Eastwood speech at convention

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the description of a speech at the Republican National Committee convention. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On August 31, 2012, CBC.ca posted a story from Associated Press about a speech the previous night by actor and director Clint Eastwood at the convention of the Republican Party in Tampa, Florida.

The headline read: “Eastwood's bizarre speech ignites Twitterverse.” It dealt with the reaction on the social media platform to the star's internationally televised address.

Eastwood spoke, seemingly improvisationally, for about 12 minutes, and addressed an empty chair onstage that purportedly represented President Barack Obama, the opponent to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election campaign.

The complainant, Jon Melanson, wrote August 31 to say CBC News had demonstrated bias in its headline characterization of the speech as “bizarre.” He asserted Obama had given several “bizarre” speeches but they had never been characterized as such. He sought an explanation for CBC's decision-making.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back September 6. She said the word “bizarre” had a meaning of unconventional, odd or unusual.

She wrote: “One dictionary defines it this way: ‘Strikingly unconventional and far- fetched in style or appearance'. As an adjective – as it was used in the story's headline – it is defined as meaning ‘odd or unusual, especially in an interesting or amusing way'.”

She added: “It is fair to say that compared to the other speeches delivered by Republicans at the Tampa convention, Mr. Eastwood's was ‘unconventional', ‘unusual', even, ‘odd'. The message largely was not (Obama's unfulfilled promises, Romney's suitability for the job), but the delivery (a conversation with an empty chair, rambling and occasionally coarse) was unlike anything else seen at the convention.”

Enkin noted other media employed similar descriptions of the speech. She said CBC policy permits its journalists to make “judgment calls” editorially. “In other words, they are free to reach conclusions on their own based on facts. That was the case here.”

Melanson wrote back September 7 and said, “CBC picks and chooses its stories in order to complement its inherent biases, rather than inform Canadians.” He asked for a review by this Office.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed, respectful treatment of individuals. It requires that CBC avoid taking positions in issues of public debate and is “guided by the principle of impartiality.”

But it also permits “professional judgment based on facts and expertise.”

Conclusion

CBC correctly asserted some media similarly characterized the Clint Eastwood speech, but CBC's policy requires impartiality and the policies of others at times have more latitude.

CBC policy implies caution is necessary in its use of language — even the shorthand language of headlines — to avoid the appearance it is taking sides in public debate. Presumably this is particularly true during an election campaign, even one south of the border.

But its policy also provides an opening to permit judgment based on facts and expertise.

The neutral definition of the word “bizarre” — odd, unusual, unconventional — can differ from its largely judgmental or disparaging connotation. On the basis of the definition of “bizarre,” it was not a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices to apply the term, but given its connotation, it would have been more elegant to use another descriptor.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman