Treatment of guest

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Name-calling by business program co-host during interview

On October 6, 2011, the CBC News Network program, The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, which also airs on the main CBC network overnight, conducted an interview with journalist Chris Hedges on the public demonstrations commonly known as Occupy Wall Street.

The demonstrations began in mid-September in New York's Zuccotti Park, formerly known as the Liberty Plaza Park, and were ostensibly protests about corporate practices and influence in America. They grew, attracted greater public attention, gave voice to a range of social and economic concerns, and spread to other cities.

The Lang & O'Leary Exchange had referred to the demonstrations on the program but only staged its first interview on the subject October 6.

The seven-minute segment began with a clip in which U.S. President Barack Obama commented that day on how the demonstrations reflected the frustration some people had with the lingering fights about financial sector reforms following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The program then carried an interview by co-hosts Dianne Buckner of CBC (filling in for regular co-host Amanda Lang) and Kevin O'Leary, a commentator and entrepreneur contractually employed by CBC.

The guest, Chris Hedges, is a journalist and author who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 as part of a New York Times team that reported on global terrorism. Hedges is a Senior Fellow at the progressive Nation Institute in New York and a Distinguished Visitor in American Studies at University of Toronto. He was a foreign correspondent for two decades and specializes in American and Middle East politics and societies. He is a frequent public speaker.

Hedges, appearing from Washington, was asked by Buckner to describe his role in the Occupy Wall Street effort, whose demonstrations had spread to the national capital. He said he was not an organizer but was going to speak to protesters that evening, had given interviews on related issues, and had participated in the New York demonstrations.

O'Leary then asked Hedges what people were complaining about and wondered whether there was any momentum in the demonstrations. He said he thought it was “nothing burgers” so far but a “few guys, guitars, nobody knows what they want. They can't even name the names of the firms they're protesting against. Very weak, low budget.”

Hedges said he couldn't agree with that assessment. Thousands had appeared the night before and when they marched past the Bank of America, they were shouting, “shame, shame, shame . . . they know the names of these firms and they know what these firms have done not only to the American economy, but to the global economy, and the criminal class who runs them.”

Buckner asked again what the demonstrators stood for and sought. Hedges said they “want to reverse the corporate coup that has taken place in the United States and rendered the citizenry impotent, and they won't stop until that happens. And frankly, if we don't break the back of corporations, we're all finished anyway, since they're rapidly trashing the ecosystem on which the human species depends for survival.”

He went on: “This is literally a fight for life. It's that grave, it's that serious. Corporations' unfettered capitalism, as Karl Marx understood, is a revolutionary force. It commodifies everything . . . human beings, the natural world . . .which it exploits for profit until exhaustion or collapse. And the bottom line is we don't have much time left. We are on the cusp of perhaps another major banking crisis in Europe, defaults in Greece, followed by Spain, Portugal.”

He added: “There's been no restrictions, no regulations on Wall Street. They've looted the U.S. Treasury. They've played all the games that they were playing before, and we're about to pay for it all over again.”

O'Leary responded: “Listen, don't take this the wrong way, but you sound like a left- wing nutbar. If you want to shut down every corporation, every bank, where are you going to get a job? Where are you going to work? Where's the economy going to go?”

Hedges answered: “Corporations don't produce anything.”

O'Leary jumped back in: “Oh, really? Are you driving a car to the protest?”

Hedges said: “They are speculators. I'm talking about the financial institutions like Goldman Sachs. They don't manufacture. They don't make anything. They gamble. They use money and they believe falsely that money is real as we dismantle our manufacturing base and send jobs over the border to Mexico and finally into the embrace of China.”

Buckner said it was clear Hedges and O'Leary could get into “an absolutely huge argument.”

Hedges said he doesn't usually go on shows where people “descend to character assassination. If you want to discuss issues, that's fine. I mean, this sounds like FOX News and I don't go on FOX News.”

Hedges praised Canadian writer John Ralston Saul for lucid articulation of the issues involved, but took exception to O'Leary's method of attacking this critique. He said being called “a nutcase engages in the trash talk that's polluted the corporate airwaves.”

O'Leary continued: “Excuse me, let's debate the issues then.”

Hedges said to O'Leary: “Well, you were the one who started it.”

O'Leary said back: “I didn't call you a nutcase, I called you a nutbar.”

They argued again over whether Hedges was called a “left-wing nutcase” or a “left-wing nutbar” and Hedges said it was an insult

“Are you left-wing in leaning at least, would you say?” O'Leary asked.

“No,” Hedges replied.

“You're a centrist?” O'Leary asked.

“Can I finish?” Hedges asked.

“Please,” O'Leary said.

Hedges explained: “I would say that those who are protesting the rise of the corporate state are in fact on the political spectrum the true conservatives because they are calling for the restoration of the rule of law. The radicals have seized power and they have trashed all regulations and legal impediments to a corporate reconfiguration into a society of a form of neo-feudalism. And that's what we're really asking for, is the restoration of the rule of law.”

O'Leary suggested Hedges didn't see any value in the banking system providing a financial infrastructure.

“That's not what I said,” Hedges said, clarifying that he supported a banking system “that functions as a banking system should.”

He noted that Canada had not experienced a banking crisis because it did not tear down the wall between investment and commercial banks to permit them to be hedge funds.

Hedges suggested that it was wrong for the U.S. government to hand massive funds to larger banks holding a lot of “toxic” assets. Instead, he argued, the government should have created 10 regional banks, which he said would have leveraged smaller sums to focus on the investment in firms to create jobs and prevent massive foreclosures. As it was, the big banks were sitting on the capital and not lending it.

O'Leary said the program was “certainly giving you an opportunity to speak your mind” and asked what should be done about Goldman Sachs. Hedges said officials should be prosecuted for the way they permitted the crisis to occur.

Buckner thanked Hedges for joining them. “Well, it will be the last time,” Hedges replied, pulling out his earpiece as the segment ended.

Emailed complaints began to arrive that evening and continued for several days. The video was posted online by others, and several blogs and Tweets encouraged others to register their disapproval of O'Leary's conduct. This Office and CBC News received hundreds of comments, many of them demanding an apology and some demanding that O'Leary be fired for suggesting Hedges was a “left-wing nutbar.”

Robert Lack, the executive producer for The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, wrote complainants October 12, 2011, that the program expected O'Leary “to be colourful, outspoken and controversial. However, this was not an appropriate way to refer to a guest on our program and it detracted from an otherwise very interesting interview.”

Lack said he called Hedges after the program to apologize and discussed with O'Leary the “inappropriateness of addressing guests in such a way.”

The complainant, Alnoor Gangji, wrote October 12, 2011, to say the “backdoor apology sends the wrong signal about the CBC.” He didn't want the CBC mandate to inform to be hijacked by “hosts who insult guests to raise ratings.” He asked for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy calls for freedom of expression, fairness and for individuals and organizations to be treated “with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.”

It calls for balanced journalism: “We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion.”

On language, the policy is clear: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

In some instances, the use of language may shock some people. But “in these circumstances, we limit ourselves to what is necessary for understanding, we attribute the statements where applicable and we take care to present them in proper context.”

Although the likely intention of the policy was to deal with issues of accuracy, it notes that CBC News does not “hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary.”

Conclusion

Earlier reviews have dealt with O'Leary's outspokenness, the context of his participation as a business voice and not as a journalist, and the program's responsibility for his remarks as a commentator. The framework for O'Leary and other contractually employed commentators holds the programs themselves accountable.

O'Leary is entitled to his opinion and the public broadcaster is entitled to house his views among many others. CBC News makes a strong effort to provide public access to a diverse blend of commentators and to preserve impartiality for its journalists.

Generally speaking, few public complaints take issue with freedom of expression, even if some take issue with particular perspectives. In this case there is some irony in a public demand to fire someone for expressing an opinion about demonstrators publicly expressing theirs.

There is room at the inn for a range of views, but there is no room for name-calling a guest.

At the very least, suggesting Hedges was a “nutbar” undermined what was likely a more interesting discussion. At worst, it permitted The Lang & O'Leary Exchange to be criticized as no different than the all-heat, no-light discussion shows that diminish discourse, far from the ambitions of a flagship business program on a public broadcaster.

O'Leary might have been genuinely curious about Hedges' views, but his opening salvo only fed contempt, which breached policy. When O'Leary asked Hedges “don't take this the wrong way,” it came across as disingenuous and begged the question: Is there a “right way” to take being called a nutbar?

Correctly and quickly, CBC News concluded it was unacceptable for O'Leary to do what he did. Its private apology to Hedges was a responsible gesture, as was its discussion with O'Leary about the inappropriateness of the name-calling.

What was unclear was why the program would stop there and not acknowledge this also to the audience. Only the guest received the benefit of the private apology, from the programmer and not the principal himself.

When CBC News acknowledges error, I believe that closure is better achieved and accountability better demonstrated by communicating that to the audience and not simply to the correspondents. In this instance it would help fulfill the spirit of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, a substantial policy which in principle embraces the public element of its implementation.

It bears noting that O'Leary recovered somewhat from the name-calling back-and-forth to permit Hedges to explain his perspective and engage in a healthier exchange. Both parties proceeded professionally and all was not lost in the segment. While I somehow doubt the two shall broadcast together again, it is evident and to be encouraged that the program intends to follow the demonstrations as they possibly launch a political movement.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman