O'Leary's hyperbole

The complainant, Gord Kinahan, was one of many who took strong exception to statements made by Kevin O’Leary during a broadcast of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange. He said he was delighted to hear that an Oxfam study found that the 85 richest people in the world had wealth equal to the poorest 3.5 billion. Many took his remarks to mean that poverty was a good thing and this was highly offensive. Others also pointed out that the exchange between the two hosts of the program missed an opportunity for an informed discussion on a serious matter. The program revisited the issue, talked about it more substantively and clarified that Mr. O’Leary did not think poverty was “fantastic.” While there may have been a lapse in judgment, there was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain about statements the co-host of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Kevin O’Leary, made during a broadcast. On the January 20, 2014 edition of the program, he and Amanda Lang had an exchange about a newly released Oxfam study on global wealth inequality. The study, entitled Working for the Few, highlights the issue of growing income disparity. In talking about the report, Amanda Lang highlighted the statistic that the “combined wealth of the world’s 85 richest people is equal to the 3 and a half billion poorest people.” Kevin O’Leary replied that “It’s fantastic”. He went on to say “this is a great thing because it inspires everybody – gets them motivation to look up to the one percent – and say I want to become one of those people.”

You were one of over 75 people who took exception to Mr. O’Leary’s statement. You pointed out that “as a public broadcaster, CBC should reflect a wide range of views.” You said Mr. O’Leary used the study to “reinforce his capitalist shtick”:

“His response was irresponsible and bordered on spreading hate. He seemed more interested in gloating and cajoling and at no time did he enter into an intelligent discussion. He was only rebuked in the mildest of forms (possibly due to the inane manner of the response). Ms. Lang suggesting that she would tell him how he should have answered during the break further trivialized the issue. If CBC wants to be a credible news source then it needs to act as such. Let Mr. O'Leary bait and harass people on reality television such as Dragon's Den, but let intelligent discourse be the forum in news programming. I would hope that CBC would right its wrong, and have a rational, informed discussion surrounding these issues... Anything less and your journalistic standards and practices could be confused with those of the proposed Fox News North.”

Other complainants thought his comments were “rude and degrading,” that the quality of the debate was poor, and that the remarks were insensitive and infuriating. Many felt it was a missed opportunity to examine the issue of income disparity.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Robert Lack, replied to your concerns. He agreed that “Mr. O’Leary’s remarks, on their own, appeared at least insensitive.” He said that it was not the show’s intention, nor was it Mr. O’Leary’s. He explained that Mr. O’Leary’s style on the program is to exaggerate his “pro-capitalist persona.” But that is not usually where the matter ends. It is a launching point for a more serious and substantive discussion but that didn’t happen in this instance:

“Part of the reason was timing, a governing driver of any live television program. This topic was the final part of a long opening segment on the program. Because of commitments to other fixed-length segments that day, our producers were forced to limit this topic to a little more than a minute in length. The result was that Mr. O’Leary’s exaggerated comments were not followed by a serious discussion as they should have been.”

He told you that Mr. O’Leary made the same point after the broadcast and that he did not intend to disparage poor people. Mr. Lack committed to you that the issue would be revisited on the January 27th broadcast. He also explained that the program producers included the Oxfam study as one of the “Big 5” stories in the opening segment because they feel that global wealth disparity is one of “the pressing issues of our time.” He added that it was an issue the program had dealt with in many other broadcasts:

“Over the past year, our program has focused on many aspects of the issue that are closer to home, including the growing fight to raise the minimum wage in Canada and the United States, stagnant wage growth, the significant loss of well paying manufacturing jobs in many parts of the country, and the resulting apparent decline of the middle class, as well as the struggle of unions around the world as they fight anti-labour moves by businesses, and in some cases, government.”

REVIEW

The initial discussion of the Oxfam study was part of the opening feature of the program entitled “the Big 5.” Program producers highlight five business-related stories which are then used as a vehicle for banter between the two program hosts. Usually there is also some analysis or other information provided, but primarily this feature seems to be about the give and take between Lang and O’Leary.

As I and my predecessor have said on several occasions, Mr. O’Leary is hired as a commentator, and therefore has more latitude to give opinion than most show hosts. The fact that his position is anomalous can lead to some confusion. Nevertheless, he is required, in the context of the program, to abide by the relevant CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. His statement in and of itself is not a violation of policy, as commentators are able to provide their views based on the perspective they bring to the discussion. However much people disagree with Mr. O’Leary’s views, he is entitled to express them. In this instance, he expressed them in an insensitive and exaggerated manner:

Amanda Lang: The combined wealth - this is according to Oxfam - of the world's 85 richest people is equal to the 3 and half billion poorest people.

Kevin O'Leary: It's fantastic. And this is a great thing because it inspires everybody - gets them motivation to look up to the one percent - and say I want to become one of those people. I'm going to fight hard to get to the top. This is fantastic news. Of course I applaud it.

Amanda Lang: (Long stare)

Kevin O'Leary: What can be wrong with this?

Amanda Lang: Really?

Kevin O'Leary: Yes, really. I celebrate capitalism.

Amanda Lang: Someone living on a dollar a day in Africa is getting up in the morning and saying I’m going to be Bill Gates?

Kevin O’Leary: That’s the motivation that everybody needs.

Amanda Lang: The only thing between me and that guy is motivation?

Kevin O’Leary: I am not against charity.

Amanda Lang: I just need to pull up my socks. I don’t have socks.

Kevin O’Leary: Don’t tell me that you want to redistribute wealth again. That’s never going to happen.

Amanda Lang: You know you take a simple stat like this which is neither good nor bad; it’s just a fact.

Kevin O’Leary: It’s a celebratory stat. I am very excited about it.

Mr. Lack reports that Mr. O’Leary agrees that a serious discussion should have followed, and that his intent was not to disparage poor people. Whatever his intent, there is no indication he was about to have a substantive conversation about the issue. Mr. Lack explained that time constraints did not allow the hosts to return to the issue during that broadcast. It would have been preferable had they done so.

CBC journalistic policy contains a commitment to accountability. The mission and values state that there is an obligation “to act responsibly and be accountable”:

We are aware of the impact of our journalism and are honest with our audiences. We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.

The program producers and hosts responded in an appropriate fashion to the strong reaction they received to the remarks. On January 27, Ms. Lang and Mr. O’Leary revisited the Oxfam study. Ms. Lang began by acknowledging the angry audience mail the program had received. She went on to say:

Amanda Lang: Okay, let’s start with the obvious because even for you that came across a little bit rude. You do not think it’s fantastic that people are poor. That is not what you meant to say at all.

Kevin O’Leary: No I don’t think poverty is fantastic. I don’t think income disparity is fantastic. What I think is how successful capitalism has been over the last hundred years reducing poverty and reducing income disparity. In the last 30 years the number of people living on this globe in extreme poverty has been reduced from 42% down to 17%. Amanda I want you to thank capitalism for that because that’s how it happened.

Amanda Lang: Yeah I knew where you were going even as we had the conversation. You were focused on the wealthy and why that’s a good thing. It’s a mistake though that people make and I would say people on a certain part of the spectrum who feel that somehow focusing on anywhere else is somehow anti-capitalist, anti-wealth. It isn’t to say that the disparity is growing. ...the Oxfam report makes a point actually that they’re concerned that there is something systemic about this. It’s not that wealth is bad; it’s not a zero sum game but that the disparity grows larger because the wealthy are controlling the systems and that is a problem we may need to address.

The discussion goes on in this vein – Mr. O’Leary stating that capitalism has provided prosperity and Ms. Lang mentioning the challenges of global wealth disparity, and pointing out the Oxfam report makes some important observations and recommendations. Ms. Lang returns to the point that there is room for improvement and Mr. O’Leary returns to his defense of capitalism and its contribution to all levels of society.

There might be an issue if this was the only discussion on wealth disparity the program had done. Mr. Lack points out that the program has dealt with it by looking at issues like stagnant wage growth, the growing movement to raise the minimum wage here and in the United States, the role of unions and the loss of manufacturing jobs. I note the next day Ms. Lang had an interview with Robert Reich, a former United States Secretary of Labor and proponent of a higher minimum wage.

CBC journalistic policy calls for balance and range of perspective over time. Mr. O’Leary is present on the show for his experience and knowledge of the business world, and for his strong perspective. The program producers should be mindful of that strong perspective and ensure that other commentators provide different perspectives.

The Lang & O’Leary Exchange is built around the tension of Mr. O’Leary’s larger than life personality. In the past, the Executive Producer, Robert Lack, has told complainants that much of the audience enjoys the banter between the two hosts and Mr. O’Leary’s style. It falls to Ms. Lang to temper and provide a counterpoint to Mr. O’Leary’s ad hominem observations so that the program abides by journalistic standards.

There was no violation of policy in this case, but there was a lapse in judgement. In the same January 20th episode, during another heated exchange on another topic, Ms. Lang, somewhat tongue in cheek, admonishes Mr. O’Leary: “So again, your hyperbole takes you from being partially correct to dead wrong.” That may be something the show producers might want to bear in mind.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman