Wherein I Find Myself at the Centre of a Blogging Controversy

Or, rather, just off centre.

Almost two months ago, I received an e-mail from Stephanie Matteis, a CBC reporter working on a story for the National about the upcoming election. She wanted to speak to people who had been thinking about voting Conservative in the 2004 election, but who were scared off for a variety of reasons and ended up choosing someone else instead. With the new election coming up, were they still scared of Stephen Harper, or had their opinions changed?

I told the reporter that I didn’t fit her criteria. She was looking for somebody in the 905 Belt around Toronto, and I lived in Kitchener. Moreover, I was a former Green Party supporter who had switched his vote to the NDP. But I offered to help by posting her e-mail onto my blog, and she agreed. The e-mail went up with her e-mail address, and she later e-mailed me to say that she’d found the candidates she was looking for.

However, my post found itself quoted by various Conservative blogger websites, first Don at TalkCanada, then Bob Tarantino at Let it Bleed, and then Small Dead Animals and finally Angry in the Great White North. It was Angry that went the most overboard, in my opinion, going as far as posting the e-mail addresses of every single member of the CBC’s Board of Directors, and encouraging his many readers to e-mail complaints about what he saw as the CBC’s apparent bias.

About a week after the fact, I was asked by the CBC to remove the post containing Matteis’ e-mail; a request I complied with, even though I warned that the genie was out of the bottle, so to speak, and some on the Net would have their own interpretations as to why the post was pulled. All of what I’ve posted above is a matter of public record on a number of websites, so I don’t believe I am betraying any confidences by posting this. I also feel that I have to comment on my disgust on the part of some individuals who convicted the CBC on the basis of a single piece of evidence (my posted e-mail) without seeing the final product, the news report in question.

The whole incident spiked traffic on my website, and the controversy left me quite uncomfortable, although most visitors were kind enough to keep their anger focused on the CBC, and only one or two deigned to take swipes at me. This whole incident produced a result I had not expected at all, and it is always difficult to be associated, even if only by accident, to any perceived wrongdoing. I regret the attention that I ended up focusing on Matteis.

Angry’s actions did receive an e-mailed apology from Jason MacDonald, the CBC’s Public Relations officer, who said the following:

When CBC News management became aware of the e-mail in question, they looked into the matter and concluded that this action was indeed a breach of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices - specifically issues pertaining to the appearance of partiality or perceptions of partiality in all stages of story production. As a result of this conclusion, disciplinary measures have now been taken.

The apology notwithstanding, I think it was an overreaction to assume without more evidence that the report being worked on would have been biased. As I said on a few comments, it is an assumption that the reporter in question was searching for individuals who would paint Stephen Harper with the fearsome streak a second time. It was just as likely, in my opinion, that she could find individuals who had been scared off by Liberal fearmongering in the last election, who were now nowhere near as afraid. Maybe she could take a Liberal voter, still fearful of Stephen Harper, and introduce him or her to passionate and well spoken Conservatives that would try to change that person’s mind.

Unlikely, you say? Why was it that no one who had switched their vote from Liberal to Conservative was canvassed? Or people unsure of the NDP? Why were there no other e-mails?

But, according to Fine Young Journalist, there were other e-mails. There were other types of voters canvassed. The news report in question was not produced in isolation; it was one of a series.

On Wednesday’s edition, Mark Kelley physically flew a woman from B.C. to Montreal to learn about the place. They stopped by an event held by the fiercely nationalist Societe St-Jean-Baptiste and chatted with Gilles Duceppe. They talked to Justin Trudeau. They got a lesson in Quebec’s political dynamics from a pollster (Christian Bourque? I can’t quite remember.) Basically, Kelley brought this Westerner face to face with an element of Canadian political culture on which she’d had strong opinions but about which she knew very little. She went away probably not much more sympathetic to Quebec politicians or separatism or the Liberals’ efforts to fight it, but she certainly understood them all better. I know I did just by watching.

It was the best campaign journalism I’ve seen so far in any medium. Among the best I’ve seen on any subject in recent memory. Much depended on the lady’s being decent and open-minded about her skepticism, which she was, but truly, this was genius television. (Naturally, I can find no evidence of it whatsoever on the CBC website.)

Kelley concluded by promising a sequel — bringing a Liberal-supporting central Canadian to the big bad West, presumably to have a similar experience and learn a little about how Canada looks through Calgary Conservative eyes. The very opposite of the bias the e-mail campaign was objecting to. To be sure, we’ll have to wait to see how Kelley executes the second piece. He could still make a giant fool of me if it’s a disaster. But from here, today, it looks as though CBC news’s management caved for no good reason.

Finally, this week, Matteis’ piece ran, and Fine Young Journalist was there to watch it. His reaction?

The latest piece wasn’t as excellent as the first (the British Columbian talked to Gilles Duceppe and Justin Trudeau; the Ontarian in the West talked to the editor of the Calgary Sun), but I’d defy anyone to say Kelley’s work wasn’t even-handed and scrupulously careful. The Ontarian concluded she’d think about her vote differently — she’d mark her X thinking about the whole country, not just herself.

Somebody owes Stephanie Matteis, the producer who was apparently assigned to find the voter to take to the West and went about it in a perfectly sensible way by seeking someone deeply skeptical of the Conservatives, an apology.

Let’s recap: an Ontarian voter, who is admittedly skeptical of the Conservatives, is flown to Alberta wherein Albertan Conservatives are given an opportunity to sell their party’s policies, not only to the skeptical voter, but to all Canadians on national television.

As blogging controversies go, this didn’t extend far beyond a handful of websites, and it is telling that there has been almost no reaction from the original websites now that the suspect report has aired. But I’m still ticked. It would appear that a number of the assumptions made by Angry and others prejudged Matteis before they saw the finished product. Rather than an example of the CBC’s bias against the Conservatives, we got a display of these bloggers’ bias against the CBC.

Matteis definitely deserves an apology. And since she’s unlikely to get one from the individuals who spammed her e-mail box and prejudged her reporting, she will get it from me. Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I am sorry that my post put you through this. You can rest assured that I will be a lot more careful with what I say on this blog in the future, especially in the light of some readers propensity to shoot first, and ask questions later.

Fine Young Journalist also has a few choice words for the CBC PR department for the apology issued back in December:

But from here, today, it looks as though CBC news’s management caved for no good reason.

The ugly formulation of MacDonald’s message … makes it even worse. Nearly any piece of work can have the “appearance of partiality,” to someone who wants to see it. Many bits and pieces of journalistic work along the way will have that appearance, especially if taken out of context. What’s the smallest unit of work (by a journalist who’s doing her job, challenging each source) that can reasonably be expected to appear impartial in itself? One interview? One question? The pitch?

Our national conversation is further debased by both those who jumped to conclusions and the cowards at the Mother Corp who didn’t stand up for their staff.

blog comments powered by Disqus