Interview with economist Laurence Kotlikoff

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant strongly objected to an interview with economist Laurence Kotlikoff because he thinks his views on U.S. debt are unfounded. The review finds that it is acceptable to present a range of views even if some may be controversial.

I write to share with you the results of my review of your complaint concerning an interview with economist Laurence Kotlikoff on the November 27, 2012 edition of Power & Politics.

The segment explored the views of the American economist regarding U.S. federal debt as the deadline for the so-called “fiscal cliff” approached. Host Hannah Thibedeau introduced him, stating that his views were controversial. Briefly, he argues that U.S. debt is some 20 times larger than the government acknowledges, and that the short term crisis is not the issue, but the long term consequence of this liability. Laurence Kotlikoff is Professor of Economics at Boston University, a former economist with the U.S. President's Council of Economic Advisors, and author of The Coming Generational Storm.

In your letter of complaint you stated that Power & Politics gave Laurence Kotlikoff a platform for his views, which you strongly disagree with, referring to them as “absurd.” You felt the program should not have given him air time to begin with, and at a minimum, his views should have been challenged in the course of the interview, or an opposing view should have been represented at the same time.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices deals with the issue of balance in this way:

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.

In response to your complaint, Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, responded by saying that it is CBC's responsibility to provide a range of views, and while you disagree with Kotlikoff's thesis, “…Dr. Kotlikoff's is just one point of view, other stories, different points of view and additional information have been covered in previous stories and I have no doubt will be picked up in future ones.”

An even casual search of program logs of Power & Politics and the CBC News websites does yield a broad array of interviews and treatments around the US fiscal challenges. It also deals with the issue at the heart of Dr. Kotlikoff's thesis: that the liability of an aging population and the costs associated with it, among other factors, makes the long term debt challenge even greater. A range of views has been explored on Power & Politics, and across CBC News platforms

Economic theories are just that – and interpretations, opinions and views are widely divergent. CBC programmers are obligated to present a range of those views. You felt the host did not challenge the interviewee and should have. In her response, Ms McGuire notes: “While interviewers may reasonably be expected to test statements made, even challenge them on occasion, they may also simply encourage interviewees to explain their point of view. That was the case here.”

This is an acceptable response based on CBC policy on Opinion which in part states:

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.

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.

In the Power & Politics segment, and in its programming about economic issues, these conditions have been met. The interview falls well within acceptable journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman