The Current goes to Washington - assessing balance and fairness.

The complainant, Craig Pichach, thought Anna Maria Tremonti gave a platform to a U.S. civil servant speaking out against his own government’s policy. He believed she was in conflict of interest because she too is a civil servant. She is not, and the interview did not violate policy on balance and fairness.

COMPLAINT

On April 27, 2017, The Current broadcast an episode of the programme from Washington, D.C. to mark the first one-hundred days of the Trump administration. One of the interviews was with a U.S. civil servant who was contributing to an alternate government Twitter account set up by federal employees to critique government policy. You objected to the interview on several grounds. You thought it “violated balance, impartiality, accuracy and fairness for information content per the CBC mandate.” You thought the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, “asked softball questions” of the anonymous civil servant. You wondered about the placing of the interview, which was the first in the programme:

...the program chose to lead with a taxpayer funded individual purposely not meeting Federal Regulations from a democratically elected leader - I do not understand how you cannot believe the listener is to believe that such resistance is critical and, if not, why did you lead with the story? If so critical then why no balance on such an important issue. I submit that the issue was pseudo-addressed by a quick sound bite, no balanced counter interview of course, following in which the anti-democratic nature of the individual is brought up but not fully explored. I submit that the bias is obvious in which the civil servant is given a full interview while opposing opinions are not on the topic.

You thought Ms. Tremonti should have challenged the interviewee by asking what gave him the right as an unelected bureaucrat to speak for the American people, and that Donald Trump was democratically elected. You were also critical because it “was not brought up that the US taxpayer is paying the salary of the individual”:

US bureaucrat is obviously engaging in partisan behavior and admits in the interview that he or she does not like Trump yet is allowed to portray themselves as non-partisan. The interviewee purposely does not point out the obvious cognitive dissonance.

You believed Ms. Tremonti should have declared that she was in a conflict of interest because she too is a civil servant. You added that the motivation for doing the interview and not probing and challenging the interviewee is because Ms. Tremonti could “professionally and financially gain” by presenting the civil servant and his activities in a positive light. You provided a range of hypotheses about why this might be so and how it might transpire:

  • The interviewer could professionally gain though the glorification of civil servants ignoring their non-partisan mandate under a democratic system to engage in partisan activities which she herself potentially does within the interview.

  • The interviewer could professionally gain through the promotion of civil servants ignoring or delaying the mandates of democratic oversight mandates institutions to further their personal ideological agenda which she herself potentially does within the interview.

  • The interviewer could politically gain though the glorification of civil ignoring their non-partisan mandate under a democratic system to engage in partisan activities which she herself potentially does within the interview.

  • The interviewer personally could financially gain through the avoidance of public service cuts which opposing within the bureaucracy through unlawful methods is glorified.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, replied to your complaint. She assured you that Ms. Tremonti is not a civil servant, is not a member of the Public Service of Canada, nor an employee of any government department or agency. She explained CBC employees are hired independently, and are governed by different policies and belong to different unions and associations. As a crown corporation, “CBC has an arm’s length relationship with the government and that extends to Ms. Tremonti and this programme.”

As for the programme itself, she told you that a variety of people with different perspectives were featured on the broadcast. One of them was an unnamed civil servant who was opposed to Mr. Trump’s policies. While she did not agree that all the questions were “softball” she explained the context and purpose of this interview was to explore the thinking of this one individual and why he was behaving in this unusual way:

... there are different kinds of interviews aimed at different results. An interview intended to hold a politician to account for his actions, as an example, may well include questions that suggest alternative views or that test, even challenge the views expressed. There are also interviews chiefly intended to elicit information, to explore an idea or point of view. The interview with the Washington civil servant largely fell in that category.

She said that even within this context, the interviewer asked pertinent and probing questions. She pointed out one of them:

You are a career civil servant”, she said. “You’re not a partisan appointee. Isn’t your job just to do your job under any administration?”

She reminded you that this was just one interview in the programme. It also featured a segment with young Republicans who supported Trump, as well as a panel of Washington journalists - discussing how their jobs have changed under this administration - and to an historian who was one of the few who predicted Mr. Trump’s election and has now written a book about why he might be “uniquely vulnerable to impeachment.” She also said that this was one of many programmes that will likely feature a look at U.S. politics and this president, and that there would be differing outlooks and perspectives, which fulfill the obligation to provide balance and appropriate reflection of a range of views over time.

REVIEW

The Current presented a full edition of its programme from Washington, D.C. There were a range of voices and views represented. One of the areas of examination was a phenomenon that seemed to be growing - professional civil servants were taking action - contrary to their training and code of conduct. Bureaucracies in democracies are meant to carry out the policy of the politicians. The fact that they were not is newsworthy because it is unusual and might have impact on matters of public interest. You agreed that this was a legitimate subject for coverage because you “concede that if elements of the U.S. government bureaucracy are operating unlawfully and outside the mandate of their elected oversight that this is a significant story.” Ms. Tremonti established this to be the case in her introduction to the interview:

And as Donald Trump nears 100 days in office, he is facing resistance from a number of quarters. One of the biggest pools of dissent is the civil service. Many federal employees are voicing their opposition to President Trump. Some overtly, most covertly, in an unprecedented way. When Mr. Trump brought in a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim nations, more than 1,000 State Department diplomats registered their opposition by signing a dissent letter. There have also been reports that civil servants are using encrypted messaging apps and personal email accounts to establish a network of dissent. And rogue Twitter accounts from federal employees at various agencies have cropped up. There are now at least 50 so-called alternative government Twitter accounts that say they're run by government staffers. They tweet out criticism, commentary, they even leak information. Our next guest is a US federal employee who contributes to one of these alternative government Twitter accounts. His work has to do with the environment and public health. We have agreed not to use his name or his location or any identifying characteristics to protect his identity, as he fears for his job. We've also disguised his voice.

You thought Ms. Tremonti should have been much more rigorous in her questioning of this rogue civil servant. In the first part of the interview she probed his motivation for what he was doing. Some, like you, might conclude that this is unacceptable, even deplorable. The purpose of eliciting information is so that citizens listening can form their own conclusions. She did also challenge him on his position when she said “Well, you are a career civil servant. You're not a partisan appointee. Isn't it your job just to do your job under any administration?” She also asked him about his party affiliation. She pointed out that this action could slow down the business of government. There were also two other segments that addressed the issues raised by an activist civil service. One was a statement from a spokesperson for Judicial Watch:

There are many here in Washington who think this kind of dissent in the civil service is troubling. The conservative group Judicial Watch is particularly concerned about federal employees sharing information through encrypted messaging apps. It is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, to get them to hand over any employee communications sent through those apps. Tom Fitton is the President of Judicial Watch.

TOM FITTON:

These federal bureaucrats promised to do their jobs and to implement the policies of the president but they've decided to fight back in a way that undermines the rule of law and suggests the American people's will doesn't matter. It's so bad that they're using these encrypted applications to communicate secretly about government business while seemingly trying to keep those documents away from the American people who have a right to see them. You know, everyone has their own political views, which it's a free country in that regard. But when you're a civil servant you're supposed to follow the rules and implement the policies as directed by the president, especially when those policies are lawful. Here they just think they are rulers unto themselves in some respects and that's what's so troubling about what's happening.

The third element was an interview with an official who had served under the Obama administration. He had experience working with the federal bureaucracy, and while partisan, a good part of his interview provided context for the role of the civil service and its relationship to politicians and legislators.

The interview with the dissenting civil servant and the segment as a whole met the policy requirements.

As for the assertion that there is some kind of inherent conflict of interest because Ms. Tremonti is also a civil servant, I can only echo what Ms. Goldhar told you. CBC is a crown corporation that receives an appropriation from Parliament each year to support public broadcasting. There is also a commercial revenue stream, but it is not just the funding model that makes the difference. One would have to accept your definition of a civil servant to make the connection. It simply is not the case, and therefore no conflict of interest exists.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman