Identification of guest commentator

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review involves a complaint that CBC News Network inappropriately presented a guest commentator whose views lacked credibility and that CBC misidentified his status. The misidentification violated policy, but the segment was otherwise within CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On December 2, 2011, CBC News Network interviewed foreign affairs analyst Eric Margolis on the CBC News Now program on that day's round of Egyptian election results in which the Muslim Brotherhood's newly formed Freedom and Justice Party had garnered nearly 40 per cent of the vote.

The voting round in nine provinces determined about 30 per cent of the parliamentary lower house. Two more rounds were scheduled in subsequent weeks in the country's other 18 provinces. They were the first votes since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as president earlier in 2011.

Margolis was interviewed in Aswan, Egypt. He had recently been in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where there had been demonstrations in advance of the elections. The segment first aired around 6:30 a.m. eastern time. Host Heather Hiscox introduced him as “our foreign affairs analyst, Eric Margolis,” while a CBC.ca report arising from the segment interview identified him as “the CBC's Eric Margolis.”

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, executive director of HonestReporting Canada, represents a media watchdog “dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media.”

Fegelman asked CBC News what was the status of Margolis' arrangement: Was he a CBC employee, a contracted freelancer, or just an interview source without a CBC association? Regardless, Fegelman said the arrangement was “an egregious violation” of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices due to Margolis' “habitual myopic portrayal” of the Middle East.

Apart from his concern about the definition of Margolis' employment status, Fegelman complained that Margolis characterized the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a moderate political force when it had made extremist statements. He also asserted that its participation in the election did not automatically make it democratic, tolerant or moderate but merely “shrewd” like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Fegelman asserted Margolis had displayed an “anti-western, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic bias” in his work over the years and been skeptical of official explanations concerning the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Fegelman on February 2, 2012, in response to his complaint. She expressed regret for the delay in writing.

Enkin said Margolis was a freelance commentator and was not employed by CBC

“As you will know, Mr. Margolis is widely viewed as a foreign affairs expert, especially in matters concerning the Middle East, and a regular contributor over the years to CBC News programs. (For almost 30 years he was a contributing editor to the Sun newspapers, he writes a column for the Huffington Post, among other publications, and regularly appears on, among other broadcasters, NPR, CNN, Sky News, and TVO.)

“But while he is a regular guest commentator on CBC, he should not have been described in a way that suggests he is a CBC News employee. He is not. We regret the error.”

Enkin added: “When we realized there was an error in the online story, we corrected it immediately. The first two versions of the story (posted between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. that morning) contained an inaccurate description. Accurate information was included in version posted at 8:10 a.m.”

Enkin disagreed with Fegelman's characterization of Margolis and defended CBC's use of him as a commentator.

“Although clearly you do not share Mr. Margolis' views, especially with regard to Israel, I fully expect there are others interviewed on CBC News Now whose views you do share. As you know, our news service has an obligation to carry different views on the controversial issues of the day affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed.”

Fegelman wrote February 6 to ask for a review of the matter. In his correspondence he cited two elements of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy to support his contention that Margolis was not suitable.

On the issue of identification of interviewees, he noted the policy states: “We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.”

On the issue of how sources are used, the policy states: “Newsgathering, whether investigative or routine, lives and dies based on the quality of its sources of information. The more controversial the story, the more critical the credibility of sources becomes. Our standards apply to all types of sources, including those coming via social media, when they are used for news gathering purposes.”

"This same clarity is necessary in our relationship with our audiences. We are clear about the relationship with the source. We let people know as precisely as possible where and from whom the information comes. This helps them evaluate that information and to put facts into context. The values of accuracy, fairness and integrity guide our handling of sources and the information they bring.”

Fegelman noted other media appearances by Margolis to support his view that he was unsuitable and that other media's use of him did not justify CBC's use, in that “two wrongs don't make a right.” He said that the errant reference to him as CBC's foreign affairs analyst “bolstered Margolis' credibility.”

Fegelman also took issue with Enkin's statement that CBC News Now also featured commentators with whom he'd agree.

“This is not a matter of getting our views across as Ms. Enkin maintains in an effort to undercut and discredit our concerns, nor is it about balancing different viewpoints. It's solely about addressing concerns regarding CBC using sources who lack credibility. In the pre-interview process, a norm in all news organizations, CBC staffers had the opportunity to vet Mr. Margolis' credentials. In that time, they would have easily found out that Margolis lacks credibility. Clearly these rudimentary checks and balances weren't done.”

Fegelman said his concerns about the interview content were not addressed.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices outline policies that strive for fair and balanced content.

On the issue of balance: “We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views. On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The policy encourages impartial treatment: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

On the issue of accuracy: “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.”

The policy notes that CBC encourages the expression of opinion to enhance public understanding. “When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.

It adds: “When we choose to present a single point of view: it is clearly labeled, and it does not misrepresent other points of view.”

While CBC's staff does not express opinions, guests and commentators do. “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.

The policy adds: “It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.”

Conclusion

The early-morning mistakes of identifying guest commentator Eric Margolis as a staff foreign affairs analyst on television and online were corrected quickly. Subsequent iterations of the online story did not include him. While all mistakes technically constitute policy violations, CBC News also fulfilled policy by promptly correcting.

The mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman is to evaluate the performance of CBC news and information content against its standards. I believe reviews are best confined to what it produces and not what some of its guests have created for others.

I am distressed by any suggestion that a guest should simply not be permitted to appear on CBC because of his opinions. Even if a commentator discomforts some, CBC should have the prerogative to feature whom it wishes, assuming that all parties operate within the policy framework. Anything censorious of a particular guest or commentator would weaken journalistic independence and public service.

I concluded it was fair to refer to Margolis as a foreign affairs analyst and not necessary to review his background. Given his widespread media familiarity and experience, and given he had witnessed events first-hand, he certainly had the credentials to appear as a credible guest. This would have been the reasonable conclusion of a producer building the segment.

If the segment had been a profile of Margolis, perhaps his background or more information on his views might have been useful. And if the segment were focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, deeper explanation of its views and activities might have been in order. But that wasn't what the segment was about. It focused on the first phase of the first Egyptian elections in the country's post-Mubarak era.

The Muslim Brotherhood is, as many have found, a difficult group to define, even more so in recent months with its formation of the Freedom and Justice Party to run for office. It is a missionary institution led primarily by the professional class. It promises to respect individual freedoms but leverages the state to impose tradition. It is hostile to Israel, officially espouses non-violence, and features some who accept a two-state territorial solution of a side-by-side Israel and Palestine. It wants to establish an Islamic state but is also pursuing paths of religious tolerance, pluralism and democracy. Margolis' comments were congruent with that ambiguity.

In a larger discussion the program might have been expected to discuss some of these complexities and Margolis' views might have been discussed at length. But there was nothing violating policy in what he said. Given that his was one of many perspectives CBC carried on the election, a segment featuring him was within journalistic policy.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman