U.S. mid-term elections

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Comments made during interview about U.S. mid-term elections

I am writing with regard to your complaint November 3, 2010, and request November 11, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a CBC Radio segment on the results of the mid-term elections in the United States. Your patience is appreciated.

Your complaint focused on comments November 3 by a political scientist, Judith Garber of University of Alberta, on the All Points West program with host Jo-Ann Roberts.


To start the interview, Garber said she believed “that the results do reflect a lot of angry people, a lot of angry white people, and a lot of angry conservative and moderate white people” about the government, elitism and the troubled state of the economy.

Garber was asked several questions in the eight-minute segment on the implications of the relative successes of the Republicans and failures of the Democrats arising from the elections the day before. Specific questions were asked about climate change, immigration and border security, the economy, and whether any analogous voter attitudes existed in Canada.

You complained of “racism and bigotry” in Garber's remarks about voters and said they insulted Republicans of all backgrounds in their narrow depiction. You criticized the use of the term “followers” to describe House supporters of the Republican minority leader John Boehner, expected to become Speaker of the House in January, 2011. You wondered if Garber's views were those of the CBC.

In a response to you, Laura Palmer, the Executive Producer of CBC Radio Current Affairs in Vancouver, noted that the Washington Post indicated that 78 per cent of the mid-term voters were white and that they were predominantly supporters of the Republicans. Palmer acknowledged that more could have been done to explore the reasons behind voter anger.

The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time of your complaint said that the range of opinions “should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed.” Programs must also capture nuance and depth.

On the matter of balance, the Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook noted that CBC must ensure programming was fair and balanced, but that these objectives “should be achieved, where appropriate, within a single program or otherwise within an identifiable series of programs.” It added: “Balance is not to be confused with the concept of right of reply” and notes the independence of CBC “for determining when a significant imbalance has occurred, and what remedial action must be taken.”

In certain instances, the handbook suggested a program could have featured one view provided it was of “an individual with demonstrable expertise in the subject matter of the program.”

Guest commentators were singled out in the policy, which noted that CBC did not “adopt as its own the opinions of those commentators whom it invites to articulate the various shades of current opinion on a given subject.” But it compelled CBC to seek to “select commentators whose backgrounds qualify them to give expert opinion based on accurate information.”

(The CBC board of directors approved revisions to the Journalistic Standards and Practices a few days following your complaint in November. For the sake of this review, the earlier policies are the only ones relevant because they were in effect at the time of your complaint. On the issue of opinion, they now cite as an objective that “CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues. We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.”)

My review needs to address if Garber's comments were fair-minded in view of the Standards and Practices.

The most reliable data on voting behaviour comes from the extensive exit polls conducted by media on election day. While Palmer cited the Washington Post's reporting of that data – a reference you objected to, due to your perceived bias of the Post – others carried the same material.

Those polls did indeed indicate 78 per cent of the mid-term voters were white and that 60 per cent of them voted Republican. Among others, however, exit polls indicated Republicans did not fare well. Some 90 per cent of African Americans voted Democrat, as did 64 per cent of Latinos and 56 per cent of Asians. Turnout among minority voters was lower than during the 2008 presidential election.

I note that Garber's views were shared widely in media and I could not find in my research a differing analysis.

Henry Olsen, vice-president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute based in Washington, concluded in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News: “Exit polls identified the primary source of the landslide: white working-class voters.” The conservative FrumForum blog indicated that Republicans were still struggling among young and ethnic minority voters. Ronald Brownstein, writing for the Washington-focused National Journal, said Democrats suffered “crippling defections” of white voters.

Conclusion

The remarks by the guest commentator were accurate and fair. The term “followers” is common when applied to those who support a political leader. And the views expressed on the program were those of the commentator; the host did nothing to indicate agreement or support of them. There was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman