Truth in Syrian coverage: It’s not that simple

The complainant, T.A. Anderson thought a piece on The National marking the fifth anniversary of the start of hostilities in Syria was distorted and biased. He thought there were many facts and perspectives that should have been included, and provided many links to that information. The story was far too narrow in scope to include such detail. Perspectives come over time. There is no conclusive narrative nor an obligation to stick to the one preferred by the complainant.

COMPLAINT

You thought a story on the March 18, 2016 broadcast of The National was “disgraceful neo-conservative propaganda.” The story marked the fifth anniversary since demonstrations in the Syrian city of Daraa escalated to a wide-scale armed conflict, an ongoing civil war. You saw this particular piece as consistent with a pattern of coverage that omitted important background and facts you believe necessary for the understanding of the situation in Syria.

CBC News and The National have been complicit in propagating and sustaining the neoconservative regime change narrative, and hold a responsibility for the massive human suffering in Syria, (and Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine.)

You provided 15 examples of either omissions or distortions of the story as you see it. I have included those 15 points here. You also provided a great deal of documentation and links to a variety of sources to back up your points. Rather than try to paraphrase them, I am providing a link so that your full position can be accessed: Click here.

  1. No mention at all was made of the long-time US/Pentagon/ neoconservative calls and plans for regime change in Syria, widely telegraphed throughout the decade before the war started.

  1. No mention was made of CIA and other foreign involvement in the Syrian (and Libyan) protests in 2011.

  1. No mention at all was made of US/NATO-regime-changed-and-destroyed Libya which created the necessary conditions and precursors for IS.

  1. No mention at all was made of the illegal 2003 US invasion, regime-change and destruction of Iraq which laid the necessary groundwork for IS and this brutal war in Iraq and Syria.

  1. No mention at all was made of the US funding, arming, and training of regime-change proxy forces to overthrow the elected government of Syria.

  2. No mention was made of the fact that under the US-led "fight against ISIS", involving the resources of some 62-plus nations, ISIS actually grew in numbers and territory.

  1. No mention at all was made of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers and enablers of IS/AQ and other violent Wahhabi extremist groups in Syria.

  1. No mention at all was made of Russia's 2012 peace plan that would have seen Assad transition out peacefully, but that was rejected by the US which preferred to seek another destructive regime change.

  1. No mention was made of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, or the fact that most of the various other groups are offshoots, associates, or subordinates of the dominant IS/AQ groups.

  1. No mention was made of the word "proxy", when that's exactly what this 5-year war is, a proxy war with multiple foreign backers behind every group.

  1. No mention of the phrase "regime change" was made, when that too is exactly what this heinous war is about.

  1. No mention was made of the fact that the US just reluctantly declared that ISIS atrocities in Syria and Iraq constituted genocide.

  1. No mention was made of the US military’s resistance to the neoconservative regime change plans in Syria.

  1. No mention was made of international law, of Syria's sovereignty, of Russia having been invited there by the Syrian government, or of recent UN Security Council resolutions.

  1. No mention was made of Russia's 5 ½-month intervention having turned the tide against ISIS, or of ISIS's response to Russian strikes by targeting a passenger jet and killing 224 Russian tourists and crew.

You believe that this coverage “makes a mockery of fairness” and that the National has not fulfilled its obligation to provide the relevant information Canadians need to make up their minds on this issue.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, told you he appreciated the effort you had taken to provide the information and links to him. He told you he shared your email with the editors and reporters involved in creating the story on the anniversary of the Syrian civil war.

He told you that this was a “complex, confusing and controversial” struggle. He explained that the piece was not designed to be all encompassing, but rather a look at five years of conflict seen through the eyes of the correspondents who have covered the story in the region for CBC News.

This story was not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the various causes of the civil war or the numerous armed groups and interests with overlapping loyalties participating in it. Nor is it intended to explore in any detail the roles and motivations of the other countries publicly and otherwise supporting and opposing the Syrian regime.

He said that it was not reasonable to assume that every detail or point of view would be present in one story. He added:

Other stories, different points of view and additional information have been covered in previous stories and will be included in future ones. I think you will find that over the years CBC has broadcast hours of thoughtful, thorough and innovative coverage that has offered a wide range of perspectives on the Syrian conflict, including some closer to yours.

REVIEW

Lyse Doucette, a BBC reporter who has interviewed Bashar al-Assad and covered the last five years of the conflict from Syrian held territory, as well as that held by the rebels, had this to say in an interview with Carol Off on As It Happens: “Syria is a war where the truth is just as hard to find as peace. So many people have so many different stories about what happened there.”

It is also a war where there are thought to be 100 or more rebel groups involved. Doucette says in the same interview that at least 17 countries are also involved, and that the very existence of the country is threatened. The intricacies and shifting alliances, the various narratives and complex causes at the root of the conflict are numerous. Many of the points you raise are relevant - some of them more widely accepted than others. The issue is what is the obligation to include some or all of them in one television report, and what is the obligation to reflect some or all of them over a period of time.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy about providing a range of views over a 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.

Your expectations of this one report are simply not realistic, or, for that matter, achievable in the context of television production. There can always be more context, more depth. The challenge for contemporary journalism is to tease out the truth with a small “t”. The process of reporting and gathering evidence and experiencing events is a process by which truth can be revealed. It is not immutable. And getting consensus about what constitutes it, as Clay Shirky points out in his essay “Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without Force” ( in “The New Ethics of Journalism”, edited by Kellie McBride and Tom Rosenstiel), is an increasingly difficult thing in an all news, all the time digital environment.

Truth is not a stable “thing”, it’s a judgment about what persuades us to believe a particular assertion. And for anything outside our direct personal experience, what persuades us is evidence of operative consensus among relevant actors...Of course, many truths are knowable, verifiable and undeniable ...These truths are the bulk of the substance in journalism.

The truth of what is behind the Syrian conflict and who is responsible for what is, alas, not one of those easily knowable and verifiable truths. You have a point that what happened in Syria can and should be seen in the context of recent events in the region, including American foreign policy, when looking at the broader picture. And even then, there is little consensus about the facts. But this report was clear about what it was meant to achieve, and its focus was far more modest. Adrienne Arsenault introduced the piece this way:

... with the help of some of CBC's correspondents who have been there, who have seen the worst up close, we are looking at what turned Syria's civil war into a far-reaching humanitarian disaster—a quarter million dead, 10 million driven from their homes, and after five violent years, a future no one is ready to predict. A warning, some of this won't be easy to watch. March 2011, in that Arab Spring, Syria was seen as the driest of deserts—the regime in full control, opposition virtually non-existent. So it was to some surprise that brave Syrians dared to call out for change too. They were immediately answered with overwhelming force.

The story goes on to talk about the events of that time - that in the context of the so-called “Arab Spring” protests began in the Syrian city of Daraa, and were answered with brutal force. The rest of the story lays out some of the events of the last five years, based on what three reporters witnessed and covered. One of them, Susan Ormiston, was in Moscow and mentioned the role of Vladimir Putin and his Russian forces, and the critical role he will play in any possible resolution. As for the notion that the piece indulges in “demonization”, the number of refugees and casualties, and the destruction and actions of the Syrian president are well documented ones. Reporters are permitted to synthesize and draw conclusions based on facts and their expertise. That is what they have done in this case. Your assertions about “regime change” as the driving force behind events are far more contentious. They are well beyond the scope of The National report, as are the origins and causes of the rise of ISIS.

I surveyed some of the coverage across CBC programs and platforms. It is by no means complete, but there were a range of views and perspectives present. The Current and As It Happens have featured a range of discussions and guests. As It Happens has interviewed the Syrian ambassador to Canada; there have been foreign policy discussions. The Current has looked at the strategy of Al Queda and its plans to increase its influence in Syria. The National has had reporters in Moscow reporting that perspective. Over the years, there have been reports addressing the rise of ISIS, as well as significant coverage, of other conflicts in the region. Recently though, CBC news and current affairs coverage has focused on the humanitarian crisis. It is a very difficult war to cover because it is so dangerous, and because so many areas, controlled by different interests, are entirely inaccessible to correspondents.

In complex and controversial topics like this one everyone has a preferred narrative or a preference about what points and perspectives should be emphasized. The absence or lack of emphasis on that preferred narrative is not bias. The CBC has reported statements by former officials talking about the need for Assad to go, and it has reported on criticism of the level of U.S. support for the opposition of the regime. Your insistence that the critical part of the Syrian narrative is a United States policy of regime change is what you believe to be the truth. CBC News is not obliged to do so. I take seriously Mr. Spandier’s commitment to a continued examination of the issues from a variety of perspectives. Analysis about the elusive “why” of what is happening is always welcome. The “truth” about what has happened is something that will likely unfold over a long period of time, as the situation evolves.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman