Venezuelan Voices

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, dismissed a CBC interview with Juan Guaidó as “incredibly softball”, and was one of several who criticized the overall coverage of Venezuela as one-sided. Is CBC providing a reasonable range of voices when it comes to Venezuela?

COMPLAINT

You were highly critical of how CBC has covered the situation in Venezuela. The heart of your critique revolved around the work of a team of CBC journalists who reported directly from that country in early February of this year. Among that group on the ground was one of the co-hosts of The National, Adrienne Arsenault.

You called the coverage “simply terrible”. You said that it took sides, by which you meant that it was unfair to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and instead mirrored the view of the Canadian government, which has endorsed a claim to the presidency by Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó.

Although you were disappointed in virtually all the coverage, you dwelled on two particular segments. The first aired February 4th on The National, and involved a scene at a Catholic charity in Caracas. You wrote:

The video crew just happened to be present when "President Select" Guaido made a speech heard over a transistor radio. The radio we saw was in the lap of an ailing elderly man who supposedly reacted to what he heard. Meanwhile, Arsenault put into words what she felt he was thinking, which of course was that Guaido is some kind of Messiah. Not one patient in the place was given an opportunity to speak for themselves, if indeed any of them were well enough to do so.

The second was an interview that Ms. Arsenault conducted with Mr. Guaidó, which aired on The National on February 6th. You analyzed it this way:

She behaved more as an adoring, starstruck fan than a reporter or journalist. All she could do was ask softball questions and for his part Guaido had already been tipped he would have a nationwide Canadian audience for this public relations exercise. He shouted out to various cities and regions of Canada to acknowledge us. We should feel so proud he knows we exist and, of course, we all support him, even though we have no idea who he is or where he came from and evidently that goes for most Venezuelans too.

It makes sense that Arsenault has enthusiastically imbibed the Freeland/Trump/Trudeau Kool-Aid to such an extent that she probably rejects any consideration that Maduro might simply be the legitimate President of Venezuela. There's no mention in any of her reports I saw of any person in Venezuela supporting Maduro, even though six million people voted for him in an election just recently, an election which the opposition tried to boycott (unsuccessfully) and where they begged international election observers not to come! Observers were invited in the form of CEELA, they did attend and declared the elections clean.

There have been several other complaints sent to my office about CBC’s coverage of Venezuela. They argue that the journalism has not been balanced, and is tilted against President Maduro. While many raised different questions of detail, there are three recurring themes in these complaints:

  • There should be more attention paid to the impact of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela as a contributing factor to the country’s economic hardships.
  • There should be more skepticism about Canada’s position, and more skepticism about the motives of the United States in fomenting dissent against Maduro.
  • There should be more aggressive questions about the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó, and more openness to the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Daniel Getz, Executive Producer of Network News, responded on behalf of CBC.

He disagreed with any suggestion that coverage of Venezuela has been biased, manipulative or dishonest. He offered a detailed account of the segment at the charity, rejecting your insinuation that anti-Maduro views expressed were CBC’s, rather than the people in the story:

Three of the men in the facility did indeed speak for themselves in the story, although for obvious reasons, what they said was translated by Ms. Arsenault as they were speaking in Spanish. Finally, if you are suggesting that Ms. Arsenault simply made up the fact that the man with the radio was listening and reacting to a speech by Juan Guaido and that she invented rather than translated what he actually said, then nothing in my response can possibly convince you otherwise. Ms. Arsenault does not invent facts in her reporting and does not put words in people’s mouths.

He went on to defend CBC’s overall approach to covering the Venezuela story:

The situation in Venezuela is complex and evolving. The reasons for the crisis and who is to blame are hotly debated and interpreted through different political lenses. There is widespread disagreement over how best to respond to what is happening there, both among Venezuelans and in the international community.

CBC News has provided significant coverage on various angles and aspects of the Venezuela story on all of its platforms, including network television and radio, local television and radio and online. A range of viewpoints has been canvassed in news reports and analysis pieces. Ms. Arsenault has filed a series of stories in two separate trips to the region. I am also certain that CBC News will continue to cover developments in Venezuela in the weeks and months to come.

After receiving Mr. Getz’ response, you asked me to review your complaint, with a request to focus on Ms. Arsenault’s interview with Juan Guaidó.

REVIEW

The interview with Juan Guaidó was an unusual treatment, in that it was bigger than a traditional news-length “clip”, yet smaller than a traditional feature interview. Instead, it was a bit under two minutes of interaction with him embedded into a larger report on his activities and the reaction to him on the ground in Venezuela.

Here is a full transcript of this part of Ms. Arsenault’s report. I have highlighted her questions in red for the sake of clarity:

Q.1 ARSENAULT: Why do you think you haven't been arrested yet in the last couple of days?

GUAIDÓ: (On-screen translation) That's a great question. I have also asked myself that. I've asked myself this particularly because in Venezuela there are more than 350 political prisoners, assassinated politicians, tortured, exiled, kidnapped, among other things.

ARSENAULT (Voice over): Ultimately, he says, it's because of the support of the public, the international community and the belief that this is all constitutionally sound. What may not be sound is his plan to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Just look at what the Venezuelan military has done just across from Colombia, blocking the road to block the aid. This is building up to be a serious test of loyalties.

Q.2 ARSENAULT: How are you going to get the aid through? Because the Venezuelan military says, no, it's not coming. So what's your plan?

GUAIDÓ: (On-screen translation) Part of our success will be to convince those military officials and to create, yes, political tension towards them as Venezuelan citizens who also have sick mothers, who also have family members who need [the aid], who also need to tend to their families. Not only by appealing to their conscience, and then respect for the constitution, but also that they have a role to play in this moment.

Q.3 ARSENAULT: You know Canada has supported you, but there are some who don't entirely understand why. What would you say to them?

GUAIDÓ: (On-screen translation) So whatever happens in one country of the region, will happen in others. Because you have seen it in Canada, you have seen the warmth of Venezuelans, you've also noticed an important migration to Toronto, to Ottawa, to Quebec and to some other cities. And we have an enormous potential not only to help the region, and for our resources to serve a leverage for development, but also for a fundamental value. You [Canada] like us appreciate freedom, and democracy to do our fight.

Q.4 ARSENAULT (HOST): You're not afraid?

GUAIDÓ: No, no, absolutely not.

You described the questions as “softball”. Given your perspective on the broader issue of Venezuela, that makes sense. If Juan Guaidó is a fraud with no legitimate claim to power, and if he is merely a front representing the interests of the United States - which wants to control Venezuelan oil assets - then the only responsible course here was to challenge him and expose the flaws in his arguments. So why would the CBC not do that?

I spoke to Ms. Arsenault about the circumstances surrounding this exchange. It was not arranged in advance. Rather, it was while the CBC crew was covering his speech that Mr. Guaidó and his team decided to grant her an interview. The CBC crew had to set up quickly, and were given about five minutes to talk to him.

Ms. Arsenault never saw this as an accountability interview. She told me that most people in the audience already had views on whether he was legitimate or not, and that nothing he would say to that would be different or newsworthy. Instead, she decided to focus on the questions facing Guaidó right at that moment, including whether his efforts to topple Maduro would continue, and whether he had any concrete plan to deliver on his promise to allow shipments of food from the U.S. into Venezuela. (Maduro, as you know, felt those shipments of food were less a humanitarian gesture and more a political tool of the White House to undermine him).

You are entitled to view Ms. Arsenault’s approach to that interview as a missed opportunity - or even as something more malevolent. However, your view is just that - your view. It does not make this interview journalistically unsound. Landing an on-the-spot interview with a major news figure forces reporters to make a quick decision about the best way to use their limited time. Ms. Arsenault opted to ask about the latest news of the day, with the aim of learning new information. That is a reasonable approach, and is not a violation of CBC policy.

It does raise the question, though, of whether CBC’s coverage of Venezuela has lived up to the principles as outlined in the corporation’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In considering this question, there are two relevant excerpts of the JSP, and I will discuss each in turn.

First, here is what it says about the principle of impartiality:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You and other complainants suggested that the entire framing of CBC’s coverage promotes a point of view that Maduro is the one in the wrong, that Guaidó is virtuous, and that Canada stands on the right side of the issue. I do not see the coverage in the same light, and here’s why.

While there are many arguments, statistics and facts cited by both supporters and critics of President Maduro, the CBC reporters on the ground in Venezuela have, to their credit, used information based on what they have seen, what they can attribute, and what they can verify. The coverage has attempted to clarify points of confusion that arise, and the journalists have articulated the perspective of the various sides.

It’s important to stress that the language used by Ms. Arsenault in Venezuela stays clear of condemning or endorsing any of the central figures. For instance, this is how she began her coverage of the story that included the interview with Juan Guaidó:

Here in Venezuela, suspicion, desperation, fear and hope all swirl around Juan Guaidó, recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by Canada and dozens of other countries. To supporters of de facto president Nicolás Maduro he’s just a rogue politician. Guaidó’s emergence has turned Venezuela’s spiralling social and economic crisis into a political one.

This is responsible work, done in a difficult and complex environment; it captures the reality that people have very different perspectives on the man.

Now, I understand that some, primarily Maduro supporters, would argue with the depiction of Venezuela as being in a “social and economic crisis”. There is, of course, no official designation that something is a “crisis”, no arbiter who decides when that label fits. The JSP offers journalists in such situations latitude for analysis. The reporter is entitled to use facts as well as her own observations and experience to draw this sort of conclusion. It is a reasonable description, and should not be confused with taking sides.

I believe it is fair to note that CBC struggled for a time with how to describe Guaidó. Was he “interim president”, “self-declared president”, “opposition leader”, or something else entirely? It’s fair to say that countless news organizations had the same struggle in those days, trying to find a phrase that captured the situation accurately without appearing to take sides. I have no particular criticism of CBC’s actions here, but do encourage management to ensure that such choices are made quickly, and to communicate them internally so that what the audience hears and reads is consistent and accurate. Otherwise, they risk undermining their efforts to be thoughtful and precise.

Next, here is how the JSP describes the principle of balance:

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.

I will begin here with a narrow frame, looking simply at the stories CBC provided from Venezuela.

Between February 3rd and February 12th, the voices we heard included Maduro and Guaidó themselves. We heard from supporters of Maduro, as well as critics. The stories included scenes from a pro-Guaidó protest, and a pro-Maduro protest. There were scenes from a charity, a food market, and a hospital where people complained about their current situation. In short, there were lots of different perspectives. However, there was not an equal amount of airtime dedicated to each. There was substantially more airtime devoted to critics of the government.

Does that mean it was unbalanced? Not necessarily. Balance is not achieved by a robotic slave to mathematics and stopwatches.

Ms. Arsenault told me the weighting of their coverage reflected accurately what CBC journalists saw and observed for themselves in Caracas. They maintained contact with sources elsewhere in the country to ensure that they were not making assumptions that the scenes in Caracas reflected the reality throughout Venezuela.

I have no basis on which to dispute what she told me, and it’s an explanation that is reasonable. Recall that key phrase in the description of balance, in which CBC journalists are expected to present divergent views “taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.” There are times where affording each point of view equal time can actually distort coverage rather than enlighten it.

That theme came back again as I took a wider lens look at CBC’s coverage.

Take the question of Canada’s position on Venezuela. Why, I heard in complaints, is CBC not doing more examination about the immorality of Canada’s position, or the possibility that the U.S. will invade Venezuela and seize its oil assets.

CBC has not ignored these questions. Consider this segment, which explains Canada’s position, yet also includes critics and background information on the history of coup attempts in Venezuela. Or this story, which examines the challenge the NDP had at the time unifying around a consistent position. The reality, though, is that divisions within the Canadian Parliament are not as big on this issue as they are on some others. There may not be universal agreement, but there is not a large divide in the political mainstream, and that means there is less imperative for regular news coverage of the political debate.

Nonetheless, CBC’s current affairs treatments have built on the news coverage, and offered a wide range of perspectives.

On January 25th, As it Happens interviewed Raul Burbano, who delivered a fierce critique of Canada’s position. He also pointed listeners to Alfred de Zayas, who authored a report on Venezuela that casts blame for the country’s problems primarily on U.S. sanctions.

On February 22nd, Day 6 presented a take on the controversial record of Elliott Abrams, Donald Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela.

These are not the only voices heard, of course. My point is that the ideas you and other complainants are seeking have been there in CBC’s coverage. Perhaps not to the extent that you prefer, and perhaps not with the emphasis that you believe to be correct - but they are there.

Canadian media organizations have an ongoing dilemma of how to provide thorough, thoughtful and relevant coverage of international issues - and to do so within whatever financial framework they face. They make decisions about when to go to a place like Venezuela, and what stories and angles to cover, and hope they are proven by history to be right.

I can’t see into the future to judge what will happen in Venezuela, nor to judge whether the coverage choices CBC programmers have made there are “right”. However, I can say in conducting this review that they are making appropriate efforts to be accurate, to be balanced, and to be impartial. I don’t detect an absence of good faith, nor do I detect any violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson