Rude crude politics

The complainant, Ron Potter, accused Neil Macdonald of repeating lies in a column about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump and the tone of U.S. politics. He may not have agreed with what Mr. Macdonald had to say, but there were no lies.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain about a column written by Neil Macdonald, entitled “Can America’s political discourse get any cruder?” You considered it full of lies, and that it indulged in “disgusting bashing of former President George Bush.” You believe that CBC News is a “liberal mouthpiece” and is against “anything conservative” in both Canada and the United States. You said:

. . . everyone knows that Mr. Macdonald is anti-US, anti-conservative, anti-Republican. However, several points in his article have hit new lows for being disgusting and poor journalism.

There were two main points you raised to illustrate your opinion of the column. Mr. Macdonald made reference to Barack Obama’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. You characterized this as a “well known lie.” You pointed out that he was still an Illinois state senator in 2003, and so his views on the war are irrelevant:

It does not matter one iota that he may have made comments while a state senator; talking about, and putting comments/positions on the record for such a diverse and significant issue as the 2003 invasion only matter if you are on the national/international stage and in a relevant political forum. The opinion of any state senator, representative, mayor, MPP, MLA etc etc etc in either country does not mean a damn thing, no more than the opinion of the average citizen, specifically when it comes to affecting policy and contributing to a national debate in the halls of government at the national level. What little known state senator Barack Obama thought about the 2003 Iraq invasion means about as much my opinion …

The second point you found particularly offensive was a reference to the launching of the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mr. Macdonald referred to the sending of troops as “George W. Bush’s lie-based invasion.” You said that this characterization was a lie. You pointed to the fact that the U.S. administration was relying on faulty intelligence, which was no-one’s fault, but akin to other historical intelligence failures like Pearl Harbour. You pointed out that many other countries’ intelligence services were reporting the same thing. You had an explanation of why this occurred:

Hussein’s own associates and government researchers created an elaborate ruse to fool him, and in turn, fooled the entire international community into believing that Iraq had a serious WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program.

You said that Mr. Macdonald should apologize and issue a retraction of his column.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lianne Elliott, one of the Executive Producers at CBCNews.ca, responded to your complaint. She rejected your characterization of Barack Obama’s opposition to the Iraq invasion as a “well-known lie.” She told you that it was on the public record that he opposed the invasion of Iraq, in a speech he gave as an Illinois state senator. She also told you that he continued to publicly criticize the action in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, as well as while he was a United States senator and a candidate for president.

She explained, giving many examples, why she considered it legitimate to use the phrase “lie-based invasion”. She agreed that you were correct that some western intelligence agencies were reporting at the time that Saddam Hussein was attempting to create weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but that some of that information had already been debunked before the invasion was launched. Here are some of the examples she provided:

The International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, quickly rejected the suggestion that Iraq had bought a significant amount of yellowcake uranium from Niger, a key concern that President Bush himself had raised in his state of the union address, citing British intelligence sources.

Both Britain and the U.S. have had formal inquiries and congressional committees that have been highly skeptical of the intelligence reports leading up to the 2003 invasion.

A July 2004 report from the U.S. Senate select committee on intelligence said: “Most of the major key judgements in the Intelligence Community’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence.”

Last year, former British prime minister Tony Blair apologized “for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.”

And former secretary of state Colin Powell, who waved a vial said to be of anthrax during his presentation to the UN, acknowledged the same thing in a 2012 book. In fact, he said had he trusted his instincts and realized Iraq had no functioning, unconventional weapons, there would have been no invasion.

She told you that the column adhered to CBC Journalistic Policy and that there were would be no apology or retraction.

REVIEW

You responded to Ms. Elliott and said you appreciated the attention to detail in her response. You pointed out that “were any of this information related in your email even minutely referred to by Mr. Macdonald, it would have made the article much less partisan”:

As for the “Bush lies”, if even a fraction of what you listed was included, the article would have been even slightly fair. Using the term “lie-based” implies 100% that deception was afoot. There is no evidence to date that any overt, criminal & intentional actions were taken. The intelligence failures were akin to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.

No one to blame for lies that didn't occur.

If even a couple weblinks were embedded in the article (which most media outlets, including the CBC use), the inferences would have been softer.

However, you still felt that the use of the phrase “lie-based invasion” was “disgusting, misleading and in this case, wholly untrue. Period.”

This article was analysis, written by an experienced CBC correspondent. While CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices does not allow news staff to write opinion pieces, and sometimes the line between the two is razor thin, there is allowance for analysis, for the drawing of conclusions based on facts. The core value of 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.

Journalism is not just about reporting facts; it is also about having a strong understanding of an issue and explaining those facts. While there can be more than one explanation, in the course of a column generally one idea is explored. The range of interpretation comes over time. There is a shorthand, a compression of language, in the phrase you referenced. I agree with you that often providing some of the facts that led a reporter to a conclusion is helpful and provides more context. A line or two here might have been helpful. But its absence is not a violation of policy.

The main focus of this column was not the invasion of Iraq, but Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump and the phenomenon of his growing support by Republicans. The reference to George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion was made in the context of a comment from Ms. Palin. She talked about one of her sons who ran into some difficulties with the law after serving in Iraq. She argued with Trump as president, that wouldn’t have happened:

Palin then explained that the better commander-in-chief would be Donald Trump, her pick for the Republican presidential nomination.

Veterans, you see, would never punch their girlfriends or need to be handcuffed by police if Trump was president. They'd feel his deep respect, and calm down and be more nurturing.

Forgotten by the fevered crowd was the supposedly bedrock conservative principle that people are responsible for their own actions, and that it's time to stop blaming society.

[paragraph left out]

Also forgotten in all that Republican excitement was the fact that Track Palin headed off to fight not for American freedom, but as part of the so-called troop surge behind George W. Bush's lie-based invasion of Iraq, a war Obama opposed.

And, of course, forgotten was the fact that under Bush's Republican administration, veterans often returned to official neglect and indifference.

You completely disagree that there were lies involved, that it was an intelligence failure. There is evidence, brought forward in various commissions, and through the investigative work of journalists in several countries, that this was more than just bad information and that no-one knew any better. Ms. Elliott cited several examples. An official commission struck to examine the performance of the intelligence community leading up to the Iraq invasion had this to say in the unclassified version of its report:

The Intelligence Community’s performance in assessing Iraq’s pre-war weapons of mass destruction programs was a major intelligence failure. The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policymakers.

You may support the invasion and believe it was right and necessary to remove Saddam Hussein. That doesn’t make a critical reference to the reasons behind it inaccurate or a violation of CBC journalistic policy.

The reference to Barack Obama’s opposition to the invasion is also accurate. You might consider it irrelevant since he was not in a position of power at that time. He is now president of the United States, and like any other accountable office holder, what they have put on the record over time is generally considered relevant. Of course your opinion that this is not so is valid, but it is your opinion, and a columnist is not obliged to reflect it in the course of his analysis.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman