A complaint about bias

The complainant, Rabbi Elisha Mandel, thought a column contained criticism of Israel which was unfounded and violated CBC policy on opinion. I found that there was a fundamental misunderstanding about the subject of the column and there was no violation of CBC policy or expression of bias.

COMPLAINT

On June 6, 2013 cbcnews.ca published a column by Senior Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald. The column was a reflection on the state of American media and the polarized state of American political discourse. He posits that stories in the media that get a lot of attention and traction are those that can be used by partisans of any side of an issue to bludgeon their opponents. The news-consuming public looks for facts and stories that feed their assumptions, that go along with the narrative they subscribe to as a way of making sense of their world. And the media feeds into this reality by frequently reporting assertions with little analysis or nuance.

The example Macdonald begins with is the relatively little coverage of a public rebuking of senior military officials for their tolerance for years of sexual abuse within the ranks. He contrasts this with the ongoing coverage of an Internal Revenue Service scandal in which officials delayed the granting of tax exempt status to some right wing charities. This story has much more staying power, he says, because it can be used to political advantage.

He cites a recent study in which both Democrats and Republicans are willing to believe something more if it conforms to their political beliefs. He goes on to examine what the implications are for journalism:

But a new study by the non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the intellectual rot goes much further. As a starting point, the authors employed the truism about people believing what they want to believe.

"Republicans," it notes on the first page, "are more likely than Democrats to say that the deficit rose during the Clinton administration; Democrats are more likely to believe that inflation rose under Reagan." (Both assertions are untrue.)

The researchers, professors from Yale and the University of California, then offered panels of political partisans financial incentives to tell the truth.

Lo and behold, their answers became much more factual. And the gaps between their political worldviews narrowed considerably.

What that means is that contemporary political discourse is even worse than it appears; political partisans actually know when they're relying on falsehoods to buttress their beliefs — and will let go of them if there's personal profit in it.

Given that, writes Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the work of reporters trying to set the record straight is probably having the opposite of its intended effect.

Instead of accomplishing that, he writes, journalists may instead be "raising the stakes of a partisan battle and can engender a hardening of incorrect beliefs."

So, setting out facts in a neutral fashion in the belief you are helping democracy instead plays into the hands of self-aware partisans who treasure their own delusions.

Think about the implications of that.

He then considers what some of those implications might be. He uses several reductionist examples, one of which refers to the Harper government position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Does the broad public here in fact believe the U.S. military has become a haven for sexual predators and just not care? Does the American far right secretly believe climate change really is caused by humans?

In Canada, do Stephen Harper and his most partisan supporters actually think, down deep, that Israel may actually bear some of the blame for its troubles with the Palestinians? Do New Democrats secretly think that the oil sands pipeline might be a sensible idea? (Better than, say, shipping the stuff by tanker?)

Such layers within layers are almost too depressing to contemplate.

If the Yale professors are right, this whole journalism racket may be pointless. Those of us who try to do our job properly are just dupes.

There's more money to be made working for Big Tobacco. At least in that game, people don't kid themselves about what they're accomplishing.

You felt the reference to Canadian policy vis a vis Israel was one of a long list of examples of Neil Macdonald’s anti-Israel bias. You thought the reference was false, gratuitous and a violation of CBC policy because he was allowed to express an opinion, an opinion without any facts to back it up:

“His bias against Israel is evident and he consistently drags unrelated news items about Israel so that criticism can ensue. What does Israel have to do with the IRS and sex abuse in the U.S. military in his latest article? It is immoral, unethical and improper for a CBC reporter- a taxpayer's network- to abuse his position and to state personal opinion.”

You stated that Mr. Macdonald was asserting as fact that deep down Mr. Harper and his supporters actually believe Israel is at fault for its problems with the Palestinians, and that the facts in no way bear this out:

“CBC standards dictate that the deciphering factor is that the statement must be ‘based on facts’. Therefore, are there any facts to support the contention drawn from Macdonald’s question (which was really a declarative statement) that Harper and his ‘most partisan supporters’ deep down fault Israel for the quarrels with the Palestinians? Simply put, there is no evidence or facts to support this claim therefore this is clearly Macdonald’s opinion. Even if it’s to be argued to the contrary, certainly a perception of bias exists and CBC policies say that even that should be avoided.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, responded to your concerns. After summarizing the thesis and analysis put forward in Mr. Macdonald’s column, she provides an interpretation very different from yours. She says the point he is trying to make, as he states in the column, is that according to at least one source at the Neiman Journalism lab, reporters trying to set the record straight may really be providing fodder to people who have a very particular world view. She points out that the reference to Israel is one in a series of “four hypothetical questions” to make a point about partisans and their beliefs. It is not to be taken literally:

“Mr. Macdonald invites readers to think about the implications of this hall of mirrors where partisans may believe something other than what they say and posed four hypothetical questions beginning with do Americans believe the U.S. military “has become a haven for sexual predators and just not care?” He asks, “Does the American far right secretly believe climate change really is caused by humans? “In Canada”, he asked, “do Stephen Harper and his most partisan supporters actually think, deep down, that that Israel may actually bear some of the blame for its troubles with the Palestinians?” And finally, he asked, does the NDP secretly think an oil sands pipeline might be “a sensible idea?” He might have asked if the government secretly believes crime rates are dropping or if Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford is a secret cyclist.

They are all examples used to make a point about political partisans and their beliefs. It’s a provocative notion, fanciful even; hypothetical to be sure, that follows from an effort to explain the paradox at the beginning of the column through the findings of a recent non-partisan study. It says no more about Israel than it does about oil sands policy.

It is certainly not, as a June 21 post on the HonestReporting web page says, “a smear against Israel”, nor does it in any common understanding of the word “malign Israel”. Only by misunderstanding the thrust of the column, or taking his words out of context, could it be said that it “exonerates Palestinian transgressions” or “elevates the Palestinian cause”. It does none of those things, as I hope I have made clear.”

REVIEW

You are correct that CBC Journalistic policy frowns on its journalists expressing opinion:

Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.

However, we also do not expect experienced reporters, especially when writing columns, to refrain from making inferences or drawing conclusions, based on facts. The way it is described in the Journalistic Standards and Practices is “professional judgment based on facts and expertise.”

Part of your concern here is that Mr. Macdonald was making statements without any fact to back it up. The issue as you frame it might be the case if one could agree with the way you and HonestReporting Canada interpret the meaning of the column and this particular example. The point being made is that partisan discussion lacks nuance, and allows for no shade of gray or doubt.

This column was not about Canadian policy vis a vis Israel. It does not imply that supporters of the Harper government position secretly blame Israel for its Palestinian troubles, or that the author is saying that Israel bears full responsibility. He is being provocative, in the same way he is being provocative about NDP rejection of current oil sands policy, by suggesting that partisans can make a case that is not all or nothing, but that mostly they don’t, especially in the U.S. political arena. To see this as a violation of CBC policy would require taking the words literally and out of context and to agree with your characterization of the meaning of the entire piece. In this case I do not and consequently there was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman