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O'Leary breached CBC standards, ombudsman rules

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It took just a week following the airing of an "interview" on CBC television's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange for the public broadcaster's ombudsman, Kirk LaPointe, to rule that the public broadcaster's journalistic standards had been breached.

For all those who saw the segment on the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations -- either when it aired on October 6 or, more likely, after the fact as the segment was posted and viewed on various websites -- the verbal utterances of the show's co-host, businessman and entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary, were jaw-dropping in their insensitivity.

Not the least being the following, directed at Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges, in response to his characterization of the objectives of the thousands of people who had, by then, taken to the streets in protests in New York City and Washington D.C., where Hedges was among those to speak to the throngs:

"Listen, don't take this the wrong way," O'Leary said to Hedges, "but you sound like a left-wing nutbar. If you want to shut down every corporation, every bank, where are you going to get a job? Where are you going to work? Where's the economy going to go?"

Later when Hedges likened O'Leary's offensive prattle to that more becoming of a Fox News host and said he usually avoided shows where "character assassination" was the order of the day, O'Leary suggested they then turn to the issues. At which point Hedges said words to the effect that it was O'Leary who had got things off to a bad start by calling him a "nutcase" and O'Leary took it upon himself to hurl yet more verbal abuse.

"I didn't call you a nutcase, I called you a nutbar."

LaPointe's dissection of the episode and his conclusion that it breached the CBC's journalistic standards is well worth reading, and highlights for those who may have had the pleasure of seeing him on the occasional guest spot on the At Issue panel on CBC's The National, just what a bright light he is. In part, here's what he said:

There is room at the inn for a range of views, but there is no room for name-calling a guest. At the very least, suggesting Hedges was a "nutbar" undermined what was likely a more interesting discussion. At worst, it permitted The Lang & O'Leary Exchange to be criticized as no different than the all-heat, no-light discussion shows that diminish discourse, far from the ambitions of a flagship business program on a public broadcaster. O'Leary might have been genuinely curious about Hedges' views, but his opening salvo only fed contempt, which breached policy. When O'Leary asked Hedges "don't take this the wrong way," it came across as disingenuous and begged the question: Is there a "right way" to take being called a nutbar?

Correctly and quickly, CBC News concluded it was unacceptable for O'Leary to do what he did. Its private apology to Hedges was a responsible gesture, as was its discussion with O'Leary about the inappropriateness of the name-calling. What was unclear was why the program would stop there and not acknowledge this also to the audience. Only the guest received the benefit of the private apology, from the programmer and not the principal himself. When CBC News acknowledges error, I believe that closure is better achieved and accountability better demonstrated by communicating that to the audience and not simply to the correspondents. In this instance it would help fulfill the spirit of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, a substantial policy which in principle embraces the public element of its implementation.

The CBC, the Lang & O'Leary Exchange, and LaPointe's offices received hundreds of letters of complaint, including this one from me.

October 11, 2011

Dear Mr. LaPointe,

As a former journalist and a long-time CBC TV viewer, I am troubled at the manner in which Chris Hedges, a guest on the Lang & O'Leary Exchange, was treated when he appeared on the show on October 6.

While being entertaining and provocative helps the CBC and other broadcasters to build and maintain their audience share, a line is crossed when it comes at the expense of being accurate, respectful and fair. This is especially true when the show in question is a news-oriented public affairs show and is aired by a public broadcaster.

The manner in which Kevin O'Leary treated Hedges was disgraceful from the get-go. At one point in just four short sentences Mr. O'Leary managed to not only inaccurately characterize Mr. Hedges' position but also to be patently unfair and disrespectful while doing so.

"Listen," O'Leary began, "don't take this the wrong way but you sound like a left-wing nut bar. If you want to shut down every corporation, every bank, where are you going to get a job? Where are you going to work? Where's the economy going to go?"

There is a huge gulf between advocating for the "shut down" of everything -- as Mr. O'Leary unfairly and inaccurately suggested Mr. Hedges did -- and what Mr. Hedges actually supported, which was increased regulation of the runaway U.S. banking industry. Mr. O'Leary knows this, or ought to. Yet he chose to engage in trash talk, more befitting of Fox News than a public broadcaster. As a taxpayer who wants Canada's public broadcaster to grow and thrive, this troubles me.

Mr. O'Leary is also bright enough to know that there is no gulf whatsoever between the derogatory words nutcase and nutbar; that choosing to use one or the other in characterizing a guest on a show that he co-hosts is disrespectful; and that deliberately and immediately hurling the verbal abuse back in a matter of seconds ("I did not call you a nutcase. I called you a nutbar.") is a further and completely gratuitous provocation.

Despite Mr. O'Leary's invective, Mr. Hedges maintained his composure and actually spoke to relevant issues -- for example, banking industry regulation, which Mr. O'Leary chose to go nowhere near, personal attacks being his preferred mode of action, much like that regular guest on CBC's hockey telecasts, Don Cherry.

What I'm trying to understand and hope you can help me with is this: CBC obviously knows the modus operandi of Mr. O'Leary. It knows or ought to know that his unprofessional antics result in violations of its own standards. So if the standards are breached -- and I believe they are in this case -- are CBC viewers to expect that edginess trumps accuracy, fairness and respect?

I sincerely hope that this is not the case.


Ben Parfitt.

PS: I wrote this letter to you a couple of days ago, but had yet to send it. In the interim, I have read your fine distillation (October 13) of the show itself and your response to concerns received by many CBC viewers about Mr. O'Leary's conduct. It is my hope that a public apology is issued to not only Mr. Hedges but to CBC viewers who deserve to hear that Mr. O'Leary's behaviour on October 6 was a clear breach of CBC's standards.

This article was first posted on Policy Note.

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