Stephen Bannon and what you can say about him.

The complainant, Diane Weber Bederman, asked asked for proof where the former Head of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, was racist or anti-semitic. She said CBC should have fact-checked remarks made about him by a high ranking U.S. Senator. The remarks were attributed and part of a brief radio news story. CBC News has provided a range of reactions to the controversial Trump Chief Strategist. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You challenged the reporting of a statement from United States Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, calling on President-elect Trump to rescind the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Chief White House Strategist. You said CBC News was “spreading lies” by repeating Reid’s accusations of racism and anti-Semitism without any verification.

This is not journalism. This is biased reporting based on fear mongering. It is reporting based on statements you accepted without verifying...If you want to announce in Canada that Stephen Bannon is a racist and anti-Semite, I suggest that you provide facts for these statement.

You asked that CBC News staff provide proof, by citing actions and statements by Mr. Bannon that would indicate he is a racist and anti-Semite.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor of CBC Radio and Television News, replied to your complaint. He informed you the item you referred to was a “24 second comment from Mr. Reid which aired on an hourly newscast”. He explained these newscasts are “our brief headline service, which is a quick check-in on the latest news.” He added this was not a definitive examination of the story. The clip from Reid was broadcast as an example of some of the reaction to that day’s announcement that Donald Trump’s campaign chair Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, was named chief White House Strategist.

As a credible critic, using his voice as representative of that reaction is entirely justified.

There's no question Bannon is a lightning rod figure, in keeping with many of the changes being brought about by the President-Elect. There were a number of allegations about his former role at Breitbart News, and the kind of news agenda it promoted, and there were reports too of Bannon's own views. All of this was attributed as such in the brief story we aired.

He mentioned that there were other more comprehensive stories across all CBC platforms which presented other perspectives and opinions about Mr. Bannon’s appointment. He provided you a link to two different articles which included “plenty of comments made by people supporting Mr. Bannon’s appointment and his character.” One was “‘Anti Semitism of a virulent kind came roaring back’ during election, Jewish civil rights leaders say.” You rejected this article as proof because the head of the Anti-Defamation League had worked for Obama and was therefore tainted. You were equally unconvinced by a second article provided by Mr. Hambleton - http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/stephen-bannon-trump-larry-reid-1.3852402.

REVIEW

Your complaint is that CBC News has not fact-checked the allegations about Mr. Bannon, and did not provide proof. You assert there is no basis for the criticism of him, and in the absence of proof as you define it, these criticisms and allegations should not be reported. While it is true that news must be more than stenography, there is always judgment brought to bear about what is reported and how it is attributed. The radio story you objected to phrased it this way:

Bannon is the former editor of Breitbart news, a website that has been accused of racism and anti-feminism.

Breitbart News has a reputation for its inflammatory headlines and support of white nationalist and anti-feminist positions. The positions taken and language used is well documented, and has led the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Centre to accuse Mr. Bannon of racism and anti-Semitism. Perhaps they were persuaded by the headline Hoist it High and Proud: the Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritagepublished on Breitbart less than two weeks after Dylann Roof, who killed 9 Black people at a prayer meeting in a church, had posed with that flag. The anti-Semitism charge comes from the tone and tenor of the news site as well as allegations of an ex-wife.

The story you objected to was a brief one broadcast in an hourly newscast. It is not reasonable to expect a brief news roundup to present a multitude of positions and perspectives - that is not its function. Its purpose is to highlight that which is newsworthy. One of the elements that makes something newsworthy is comments from prominent people on matters of public interest. When the Senate Minority Leader weighs in on a matter of controversy, it is sound and appropriate news judgment to report what he said. Reporters highlight statements made by politicians daily. Not every instance presents a great deal of context or alternate positions. I note there was a longer piece about the possible impact of the new administration on mortgage rates. It was followed by this:

Senator Harry Reid is joining the chorus condemning Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist. Bannon is the former editor of Breitbart news, a website that has been accused of racism and anti-feminism. Reid says court documents also show Bannon has a history of making anti-semitic remarks. One of the people supporting his appointment is Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke:

REID

By placing a champion of White Supremacists a step away from the oval office, what message is Trump sending to the young girl who woke up Wednesday morning in Rhode Island to be a woman of color in America. It’s not a message of healing. If Trump is serious about seeking unity, the first thing he should personally do is rescind the appointment of Stephen Bannon. Rescind it. Don’t do it.

Reid is also raising the alarm about a series of incidents of racism and hate around the country, and he’s blaming Trump for modelling that behaviour during the election campaign.

News is an iterative process. There is value in reporting the known facts. Journalistic truth, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in “The Elements of Journalism”, is an ongoing conversation. It is sorted out “by stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias and then by letting the community react, in the sorting-out process that ensues (p.58). One of the ways of signalling the value and context of information is letting people know who is saying it. The radio news story was clear that the call for Bannon’s removal was coming from a Democrat.

In other, more detailed coverage of Stephen Bannon, there were various perspectives represented. You dismiss the words of those you see as inherently biased. That is your judgement, but it does not invalidate the role and purpose of quoting from the head of the Anti-Defamation League as well as other thinkers and critics. The person reading the article can draw his or her own conclusions about the weight and value of the criticism. That is the journalistic purpose. In the cbc.ca news piece about Reid’s condemnation, there is biographical detail about Mr. Bannon, some of the accusations against him, as well as his own defense and the support of others:

In interviews, Bannon has acknowledged that the alt-right may attract some racists, homophobes and anti-Semites, but said that he does not share those opinions — and that the left harbours undesirable elements as well…

Colleagues defend him:

"I've known and worked with Stephen Bannon, and he has traditional conservative non-racist, non-prejudiced views about the world," said Joel Pollak, a senior editor at large at Breitbart, who called The Associated Press in response to a request for comment from Bannon on this story.

"Lately, media conventions have determined that some of the traditional views of most of Western civilization are offensive."

Bannon has publicly disavowed tolerance for prejudice. But allegations of anti-Semitism have also followed Bannon into his personal life as well. In 2007, his ex-wife alleged in court documents from their divorce that Bannon expressed open anti-Semitism, declaring that he didn't want their two daughters "going to school with Jews." Bannon disputed saying this

There is controversy around Stephen Bannon and his appointment raised strong concerns and accusations. The role of CBC News is appropriate and correct in documenting and explaining them. Both the radio news piece and other coverage do so.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman