Commentary in News

The complainant, Tom Korski, thought an interview segment with a CBC reporter was “pseudo-commentary” passing as news. It was a legitimate analysis based on Paul Hunter’s experience in the field. Explaining what conclusions are based on helps make that clearer.

COMPLAINT

You complained that an exchange between acting National host and reporter Paul Hunter concerning the Democratic Party Convention was inaccurate and biased in favor of the Democrats. The Convention was to begin Monday, but all day Sunday there had been protests by Bernie Sanders supporters. You thought Mr. Hunter downplayed the size and angry tone of these demonstrations. You cited coverage from the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer that mentioned thousands were in the street and that these demonstrations were larger than anything at the Republican Convention in Cleveland. You said he also failed to mention chanting against Hillary Clinton. You also pointed out that Mr. Hunter characterized each Convention in very opinionated and loaded language.

View[er]s of the July 24 broadcast of The National could only conclude that demonstrations in Philadelphia were minor and supportive of the DNC; that Republicans are "hard", "angry", "enraging", "ugly", "hurtful", "low" and hateful; and Democrats are positive and inspirational.

This broadcast was as maddening a pseudo-commentary in the guise of reportage as I've ever seen on television. Relevant facts were omitted, and undocumented opinion was substituted for fact.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He explained that The National provided extensive coverage of the Democratic Party Convention on July 24th. He pointed out that the opening item was the question-and-answer segment with Mr. Hunter and it began by pointing out that things were not going well. He added that in the first part of the segment, they discussed the issues arising out of the news of the day: the impact of the leaked memos indicating party officials had attempted to sabotage Bernie Sander’s campaign would have on the Convention. His response indicated this was having a negative effect:

Having reported the previous week from the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Mr. Hunter was in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center that Sunday on the eve of the opening of the Democratic Convention. He told Ms. Arsenault that it was “absolutely not” what the Democrats wanted. He said that the leak “underlines pretty much everything that Bernie Sanders has been saying from the get go, that the system is rigged against him”. Ms. Clinton was expecting the Convention to be pretty smooth sailing, he said. “Now, she’s got more work to do. She’s got to work extra hard to unite the party.” He went on to say that he had spoken with a Bernie Sanders delegate earlier who said that at this point he wasn’t sure he could vote for Ms. Clinton.

He explained that it was in the second part of the interview that Mr. Hunter and Ms. Arsenault “shifted the focus from the news of the day to the character of convention.” It was in this answer that Mr. Hunter characterized the Republican Convention, based on his observations there, and contrasted that with what he anticipated to be the tone and tenor of the Democratic Convention set to officially begin the next day. He told you he thought it was a legitimate scene-setter and that “based on his knowledge and understanding” he was explaining what he expected to happen. He quoted Mr. Hunter saying the “vibe” in Philadelphia was different from the one he had experienced the week before at the Republican Convention, and that while there were demonstrators in Philadelphia, it was unlike the “ugly and hurtful” things he had seen in Cleveland. Mr. Spandier told you it was acceptable for a senior journalist to make a judgment call based on their reporting:

...we expect them to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence they collect. That was what Mr. Hunter did here. While we expect our journalists to refrain from expressing their own personal views or advocating a particular point of view, that does not preclude experienced journalists – Mr. Hunter, among them – from bringing their knowledge and background to bear on a controversial issue and drawing conclusions based on that evidence.

He added that The National did not provide the same detail about the demonstrations as some of the other news sources you cited. He said the resources were not available, nor the time on the broadcast to do it all, and choices were made based on those available resources and what editors thought would be “the most interesting and significant stories to Canadians”.

REVIEW

There are several principles of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices that pertain here. There is the requirement to provide fair and balanced coverage - and that it should be achieved over a “reasonable period of time”:

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.

You are concerned that the interview segment would create a false view of what was going on. The interview existed in the context of several items that evening - and while there wasn’t one specifically devoted to the demonstrations, it was the frame around the coverage. The opening headline on The National was:

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, controversy forces out a top party official. Paul Hunter sizes up the damage.

As Mr. Spandier indicated to you, in the first part of the interview the discussion centred on the problems the Democrats were having. The introduction began with the news that the party chair had announced she would resign:

ADRIENNE ARSENAULT:

Now, some drama ahead of the Democratic National Convention. The party's chair says she will resign following a massive leak of emails. They reveal, among other things, that the DNC seemed to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This all cast a shadow at a time when Democrats are trying to prove they are more united than Republicans. The CBC's Paul Hunter is in Philadelphia. Paul, what is your sense of the impact of those leaks?

PAUL HUNTER:

Yeah. Well, this is not helpful for Democrats, and absolutely not the way they would have wanted this week to begin. Indeed, it underlines pretty much everything that Bernie Sanders has been saying from the get go, that the system is rigged against him, and that he never stood a chance. So, you know, one of the tasks for Hillary Clinton this week has been to not mess up. Just to keep the ship steered forward. Now she's got more work to do. She's got to work extra hard to unite the party. I was speaking with a Bernie delegate a little while ago who told me, look, absolutely he does not want Donald Trump in the White House, but can he vote for Hillary Clinton? He couldn't say he could do that either. Not with today's news. So Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her this week.

The important issue was not the size of the various demonstrations - this “scene-setter” clearly spelled out that the Democrats faced challenges. There were several items that referenced weaknesses and vulnerabilities for the Democrats and their candidate. The exchange you found so objectionable was about the anticipated tone and atmosphere of the Convention. What Mr. Hunter said, demonstrators aside - and he did mention one angry enough to not vote for Clinton - was that the message and atmosphere in Cleveland was different. He specifically mentioned hateful and hurtful paraphernalia. He was referring to t-shirts, buttons and other objects that referenced Ms. Clinton’s body parts, as well as other slogans and sayings that were negative and offensive to many. Mr. Hunter was not the only one to observe that groups outside the Republican venue were reported to be misogynist and others bordered on racist. There was nothing equivalent at the Democratic Convention. There is no symmetry here --balance would not be achieved by emphasizing the demonstrations when talking about the upcoming Convention and what would likely be the atmosphere against a very different scene in Cleveland. This is the exchange you strongly objected to:

ADRIENNE ARSENAULT:

We were both there at the Republican Convention in Cleveland a few days ago. We witnessed those hard, angry tones. How different do you think Philadelphia is likely to be?

PAUL HUNTER:

180 degrees, Adrienne. The contrast could not be more stark. You know, that seemed a Convention intent on enraging. This one is expected to be a Convention that will try to inspire. Hate versus hope. You know, yes, there are demonstrators here. We met with some of them today. You know, you and I saw the ugly, hurtful paraphernalia that was floating around outside the arena in Cleveland. I don't expect to see that here. The vibe is completely different. I mean, the demonstrators we saw today, they were "down with fracking," "be more liberal," "effectively you are doing a pretty okay job, but maybe you could do better." It's clear the Republican Convention set the bar low when it comes to positivity, and one thing about coming second in terms of conventions, is that you get to have the last word, and Democrats now have the next few days to counter the message from the Republicans last week and make it a bit more positive. We'll see.

Bias by omission is a lot more difficult to substantiate. Often it comes down to a subjective assessment of what one wants to hear, often to reinforce what one already thinks or believes. Throughout the day on Sunday CBC News Network and CBC online covered the demonstrations surrounding the Convention, as well as the leak of the emails that fueled them. One headline on CBCNews.ca was Sanders voters feel vindicated by leaked emails showing 'rigged' system: Democrats open their Convention amid drama and controversy that fuels anger among Sanders voters. Subsequent stories, online and on News network reported on the number of protestors and conveyed the anger of disgruntled Sanders supporters.

As I have mentioned already, the coverage was not all positive, and finding more negative things to say about the atmosphere anticipated moving forward would create a false balance because the discussion was about two different things. And as the commentator interviewed later in the program mentioned, if your message and strategy is that there is a need to “make America great again”, then the message will be more negative to make that point. The Democratic strategy was entirely different and it sent a different message. Betsy Fischer Martin, the analyst interviewed, had this observation:

ADRIENNE ARSENAULT:

Betsy, we heard Paul Hunter, our correspondent in Philly, earlier this evening talking about -- expecting a 180-degree shift in tone from the anger and fear talk at the Republican Convention. What are the distinctions that you are expecting?

BETSY FISCHER MARTIN (American University School of Public Affairs):

I think there will be. We heard in Cleveland, obviously, it was so much doom and gloom, and if you are Donald Trump, you are selling, you know, make America great again, so you have to sell the fact that America is not great. Just like if you are selling detergent, you are selling tide, you are selling the stain and not the detergent. That's what Donald Trump was trying to do in Cleveland. Fast forward here to Philadelphia, I think you'll see a much different tone from Hillary Clinton. She's obviously part of the previous administration, so her point is going to be America is already great. Let me tell you how I’m going to make it greater, and she will lay out proposals to do that.

You referred to this segment as “pseudo-commentary in the guise of reportage”. It is not pseudo - it is commentary; analysis based on the reporter’s observations and experience. Mr. Hunter has been covering the campaign since the days of the primaries. It is a salutary reminder that it would be helpful to cite what events or statements lead a reporter to a particular conclusion. There was one reference to “hateful paraphernalia”. In speaking with Mr. Hunter he talked about people making racist and sexist remarks that he would characterize as hateful. When using strong language on air, it is helpful to provide some examples. Mr. Spandier explained that it is reasonable to expect senior and experienced journalists to draw conclusions based on their observation of events. The policy on impartiality states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

To be sure, there are few public debates more polarizing and divisive these days than Donald Trump’s campaign. Characterizing it in that way, whether one agrees with some or all of his views, is hardly radical analysis. CBC News has, and will continue to report on the presidential campaign in a variety of ways and from multiple perspectives. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman