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Paul Adams Responds on CBC’s Ombudsman, Neil Macdonald, Journalism, Opinion and The Future

June 20th, 2016

Paul Adams is a former CBC colleague who went on to write for the Globe and Mail, reported from around the world,  and now teaches at Carleton’s journalism school – in other words, owner of a distinguished career in journalism in Canada. Paul sent a very thoughtful note after my blog last week which looked at the CBC Ombudsman’s recent comments about Neil Macdonald and the differences between journalism, reporting  and opinion-making. I am  happy, with Paul’s permission, to re-post it here.

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Frank,

I just think we disagree fundamentally on a number of things, and that’s fine. There are also a couple of things we agree on.

The CBC’s model, like that of the New York Times, and many other similar outlets has produced some of the best journalism on earth. But that tends to blind us to the fact that the traditions of “balance” and “objectivity” obscure the ideology behind that particular culture of journalism from both consumers and for the most part journalists themselves. It works pretty well in a universe with very broad social consensus, shared values and widely supported social institutions.

It also fit perfectly a particular political and economic moment when news organizations had financial or political incentives to appeal to a very broad swath of the public, and were able to find methods to do so successfully.

But the “news from nowhere” model doesn’t work as well in the fragmented media universe we now live in, nor in communities where social consensus is breaking down.

We have seen this most obviously with Trump, who managed to de-pants much of the mainstream media for the entire primary season. Only now are many journalists finding new tools (and gumption) to confront his attacks on core humanistic values and literal truth.

Trump, far from being sui generis is characteristic of a phenomenon in many Western societies, if less so here in Canada. A journalistic model that struggles so ineffectually to handle him is not a journalistic Swiss Army Knife that will work in every situation as the old model was expected to do.

Journalism is rooted in the Enlightenment, an evidence-based craft whose core is a belief in human dignity and the capacity of the rational mind to see evidence, and recognize appreciable truth. There is a real danger to losing sight of this and allowing ourselves a mushy indifference to the truth of what we report, so long as someone actually said it.

The recent report by the CBC Ombudsman, Esther Enkin, on a Neil Macdonald column, demonstrates the degree to which this proud tradition has degraded into a set of unreflected-upon mechanical procedures.

When Enkin protests against Macdonald calling creationism a superstition, she is essentially saying that journalists are not in the company of scientists, living in a palpable world of evidence, but in a kind of post-liberal world in which every statement or claim is just an “opinion” to be equally valued. Like, I suppose, flat-earthers: Bob McDonald can presumably insist the world is round because he is on contract, and not required by the CBC to observe its rule against expressing an opinion embodied in its Journalistic Standards and Practices. If he were a staffer, like Neil, he’d have to keep his opinions to himself.

And where does that end? Faking the moon-landing? 9/11 conspiracy? Maybe the ISIS view that God says it is OK to take Yazidi women as sex slaves is just another valid opinion out there that as journalists we have no tools to evaluate.

But Enkin’s pronunciamentos and the existing journalistic code are not the actual policy of the CBC. Let’s just say for the moment that Macdonald had strayed into the realm of opinion. Why is that so wrong?

The CBC has decided (wisely in my view) that its future must be deeply engaged in digital. Digital requires substantial elements of commentary (as does news television btw). What has happened is that senior news management has decided to change practice before changing the code.

Neil Macdonald is doing what he is asked to do by his bosses — what columnists everywhere are expected to do: generate interesting and sometimes insightful comment and controversy, as well as news from time to time. And traffic. He does all this.

It is just that because he is a poor staffer, he gets to be pummeled in public by the Ombudsman, which Rex Murphy and a gazillion (paid) panelists on the news network are spared. And of course Neil has no way of responding publicly. No doubt he is forbidden to do so.

But what the reader/viewer/listener needs is transparency; not a ban on staffers doing what contract contributors are able to do. How is a news consumer supposed to divine someone’s contractual status and then infer what rules they operate under?

What consumers on CBC.ca need is the transparency we see in other media. Clear labeling that would signal what role a particular piece is playing. Newspapers do it all the time. Lawrence Martin and Jeff Simpson appear on the same page in the Globe and Mail, with the same labelling as opinion columnists. (What matters is not their contractual status.)

The ability to provide readers with such transparency is constrained by the fiction that CBC news management wishes for political reasons to maintain that some practices are the same as they ever were. That’s why I favour changing the code. I understand there is a review underway, but that the bar on CBC staff journalists expressing opinions is likely to remain.

Finally, I confess I do not understand your refinement on the term journalist. You seemed to be using it as synonymous with “reporter”. That has never been the case. Nor has the distinction ever been as sharp between reporters and opinion writers as you seem to suggest. John Ivison breaks news all the time in his column in the National Post, as does Paul Wells, who seems committed to blending the two in his new role at the Toronto Star. John Ibbitson writes news, analysis and opinion in the Globe and Mail, which the newspaper tries to distinguish by labeling.

When I was at the Globe, I wrote mostly news, but plenty of analysis. For a time I wrote a weekly satirical column about politics on the Hill. All clearly the labelled. I don’t remember anyone ever being confused or complaining: because the frame of each piece was clear.

I think this is an important debate. But I fear that you are clinging to a culture and a code that worked pretty well at a certain time in history as if they were eternal verities. More challenging by far is migrating to a new place, preserving what was valuable but amending what is not working (or perhaps never worked as well as we liked to suppose).

Paul

3 Responses to “Paul Adams Responds on CBC’s Ombudsman, Neil Macdonald, Journalism, Opinion and The Future”

  1. Paul Forseth says:

    There is lots of opinion and evaluative writing, and that seems to sell. But in the age of “instant news”, we need more factually researched reporting that is is clearly labelled as such, which can be relied upon, where reasonable effort to avoid opinion is evident.

  2. Iain Macdonald says:

    What I want and expect from CBC News is truth in reportage. Whether that counts as reporting or journalism, I don’t care. Is Creationism superstition? Again, I don’t care how that is answered; but that it’s foolish and presumptuous to limit God to a six-day week making things look old– that’s worth saying. But I don’t want doctrinaire Harper holdovers telling CBC journalists what is and is not truth.

  3. Rod Challis says:

    Macdonald was factually correct in using the word superstition to describe Creationism. The fact an educated person like Enkin can be confused about that illustrates a disturbing and long term trend in post secondary school education in this country.

    We tend to think attacks on reason come from the religious community, but more damage has been done by persons who should know better. People in academia that have embraced, as a catch all term, “Post Modernism”. Post Modern attacks on science and reason have been devastating. The Enlightenment is a White European Male construct– just another “narrative”.

    It is true– “truth” is a tricky thing. Maybe only the things we can describe mathematically are “True”. But there are provisional truths. And, we can function quite well with them. In fact, we cannot function without them. Forces in academia– one would guess because it makes essay writing so much easier– want to do away with that. They want the wiggle room that morphing “everyone has a right to an opinion” with “everyone has a right to be right” provides.

    And now, when we so badly need the tools of Enlightenment to deal with the zeitgeist of crazy that surrounds us, we find those tools have been destroyed. Not by dullards and red necks, but by people who should have known better, like Enkins.

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