Tough but Fair - Challenging an interviewee doesn’t mean there’s bias.

The complainant, G. Smith, thought an As It Happens interview with Professor Jordan Peterson was “disgusting” in its bias. It was tough but fair and the interviewee was given adequate opportunity to explain his views and respond to critics.

COMPLAINT

You labelled an interview done by As It Happens host, Carol Off, with Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto Professor, “disgusting.” Prof. Peterson was being interviewed because he had stated he would decline to use genderless pronouns if requested to do so. You considered the interview completely one-sided and constituted an attack on him. You said that the issue was one of free speech, and the interviewer did not address it.

The lack of journalistic professionalism is deplorable...The interviewer didn't even understand his position, was rude, got abusive during the interview.

You also objected to the story’s headline, I'm not a bigot’ Meet the U of T prof who refuses to use genderless pronouns. You said it biased the piece from the outset.

This really left me with a bad taste. It was horribly biased and lowered itself to name calling instead of addressing the issue of free speech - which the Professor is fighting for. Your host is no better than the kids that glued his office door. You - as the public broadcaster - should be a bastion of free speech. You are anything but.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, replied to your complaint. She said the purpose of the interview with Dr. Peterson was to explore his position on Bill C-16 and his concern that this would undermine his desire to use standard (gender-based) pronouns when addressing people. She added that Prof. Peterson was given “ample opportunity” to explain his position and his concerns about Bill C-16, a proposed amendment to the federal Human Rights Act. The amendment would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. Prof. Peterson had published an online video to address the issue of free speech he believes is undermined by the Bill, and his belief that “political correctness” is leading to the erosion of free expression. She told you she heard the interview “as a vigorous discussion about an important issue with someone who has a strong point of view.” She mentioned that Prof. Peterson was given the chance to correct Ms. Off when she presented some of his critics’ characterization of his position, and he believed they were not accurate

Again, he was given ample opportunity to explain his beliefs and his position on transgender issues and language use as well as on the proposed legislation...It is fair to say that Professor Peterson is a respected professor. He is articulate, outspoken, and a skilled debater. He was on our program to present his point of view and he presented his case skillfully and in unmistakable language. These are often difficult, and uncomfortable, stories to cover, but they raise legitimate and important issues that we, at As It Happens, feel responsible to explore. I want to assure you that we approach our coverage of such stories thoughtfully and responsibly.

She also said that Ms. Off was presenting another side of the issue in her questions, and that it is standard procedure to do so vigorously, “especially when they are presenting points of view that may not be widely shared.” She continued:

Of course, that is not always easy to do. Professors in this age of communication understand the media like never before. They are practiced and often trained in how to focus their message, convey it succinctly and skirt difficult questions. A journalist who persists may be seen as rude, arrogant or disrespectful when that is certainly not her intention.

She explained that it was not an editorial position by the As it Happens writers to use the word “bigot” in the headline, nor did they call him a bigot. She said that this phrase was quoting the professor who said so in response to an accusation against him.

REVIEW

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices highlight the importance of accuracy, fairness and balance. The salient points are that in matters of controversy, a range of perspectives and views are presented over a reasonable period of time, and that in terms of fairness, “In our information gathering and reporting we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.”

You believe that was not the case here. This was undoubtedly a passionate exchange, and there is a degree of tension between the interviewer and the interviewee. That in and of itself is not a violation of journalistic policy. It is the job of a journalist to probe, to question, to get at the meaning of a person’s statements. That is especially true when an issue is highly emotional and controversial.

Professor Peterson very publicly laid out his position on Bill C-16 and the use of genderless pronouns. It became part of the public discourse. It is within sound journalistic practice to ask hard questions, and to present other perspectives in the course of the interview. You felt that there was not adequate discussion around the issue of free speech. Professor Peterson explained more than once why he framed it that way:

I don't recognize another person's right to decide what words I'm going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I'm not going to say their words for them.

He expressed his view that Bill C-16 was a flawed piece of legislation that could lead to charges of hate speech. He also referenced more than once that his own position was that he believed that there is an ideological motivation in the demand for the change of use of this language, and that it was spearheaded by a small minority of people. This was a typical exchange in the interview. Ms. Off was asking Prof. Peterson to respond to criticism from another University of Toronto professor:

JORDAN PETERSON

...I would have to be convinced that the reason that I was being asked to address any particular individual by any particular term were reasons that I regarded as valid and that, for example, they weren’t just trying to force me into a position where I was mouthing words that I regard as the vanguard for a particular kind of ideological movement.

CAROL OFF

Just the question, how would you address Professor Peet?

JORDAN PETERSON

That’s my answer to the question. I am not going to simplify the stance that I am taking on this, and I told Professor Peet that I would be happy to him in a public debate. Meet him or her/they in a public debate.

CAROL OFF

Which one is it? He/her/they? Which is it for you?

JORDAN PETERSON

I haven’t met Professor Peet.

CAROL OFF

Professor Peet would like to be addressed by the pronoun “they”.

JORDAN PETERSON

The mere fact that Professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun and that doesn’t mean that I deny his existence or the existence of people who don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories. I reserve the right to use my own language, and I’m perfectly willing to take that to its own conclusion, if it’s the case that I can’t use my language the way that I see fit because I’m using my language to formulate and articulate the truth in the clearest manner that I can possibly manage and if that lands me in legal trouble well so be it.

There were many different ideas to explore, and the interview covered some of them. Prof. Peterson had some views about gender identity, and Ms. Off explored that with him. It is a reasonable thing to do since he is a psychologist with expertise in the field. Both Ms. Off and Mr. Peterson tended to step in on each other at the end of their statements - which I believe is what made the interview seem edgy and tense. It is the content where the focus should be - and in the content, Prof. Peterson was given adequate opportunity to rebut his critics and to express his perspective and views on the matter. At one point Ms. Off sounds annoyed and asked Prof. Peterson to allow her to finish her question. Listeners could form their own conclusions about whether that was an inappropriate reaction or not. Even if you conclude it was not, it does not constitute a violation of journalistic policy. CBC Journalistic policy also calls on CBC journalists to use their knowledge and expertise to “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” That would extend to the shape and focus of an interview, an assessment of what ideas were to be explored, and to go beyond the statements delivered by the interviewee.

The headline was designed to grab attention, as headlines are. Prof. Peterson said clearly in the interview that he is not a bigot. There was no inaccuracy and, in fact, put his assertion front and center.

The interview was a hard hitting one on a controversial subject. It conformed to CBC journalistic Standards and Practices. I note that CBC produced other segments on this controversy on several platforms, including a joint interview with professors Peterson and Peet on CBC News Network.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman