Being Provocative Is Allowed

Many people wrote to complain about one of the panelists on the CBC election night programme - she compared Donald Trump to Hitler. It may be upsetting, or considered inappropriate, but it is not a violation of policy. Furthermore, another panelist immediately rebutted the comparison. Two complainants, Diane Weber Bederman and Rick Matton, requested a review. This covers both complaints.

COMPLAINT

Many people complained about one of the panelists who participated in CBC News’ U.S. election night coverage. Danielle Moodie-Mills compared Donald Trump to Hitler. Two complainants, Diane Weber Bederman and Rick Matton, requested a review.

Ms. Bederman said it was “disgusting.”

You brought on a commentator who compared Donald Trump to Hitler?

That is absolutely beneath contempt ... It is beyond the pale even for unethical journalism at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr. Matton expressed much the same sentiment. He said he wrote “to express my complete disgust shock and horror” that Ms. Moodie-Mills was given a platform to speak on CBC television.

He thought that Peter Mansbridge and the other panelists did not appropriately counter her views. Mr. Matton characterized her comments as “racist propaganda and completely false information.”

CBC panelists and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge stood by silent while this woman went completely crazy on air and admitted during her rant she had nothing to lose. That alone should have been a trigger to stop her live hate filled rant on Canadian television.

Ms. Weber Bederman felt the reference was insulting to Jewish people, who were victims of the holocaust. She said:

Jewish people have a right not to have the holocaust demeaned by your organization -whether by an employee or a panelist.

Mr. Matton also thought the entire broadcast was biased and reflected the views of the “elites” in Ottawa and Toronto. He thought the panelists “hated” Donald Trump and Mr. Mansbridge was obvious in his disappointment that Hillary Clinton had lost.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, who was also responsible for the election night broadcast, replied to the complaints. He acknowledged that using a comparison to Hitler is disturbing and offensive to some people. He characterized it as hyperbole. He added that one of the panelists contradicted Ms. Moodie-Mills after she made the comparison.

I should point out that David Frum immediately countered that criticism of Mr. Trump didn’t have to go as far as a comparison to Hitler. He added that there are many degrees of criticism, but that former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi was perhaps a better comparison.

Mr. Spandier explained that the panel was put together for the range of perspectives the members brought to the table, and for their expertise on American politics.

As the results came in over the evening, Mr. Mansbridge turned repeatedly to the three panelists for their insight and often divergent perspectives on what turned out to be a dramatic and, for many, surprising outcome...There were three people on the panel: Ashley Banfield, a Canadian journalist and host of the CNN Headline News program Prime Time Justice; David Frum, a respected conservative commentator, speechwriter for former President George W. Bush and now senior editor at The Atlantic, and Danielle Moodie-Mills, a Democratic strategist, social justice activist and creator of Politini, a pop-culture and politics radio program.

He added that there were other voices heard from that evening to provide Canadians with a range of views and information so they could assess the significance of what had happened. He said that while some people were offended by Ms. Moodie-Mills, CBC News has an obligation to provide a platform for a wide range of views, and to give individuals a right to express them:

Indeed, allowing the expression of the widest possible range of views is at the heart of the notion of fairness and balance in journalism. Of course, not everyone will agree with the views expressed – or the way they are expressed -- as clearly you do not in this instance. I understand that. However, it is not the CBC’s obligation to determine what is “truth” or what views are “acceptable” (a truly dangerous notion for any broadcaster), but only to present differing views fairly and accurately affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for expression of opinion. It states:

Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day.

Those opinions are constrained by any legal limitations and through CBC policy, by bounds of good taste. And while CBC journalistic policy asks programmers to take into consideration community standards and avoid “gratuitously” giving offense to members of the public, it provides no prohibition on being provocative.

I agree that comparisons to Hitler are rarely apt, and are to be avoided. One can argue if there are historical figures who have been as evil, but it is offensive to the people who suffered at the hands of Nazism to invoke comparisons. Having said that, there is also the right of an individual to express herself in the way she sees fit. Ms. Moodie-Mills is not a CBC employee, but was hired to express her views. The context also matters. This was a live broadcast; there was no ability to edit as it went to air. Those complainants who asserted that her comments went unchallenged might have missed the exchange with David Frum, one of the other panelists. He pushed back against Ms. Moodie-Mills’ Hitler comparison:

DANIELLE MOODIE-MILLS (Democratic Strategist):

And you know who else had that same exact brand? Hitler. He had that same exact brand. And we can tiptoe around it all we want, but it's the same thing. Hitler was on the cover of "Home and Garden." He was in the "New York Times" style section. And, you know, they said, oh, but he's a lovely man. He takes long constitutions after his meal.

DAVID FRUM (Senior Editor, "The Atlantic"):

There are a lot of degrees of badness before you arrive at the Hitler terminus of the railway station.

DANIELLE MOODIE-MILLS (Democratic Strategist):

I don't know.

DAVID FRUM (Senior Editor, "The Atlantic"):

I mean, if you get Silvio Berlusconi, that's bad enough. I mean, that I think really is the analogy. And Silvio Berlusconi destroyed the integrity of the Italian judiciary, he massively enriched himself, he wrecked the Italian party system and he plunged Italy into an economic crisis that it still hasn't recovered from. And what he also did was even though he's one of the most important leaders of one the most important countries in the EU, because of his own weaknesses, he was so vulnerable, he was never to stand up to the Germans and make sure that the southern European countries of which Italy is the natural lead… Anyway, that's enough about Berlusconi. Why am I going on about that?

DANIELLE MOODIE-MILLS (Democratic Strategist):

Because it was fascinating, David.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD (CNN):

Because it wasn't Hitler.

DAVID FRUM (Senior Editor, "The Atlantic"):

But the point is it doesn't have to be Hitler to be inadvisable.

Mr. Frum called her out for her use of this comparison. The broader conversation that led into this exchange was one that was critical of the Democratic Party and Ms. Clinton. And while David Frum did not support Mr. Trump, he is associated with several Republican presidents and provided a critique of the Democrats. Just before the exchange quoted above, Mr. Frum pointed out the weaknesses of the Clinton campaign and the charges of corruption that dogged her:

Because, look, I've had Democratic friends in those famous cocktail parties that everyone gets so testy about, and what they say is they always assumed that Hillary Clinton would win and then they would say, you know, the one thing that bothers me is they're so corrupt. Bill Clinton collected since leaving office a quarter of a billion dollars, fees, business deals, gifts to his foundation. That money would never have been given to him if there weren't a strong sense that he was not only a past president of the United States, but the spouse of a likely next president of the United States. And Democrats know all of that as well as Republicans. And they had to go on TV and defend it and pretend it's not a problem and pretend that it doesn't stick in their gorge, but they didn't like it. And that was one of the sub-themes of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Mr. Matton characterized the panelists as “Trump haters.” Ms. Moodie-Mills was passionate and used hyperbolic language, and was certainly the most emotional and partisan of the three. The other two panelists, it is true, were also critical of Mr. Trump. The corollary is not that they were in favor of the Democrats or Hillary Clinton. Their credentials and positions were laid out clearly at the start of the broadcast by Peter Mansbridge:

Alright, time for our studio guests, anxious for their say...They are all entrenched in U.S. politics, whether as strategists or journalists. Two are Canadians who have become very successful in the United States because of their understanding of U.S. politics and where it sits in the world. David Frum is senior editor of the Atlantic and former speechwriter for George W. Bush. Ashley Banfield host of the news CNN Headline News programme Prime Time Justice and Democratic strategist Danielle Moodie-Mills is creator of the pop culture and politics program Politini.

I had a long conversation with the senior producer of news specials, Lara Chatterjee, about the process of choosing the panel. She said that their goal was to provide knowledge and understanding of the U.S. election campaign and to choose panellists who could explain the state of mind of the U.S. electorate. She said “we looked for people who could give us some perspective on the changes going on in the country, not a partisan approach.” They also looked for people who were knowledgeable and plugged into the ways elections worked, and the strengths and weaknesses of the two campaigns. That led to the choice of Mr. Frum, who had worked on earlier Republican campaigns, and Ms. Moodie-Mills, who had done grassroots work for the Democrats. She said they also chose Ms. Moodie-Mills because she had the best knowledge of Canada of the various people they were considering. There was no way to predict which way events would unfold, and they thought it likely there would be the need to talk about issues which have a lot of impact on Canada.

The other two panelists are Canadian, but with deep and intimate knowledge of American society and politics. None of them were Trump supporters; neither were they supporters of Ms. Clinton. The journalist, Ashleigh Banfield, had no stated preference. Mr. Frum had earlier supported Jeb Bush and Ms. Moodie-Mills had worked for Bernie Sanders. Ms. Chatterjee also told me they had tried, since March, to get an interview with Mr. Trump or a spokesperson from his campaign, with no success. As they are planning for the January 20th inauguration, they are continuing to seek guests associated with Mr. Trump, and are making some headway. I note that even the American networks had difficulty on election night -- there were not that many Conservative pundits who supported Mr. Trump. The few that were openly in support were already contracted to U.S. networks and not available to CBC.

Mr. Frum, associated with the Republican Party, did not support Mr. Trump but he did provide valuable historical context, as well as critique of the Democratic Party and its candidate. The panelists’ conversation about Mr. Trump centred around his campaign statements and tactics or his repeating lies and launching personal attacks. Since his success was unexpected, the discussion centred on how someone who had, as Ms. Banfield put it, committed “career-ending” moves had prevailed. She went on to point out why, despite that, he may have won:

They [Trump voters] wanted change any way it came. They wanted the boil lanced in America. They wanted that swamp drained. And they did not care if it was a sexist, racist, ascribe any other description you want. I think it didn't matter who it was as long as he was exciting and committed and he had a marketing brand that could decimate that woman.

The programmers attempted to provide a range of voices, including those that were in favor of Mr. Trump, by broadcasting comments from citizens across the United States. There was a reporter at Trump headquarters, and comment and analysis from various officials, on locations across the United States who talked about the reasons for Mr. Trump’s success.

The broadcast team was on air for hours in an evening that had an unpredictable outcome. To point out that it was a surprise as some proof of “mainstream media” bias is an oversimplification. There is certainly analysis and criticism to be considered about media coverage, but it is complex - as most issues are. It is fair to say that the U.S. election campaign and the imminent Trump presidency, has stirred emotions and created divisions that are almost unprecedented. The legacy of his campaign tactics and statements, and his reliance on Twitter to pronounce on complex issues created challenges for conventional media notions of balance and fairness. CBC News management and programmers, along with their colleagues in most reputable media organizations, will have to monitor coverage and develop innovative ways of ensuring positions based on truth and facts are respectfully reflected.

On election night, the outcome was surprising, the race was tight and both host and panelists reflected that fact. As I have already mentioned, in the course of the many hours of broadcast, they speculated about and analyzed what had happened. This is how Mr. Mansbridge introduced the broadcast at midnight eastern standard time:

It is midnight and it has been a night that none of the polls predicted. It is the night Trump predicted all along against all odds he would have. Clinton supporters are in shock….It is not over, but it is all but over...some states that were expected to go blue have flipped.

Ms. Moodie-Mills’ outburst was one small segment of a wide-ranging and comprehensive election night programme. It did not go unchallenged. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman