Resignation of White House correspondent Helen Thomas

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Interview about the resignation of veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas

I am writing in regard to your request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning the As It Happens broadcast June 7, 2010, in particular involving an interview segment on the resignation of the veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, following her remarks about Israel.

Your request for a review comes after a complaint to As It Happens on June 9, and the June 30 reply from the program's executive producer, Lynda Shorten. Your concern was that the interview of Lanny Davis, a former White House counsel to President Clinton and a long-time friend of Thomas, failed to meet the standards of CBC's journalism.

Among your principal concerns were that the interview was a “hatchet job,” that Mr. Davis was there to “support a pre-determined political position” of CBC, and that it was a “clumsy attempt at character assassination.” Collectively you believe these constituted an inherent bias in the approach. You asserted that another perspective could have been selected that would have offset Davis's and supported Thomas's view that Jews should “get the hell out of Israel” and should go “home” to Poland, Germany or the United States.

You raise an important question about how guests are selected and interviewed when they appear solo and what are the obligations of a news organization to deal with such circumstance.

CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook compels programmers to report and reflect “equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view” and deal “fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.” When a single interview is used to discuss an issue, that person's view must have “demonstrable expertise in the subject matter.” Davis identified himself on the program as an enduring professional admirer of Thomas, whom he described as a “great reporter, a charming and dear person” and a strong journalist with whom he confided and connected. He was clear: “I only wish her well.” As a professed supporter of a Palestinian state, he nonetheless challenged her statements on Israel and expressed disappointment in her remarks.

In reviewing the transcript and listening to the tone of the interview, I find it difficult to conclude there was anything approaching a character assassination or a hatchet job. Rather, he attempted to provide a contextual explanation of his disappointment in her statement.

Moreover, he had more than sufficient expertise to be interviewed for the subject, given its focus on their dealings over the years and his first-hand insights into Thomas personally and professionally.

It is true that the program segment didn't particularly challenge his political views or organization of history. But the focus was not a discussion on Israel or Palestine — it was on his response to the remarks Thomas made that ultimately changed her career. As such it isn't apt to suggest that the segment ought to have included a different viewpoint. It was neither designed nor presented as a discussion on the Middle East. I also note that, in following through the next day with listener response to the segment, the program carried an email supportive of Thomas.

I cannot find any evidence of a systemic bias in CBC's journalism or any breach of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, as a result.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman