Opinion and Balance in a Trump Universe

The complainant, Gordon Swaters, thought CBC News’ recently launched Opinion section featured far too many anti-Trump columns. Closer analysis showed there were different perspectives. In a post-truth era, it’s going to be a challenge to get it right.

COMPLAINT

You complained about an Opinion piece written by Neil Macdonald shortly after the U.S. election. You took exception to “Mr. Macdonald’s commentary on President-Elect Trump’s campaign, his election and those that support him.” You noted Mr. Macdonald is entitled to his views, which you characterized as “extreme, nasty and unnecessarily harsh”, but you thought that he was given too many opportunities to express those views without any balancing perspectives. You said this violated CBC News’ mandate to provide fair, balanced and evenhanded coverage.

After you received the CBC management response, you rejected the assurance that balance would be achieved over time. You cited another column just published by Mr. Macdonald. You asked that countering views be published quickly, “not down the road in some distant future.”

How about asking, for example, Conrad Black to publish an opinion piece on Trump right now! Good God, how about a balanced presentation right now. Not in some distant idealized future. Sadly, I am forced into only one conclusion. The CBC is a biased "news" organization. It continues to publish one-sided opinion pieces like Macdonald's over and over again while NEVER publishing opinion pieces expressing the other side's point of view.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for @cbcnews, Steven Ladurantaye, responded to your complaint. He told you that he agreed with you that Mr. Macdonald’s pieces required balance through the publication of opinion columns with other points of view and perspectives. He explained the Opinion section was launched November 7, 2016 to “highlight many other freelance voices.” He added Mr. Macdonald will no longer be reporting, but will write on a range of topics within this section as well.

He informed you that even in the Opinion section the value of balance will be upheld. He noted that CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for a range of views, taking into “account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are” and that they appear over a “reasonable period of time.”

I can assure you we will give voice to all manner of opinions on Donald Trump in the coming days, months and years. I can only imagine what these opinion writers will have to work with as material in that time, but I’m guessing it will be good reading.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy on opinion. Two aspects of the policy are particularly relevant here:

When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.

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.

In the period since the U.S. election, which also roughly coincides with the launching of CBC News’ Opinion section, there have been 9 columns written about the impact of the election of Donald Trump. It would oversimplify matters to say that x number were “for” Trump and x number were “against.” The columns were more nuanced and wide-ranging than that. On November 9, the day after the election result, the Opinion section published three pieces pertaining to it. One by Mr. Macdonald entitled: Get Used to saying ‘President Trump’, no matter how weird it sounds, is, as you pointed out, as negative about Mr. Trump. One other by Robyn Urback, while not flattering to Mr. Trump, also levels some pretty harsh criticism at the Democratic Party, as implied in its title: How to bungle an election, Democrat style.

The third, written by Warren Kinsella: Electing Donald Trump was America’s way of lashing out was more of an analysis of Trump’s support and why his campaign was successful. It does not fit neatly into a “pro” or “con” category.

A day after the first three columns appeared, an article was published entitledRevenge of the Comment Section.” It was a compendium of reaction from readers who spoke strongly in favour of the president-elect. Finally, there was another piece, The Media keeps getting Donald Trump wrong that is also in support of Mr. Trump.

The other columns have a much broader scope: many of them, including those by Mr. Macdonald, are exploring ideas about Mr. Trump’s style of politics, which did involve asserting lies, and how the “mainstream media” coped with that reality, or didn’t, as is Mr. Macdonald’s thesis. He is not the only commentator to muse about a “post-truth world”. As he pointed out in his column, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” the word of the year. It defined it as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In the column he examines why, in this environment, all the fact checking in the world is not as persuasive as statements people want to believe. The examples he cites are not opinion, but fact. He also points out that it is not only Trump or his supporters who operate in this fashion. He cites examples from the left:

But really, we should have seen all this coming. Radical thinkers on the far left have been pushing post-truthism for decades.

People like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida became heroes to the activist left – another group addicted to what it wants to hear – by theorizing that there are no facts, only "constructs."...

Deconstructionists, as they styled themselves, learned never to answer a question, but to question the frame of the question itself. As in: "Excuse me, but I do not accept that the sun rose in the East today. What is East, anyway, but an artificial concept?"

Well, they got what they wanted, didn't they? Truth is now utterly relative…

Trump and his legions believe the system is utterly rigged. So do Noam Chomsky and his legions. Trump Nation believes trade deals are a conspiracy against the common worker. Bernie Sanders's followers (and, in Canada, Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians) believe exactly the same thing. Far left and far right are suspicious of central banks, and corporatist media, and they seem for some reason to agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin is misunderstood and smeared.

So, like the state of the media or the environment we find ourselves in, the question of what constitutes balance over time is not simple or straightforward. A recent Washington Post article entitled Mainstream media puts out the call for pro-Trump columnists is a reflection of the dilemma many new organizations face. There is an increasingly divided public, with their own news sources. Mr. Ladurantaye told me that they will continue to search for credible voices to write in support of Donald Trump. The Post article captures the dilemma:

Wanted: Columnists to say nice things about Donald Trump. Must be able to make cogent arguments in favor of the president-elect’s policies, appointees and statements. Experience preferred but not required.

It’s not an actual want ad, but it might as well be one. As they discovered during the long campaign season, the nation’s newspapers and major digital news sites — the dreaded mainstream media — are facing a shortage of people able, or more likely willing, to write opinion columns supportive of the president-elect.

Major newspapers, from The Washington Post to the New York Times, have struggled to find and publish pro-Trump columns for months. So have regional ones, such as the Des Moines Register and the Arizona Republic, which has a long history of supporting Republican candidates.

You challenged CBC News management not to promise balance in some distant future but to ensure it now. Looking at what has been published for far, there is some range of perspective. You said there were “never” any favorable columns, but there were. The goal is not necessarily perfect symmetry. The issues that have been most prominent are those that arise from Mr. Trump’s more extreme statements and positions; the columns published address that in the context of the media’s role. It would be false equivalence to run a piece that asserted things that are not true, are, in fact, true.

The CBC policy commits to presenting a range of voices and perspectives over a reasonable period of time. Looking at the period since the election, of the nine relevant columns, four were written by the same person. One logical fix to ensuring greater perspective might be to spread the commentary around more. It will skew the range of coverage if one person, no matter who he or she is, dominates the landscape.

I think it is fair to say that CBC News management, as our many other news executives, is well aware of the need to reflect the relevant views of all Canadians. In this polarized and charged environment, that is a particular challenge. They should be diligent and mindful that presumably not every supporter of the current American president is an extremist, even though some of his positions appear to be. I think, as the Trump presidency takes shape, there will opportunity to hear from people who think his policies or actions are to be supported.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman