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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Heather Mallick's Unfortunate Timing

Heather Mallick is a Canadian journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Toronto Globe and Mail. Most recently she has been writing for the CBC, Canada's national, public broadcaster as a freelance blogger on its website.

When she wrote for the Globe, I found her writing about the arts scene in Toronto a bit too arch and "inside baseball" for me. It seemed directed more to her literary friends than for the rest of us. But Mallick's musings at the CBC have been more useful. They were about journalism, as well as about life, politics, the arts. She is, in my opinion, a good writer with strong opinions, some of which I may agree with.

In short, she is fairly typical of the blogger community...given more to her own ideas and impressions and less concerned with whether a well-turned phrase has an unassailable basis in fact. Many bloggers on the right and the left (Christopher Hitchens comes to mind) have placed a higher value on being incendiary than being informational.

This is the reality of the blogosphere. It treasures shock value and disdains context. Most people (I hope) who read blogs understand this, and take what is said with a few grains of salt.

Ms. Mallick recently opined on Republican Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin in a way that would not surprise bloggers and the people who love them. Her Palin posting was rude, crude, vituperative, possibly libelous and pretty much in keeping with that spirit of sharp elbows and nasty turns of phrase that can be found on line.

Mallick's problem was not so much what she wrote (although I thought it went too far), as where it appeared - on the CBC website.

The CBC is Canada's publicly funded national broadcaster. It has gone to great lengths over the years to avoid bias, and the appearance of bias and to be a paragon of fair-mindedness. In most of its on-air programs, it can be scrupulous to the point of boredom. Occasionally a reporter or a program will draw a conclusion on a controversial issues such as the Middle East. When that happens, partisans will accuse the CBC of harboring and promoting bias.

Sometimes these accusations have a grain of truth to them; in private, CBC-ers can be smug in their assumptions and disdainful of other opinions. But usually, personal opinions are kept off the air. So Heather Mallick's post on Sarah Palin seemed to confirm the worst assumptions about the CBC by those who expect the worst from the CBC.

Mallick's anti-Palin screed without a "balanced" attack against Joe Biden put the CBC in a position that it frequently finds itself: accused of bias against the right.

The charge against the CBC was led by one of the more ideological newspapers in Canada, The National Post, and by a columnist called Jonathan Kay. The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente joined in the attack with a mean spirited and personal attack on Mallick (a former colleague).

Mallick and the CBC became the focus of a media onslaught in the US led by Fox News. The CBC Ombudsman received more than 300 emails (quite a lot on any one issue) that seemed to be part of a deliberate campaign to put the CBC on the defensive.

The CBC Ombudsman and CBC management found Mallick's column to be lacking the usual standards of good taste and judgment. Interestingly, the Ombudsman's report differed from CBC management and noted a recurrent problem that the CBC stills suffers from a too narrow range of views. But that in this case, "balance" with an equally nasty column attacking Biden would not have been appropriate.

The column was pulled from the website (but it's still available everywhere online), and the head of CBC News issued an apology. No word whether Mallick or her online editor were chastised. Her editor certainly should be.

I think the CBC handled it fairly. But there is a fair bit of hypocrisy in all this, in my opinion.

First, a mainstream news organization that hires an inside blogger is asking for trouble. The question is whether the news organization is prepared to take the occasional bloody nose that should inevitably come from having a truly independent blogger inside its confines. Most news organization find those living arrangements uncomfortable. Bloggers inside a news organization often end up doing puff pieces in order to avoid annoying management. In fact, a gadfly role should be part of their function.

My guess is that CBC will de-fang its bloggers from now on. That's what others have done. If so, it may not be a great loss. The strength of the CBC and other so-called mainstream news organizations, is in their credibility and dependability. Have in-house attack dogs doesn't necessarily serve the audience.

Second, for the Globe and Mail and the National Post to attack the CBC and Heather Mallick takes some nerve. "Fairness and balance," may be good for the CBC, they seem to say, because it's publicly funded, but neither newspaper shows much restraint in their own partisanship. Newspapers it is said, may be the voice of their publishers, but papers should have some sense of civic obligations to their readers too. Unfortunately, the opinions of shareholders and boards of directors seem to count for more.

Private interests like newspapers also take full advantage of tax breaks which happen to be funded by the public. Doesn't that mean they are "public media" with the same public obligations to "fairness and balance" as they expect from the CBC?

It's worth noting that all this comes in the midst of an election in Canada in which the ruling Conservative Party has been threatening to make cuts to cultural funding programs. The CBC, funded by the federal government by more than $1 billion a year, appears to be under threat if the Conservatives return to power.

So the CBC needs to assure the public - and the Conservatives - that it has everything under control if it's going to survive the next Tory government.

Heather Mallick's unfortunate timing means that she had to take the fall for that assurance.

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