The Current’s “bloody” headline.

The complainant, Malcolm Brown, thought a headline about the controversy surrounding the appointment of Gina Haspel as Director of the CIA was inappropriate. He objected to the phrase “bloody Gina Haspel.” It was put in context in the first part of the article and its use did not violate CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to the headline "Is Bloody Gina Haspel the right person to lead the CIA? on The Current's website. You thought it was inappropriate to have used the descriptor “bloody,” “bearing in mind it came from a protestor.” You said you watched many hours of the CIA Director’s confirmation hearings, and “no one be they Democrat or Republican uttered garbage such as this headline is meant to portray.”

You pointed out that news organizations were forced to retract the allegations referred to in the article, and the broadcast it was based on. You added that the article should have mentioned that one of the interviewees, a strong critic of Ms. Haspel, had been convicted of disclosing classified information and spent time in prison.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, replied to your concerns. She noted that the online article was based on interviews broadcast on the programme on May 10, 2018. She said it ran while the confirmation hearings for Ms. Haspel were ongoing in Washington. She explained:

The choice of Ms. Haspel was controversial because of the key role she played in the CIA's so-called detention and interrogation program. Ms. Haspel ordered and oversaw the torture and waterboarding of detainees. It was during that period of time that some at the CIA began referring to her by the nickname "Bloody Gina".

It was a nickname later picked up by protesters who opposed her nomination. But the nickname did not originally come from that incident.

She added that one of the guests on the programme that day, John Kiriakou, explained in the interview that it was a name some CIA employees used to describe her during her time as head of the “Detention and Interrogation programme.” She also pointed out that the word “bloody” in the headline was in quotation marks to indicate it was a word attributed to someone else, and that the story quickly got to the attribution of the nickname.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic policy requires that headlines be accurate, like any other content in an article. Journalistic practice acknowledges that they serve another purpose - to convey what the story is about, and to catch the attention of a reader. It is also a well-recognized convention to put words attributed to another in quotes in the course of the headline. The article you questioned used the controversial description of Gina Haspel in the headline, and immediately explained its attribution. The first bit of text after the headline is the cutline just below her photograph. It states:

U.S. President Donald Trump has been touting the qualifications of his pick to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, but others in Washington have raised concerns over her CIA career.

The first paragraph reported that the epithet was chanted by demonstrators at her hearing - this provided the context. It also explained why it is appropriate in the headline. It is conveying that the choice of Ms. Haspel was controversial because of the accusations that had been made against her regarding the practices used in the interrogation of prisoners under her purview during the Bush administration. It is true that one of the people quoted, John Kiriakou, is described in the article as “a former CIA officer turned whistleblower.” It is also true that in this article his conviction and jail time are not mentioned. However, there is a link to the longer interview with Mr. Kiriakou and Michael Hayden, a former Director, who supported Ms. Haspel. In that introduction, Mr. Kiriakou is introduced as a “former CIA agent who, in 2007, exposed the agency's waterboarding program. He was convicted of disclosing classified information, he spent 23 months in prison.” I note that this piece also quoted from Mr. Hayden, thereby providing more than one perspective in a brief recap of a much longer and fulsome discussion on air. The important part of the balance was not the descriptor “bloody,” but the opposing views of the appropriateness of her assuming the role of CIA Director.

You mentioned that news media were forced to retract some of the accusations against her. It is true that one specific aspect of the accusation was retracted. The accusation that she had mocked a prisoner as he was being waterboarded was also cited by Republican Senator Rand Paul as a reason for his opposition to her appointment. When it was discredited, he issued a statement reaffirming his opposition. This is how it was reported on CBS News:

Regardless of the retraction of one anecdote, the fact remains that Gina Haspel was instrumental in running a place where people were tortured. According to multiple published, undisputed accounts, she oversaw a black site and she further destroyed evidence of torture. This should preclude her from ever running the CIA.

The Current’s coverage dealt with the controversy surrounding this appointment and interviewed the whistleblower who brought it to public attention, as well as a former Director of the CIA who endorsed it. There was appropriate context and balance in this coverage.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman