Trump & The Republican Party

The complainant, Steve Cherry thought it inappropriate for Neil Macdonald to refer to creationism as superstition in a column he wrote about challenges facing the Republican policy in the face of a Trump candidacy for President. Expressing opinion is prohibited by CBC policy and even this passing reference did not meet the standard.

COMPLAINT

You were angered by a column written by CBC reporter Neil Macdonald entitled “Trump is the fuel, but the Republican party will burn itself down”. There was a reference to those who believe in creationism that you deemed “pernicious” and a “smear to a religious group.” You said that a poll shows one third of Canadians believe in creationism and one third a combination of both evolution and creationism. Mr. Macdonald was insulting a large number of people, you felt:

This then is inflammatory & divisive & discriminatory against statutory rights & a large segment of the population.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lianne Elliott, an Executive Producer with cbcnews.ca responded to your complaint. She told you that the main thrust of the analysis piece was to examine challenges facing the Republican Party in the face of a Trump candidacy for president. She said the reference to creationism was an aside:

Rather, it was a hypothetical aside about various factions within the Republican Party other than Donald Trump himself whose actions might create electoral challenges for the party among mainstream American voters.

She added that in the body of the essay, Mr. Macdonald cites other groups who might have taken over the Republican party. She told you that although it was not meant as a pejorative in this context, she understood why you might take offense. She realized that is was not a sensitive use of language. She explained what Mr. Macdonald was attempting to do:

...it was a rhetorical flourish attempting to make the distinction between the widely-accepted scientific consensus on evolution, and the efforts of some fundamentalists to have creationism receive equal attention in the school system.

She added that senior CBC news staff have met with producers and reviewed the use of language and the need to ensure that “greater care must be taken when choosing descriptive language.” She also told staff it is important to show respect for diverse points of view and beliefs.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has clear guidelines on the expression of Opinion. It has this to say about CBC news and current affairs staff:

We are guided by the principle of impartiality.

We provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest.

CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

We maintain the same standards, no matter where we publish - on CBC platforms or in other media outside the CBC.

Impartiality is a fundamental value that underpins all of the JSP. It is tempered by the recognition and reporters and producers are able to assess facts and draw conclusions based on those facts and their experience. They are able to provide analysis, as this piece was labelled. But labelling it that way doesn’t make it so.

There is one other value that pertains here, and that is one of fairness: CBC journalists are told to treat individuals with openness and respect. Ms. Elliott told you that she realized the turn of phrase was insensitive. I am glad she acknowledged it could have been better. What she less successfully addressed is the issue of a CBC reporter expressing opinion. Mr. Macdonald is a colorful writer who indulges in hyperbole. In this case it crossed a line and it reads, no matter how tangential to the main point he was making, like opinion. I agree it was unnecessary in the context of this piece, but it is there, and it shouldn’t be. Here is the relevant section of the piece:

If it weren't him presiding over the chaos, it would eventually be somebody else — say, one of those Tea Party characters who show up at rallies in tricorne hats, waving muskets around, vowing to destroy the career of any Republican politician who even considers bipartisanship for the sake of responsible governance.

Or perhaps it would be one of the fanatics who surround abortion clinics, harassing and screeching at patients as they enter, at a time when what they really need is privacy and sound medical advice.

Or maybe one of the Young Earth Protestant fundamentalists who take over local school boards, then try to force schools to give superstition equal place alongside the theory of evolution.

Or one of the zealots who demand, in the name of religion, the legal right to discriminate against anyone who isn't heterosexual.

This is hardly, as you suggest, a Charter violation. There is another important cornerstone of charter rights - and that is the right to free expression. In the context of a CBC analysis piece, however, there are limits in how one can characterize the beliefs of others. If Mr. Macdonald were a columnist or an outside commentator, I would say he is entitled to characterize creationism in that fashion as his right to free expression, and in accordance to CBC journalistic policy that stresses the need for a diversity of opinion. It does not conform to its policy on opinion.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman