Political analysis of Giffords shooting

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review concerns a CBC Television report on The National following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords of the U.S. Congress. There was an error in the report, but correct information was subsequently presented. Its analytical thrust was within policy.

On January 8, a gunman fired upon a crowd gathered in a Tucson, Arizona supermarket parking lot to hear Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the U.S. Congress, at a mid-morning outdoor constituency meeting.

Giffords, the target of the attack, was shot in the head and was among the critically injured. The gunman proceeded to fire randomly in the crowd of 20 to 30 people. Nineteen were shot, six of whom died, including a federal judge, one of her staff, and a nine-year-old child.

That night, CBC Television's The National carried analysis from its senior Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, who looked at the political implications of the shootings. Macdonald said “a firestorm” could be expected because it would be seen “as an attack on democracy itself.”

He described Giffords as a Democrat who had opposed Arizona's anti-immigration law and “whose face was on Sarah Palin's Facebook page with a crosshair on her as one of the Democrats that should be targeted politically at least in the last election.”

Macdonald said the political culture in the United States had become more verbally violent, and no matter if the gunman was deranged, “I guarantee you this will devolve into an argument over the incitement or the perceived violent incitement in politics in this country nowadays.”

Macdonald went on, saying in part: “Guns are tied to politics in this country, and the rhetoric has become increasingly confrontational, if not violent.” He said he had attended political rallies nearby with open displays of firearms, reflecting a belief by some that it was necessary to take arms against an oppressive government.

“I am not saying that conservatives were behind shooting Congresswoman Giffords,” Macdonald said, but that there was a “scary dimension” in American politics at the moment.

The next night, January 9, Macdonald noted: “Last year, Tea Party icon Sarah Palin, who advised conservatives, “Don't retreat, reload,” actually posted a map on her Facebook page identifying vulnerable Democrats, including Gabrielle Giffords, with gun-sight crosshairs.”

The report carried reaction at the time from Giffords: “We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences to that action.” Macdonald said the sheriff investigating the shooting was making the same point.

His January 10 report said of the gunman: “From the sounds of it, Jared Lee Loughner is mentally unstable, if not insane, and judging from his unhinged writings, he belongs to no political camp. There. Once again, Loughner is probably crazy and probably not a conservative, let alone a Republican.”

A series of clips featured extreme right-wing commentators, who Macdonald said provided “the political environment in which Jared Lee Loughner's disturbed mind evolved.”

He went on, saying in part: “Now, certainly, the rhetoric on the political left isn't terribly polite either. It can be condescending and snide and generally portrays the far right as simplistic fools. But the violent rhetoric is mostly on the right, as is the theme that picking up a gun can somehow be a legitimate response to government.”

Macdonald discounted the fears that censorship was coming. Rather, he said all that could be done was what President Barack Obama had done that day in appealing to the public's better nature and calling for civility.

“Except, in many ways, this country isn't about a very civil place, and a lot of its citizens love that or at least they love their right to be uncivil. Does speech have consequences? Yes, it does. Is America prepared to accept those consequences? Absolutely,” Macdonald said.

The complainant, Michael Harwood, wrote January 10 to say that Macdonald's assertion that Giffords' face was on Sarah Palin's Facebook page “was an absolutely untrue statement. At no time did Congresswoman Giffords' photo appear on Sarah Palin's Facebook page with a rifle crosshair sight on it. The truth is far less inflammatory. Ms. Palin's Facebook page contained a map of the United States, with rifle crosshair sights on geographical state locations corresponding to Democratic seats that were being targeted during the 2010 congressional election campaign.”

Harwood noted that Macdonald had changed that statement to reflect the fact that the Facebook page featured electoral districts in crosshairs and asserted there was a “world of difference” between the two.

Mainly, Harwood asserted the program blamed extreme right-wingers for the attack with “palpable eagerness” and excluded instances of violent rhetoric by the left “to convince the viewer that political hate speech is the province of the right.”

He wrote again January 11, having seen the January 10 broadcast, to say in part: “It is my contention that Mr. Macdonald's depiction of violent American political rhetoric as the near- exclusive domain of the right is utterly false, and is the product of an open, pronounced bias held by Mr. Macdonald in favour of the political and ideological left.”

Harwood added: “It is one thing to harbour such a one-sided, false view, but quite another for a journalist to so unabashedly inject it into his/her work. Even more troubling is the question, how did Mr. Macdonald's segment make it past the editors and producers at The National?”

As a specific example, Harwood noted a violent statement by Democratic Congressman Paul Kanjorski about a Republican gubernatorial candidate. There had been death threats on President George W. Bush and violent rhetoric from some left-wing commentators.

Harwood further wrote March 1 to pursue his complaint.

Mark Harrison, the executive producer of The National, wrote back November 25, 2011, and expressed a sincere apology for the time it had taken to respond.

Harwood had written January 11 to complain about fairness in the stories Macdonald reported. In his response, Harrison said Macdonald's report was an analysis that permitted some judgment.

Harrison said the January 10 report was clearly identified as analysis and appeared when such material is presented typically in the program. He noted Macdonald emphasized there was no evidence connecting the gunman to a political wing but that political discourse had “become extremely uncivil.”

Macdonald's assertion that violent rhetoric is mostly on the right was permitted within journalistic policy that allows journalists to make judgment calls.

“While you would be right to say that CBC policy expects journalists to refrain from expressing their own views or advocating a point of view, it does not preclude experienced journalists from bringing their knowledge and background to bear on a controversial issue and drawing conclusions based on that evidence,” Harrison wrote. “While Mr. Macdonald's statement was a generalization, it was based on his own experience — not merely as someone who lives in the United States, but as someone who closely monitors commentary from the entire political spectrum and who also routinely covers political speeches, rallies and candidate debates. Although one can usually find exceptions to generalizations, as you have done, such exceptions do not automatically make the original observation invalid.”

Harrison said Macdonald never said the left weren't using rhetoric advocating the right to bear arms, but that the activity was “mostly” on the right.

“'Mostly' allows ample room for the instances you cite,” Harrison said.

Harrison noted that presidents of all political stripes are the subject of death threats. He said the Kanjorski statement only came to light after Macdonald's report and would not have been representative of the left even if Macdonald would have known about them at the time.

Harrison wrote again December 6 to address the January 8 report that said Giffords' face was in the crosshairs on Palin's Facebook page.

He agreed that Harwood was right, that “we regret the error,” and that correct information was in the January 9 report.

Harwood wrote back December 12 to say that the “serious misrepresentation of the facts” should have been publicly corrected.

He also wrote separately on December 12 that there was no “plausible defence” for omitting information about violent rhetoric from the left about Bush because Macdonald presented rhetoric from the right about Obama.

On January 9, 2012, Harrison wrote Harwood again to say he had discussed the points he had raised with Macdonald. He also had raised the point about the on-air correction with a CBC News committee looking at policy and practices involving corrections and clarifications. That committee would be making recommendations to CBC News in the very near future, he said.

Harwood asked for a review of the two issues of fairness and accuracy.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed and fair treatment of varying perspectives and impartiality that “precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.”

On the issue of impartiality, it adds: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

When reporting live: “We undertake to act responsibly in the circumstances and to give people information we have reasonably verified, and to stay away from rumour and speculation.”

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

Conclusion

Macdonald applied his professional judgment and expertise to the issue. He had experience in witnessing events he discussed and it was therefore acceptable to link in his analysis of conditions the rhetoric from the right with the degeneration of discourse and societal violence.

He was also clear in what he was not saying. He interrupted the flow of his analysis twice to note he was not saying conservatives were behind the shooting and not saying there was not similar left-wing rhetoric.

While it is not necessarily a full justification, I note that the Facebook example was not used uniquely by CBC News. Several other organizations were quick to point out that Giffords' district was targeted by Palin on her page. They also drew a link between the rhetoric and the violence.

Even though there was a complaint that his argumentation did not include references to other events, I concluded Macdonald was within policy in using information to provide analysis without providing opinion.

Macdonald was reporting live in a talkback with host Nancy Wilson when he erred in the first report January 8 in describing Sarah Palin's Facebook page. He said Giffords' face, and not her district, was shown in the crosshair on a map.

These distinctions are not worlds apart. Regardless of which imagery was used, the inflammatory concept of targeting and the allusion to gunplay was there, and they gave rise to legitimate analysis. I could not conclude that, in the circumstances, the complaint was justified or that the misstatement was substantial.

Macdonald provided the correct information the next night on the same program. In that there was a violation of policy in presenting inaccurate information, there was also some redress in subsequently and repeatedly presenting the correct information.

While CBC News told the complainant it regretted the error, I have noted in other reviews my personal view that it is preferable to correct the matter with the audience and alert it to an earlier mistake. But many issues factor into a correction, including whether it unnecessarily disrupts the flow of a report or distracts from a presentation. I note through correspondence related to this review that CBC News says it is working on a new policy concerning corrections and clarifications to further define how it presents such material.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman