and Ms. Anido appear to have come up with incorrect language. After listening to the item, I find that Mr. Colton did not say “loose respect for the law,” but “loose interpretation of the law”—quite a different thing. As a close follower of U.S. politics, it seems clear that even commentators friendly to Mr. Bush might agree that he and his administration at various moments had sought to provide the widest possible interpretation of various laws, whether the Geneva Conventions or U.S. measures on the treatment of prisoners. The administration would argue that they were entitled (indeed, compelled, from their point of view) to make the interpretations they did. Others would argue the contrary.

In listening to the item, it is clear to me that Mr. Colton was supplying context before and after each “clip” of Mr. Obama. It is a reasonable exercise of journalistic judgment to offer listeners a sense of what underlies Mr. Obama's text. You are correct, of course, that Mr. Obama did not directly address what he might have felt were the failings of the previous administration. But it is not editorializing, or “spinning” for a journalist of Mr. Colton's experience to offer listeners a sense of Mr. Obama's underlying message.

I remain puzzled why a “transcript” would differ significantly from what was actually spoken on the radio during that edition of The World at Six.

Conclusion

An ordinary listener would not have concluded that Mr. Obama said what Mr. Colton reported as context. And Mr. Colton's analysis of what message Mr. Obama was trying to send was an appropriate exercise of good journalism.

I find no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman