When the Canadian media fails us
On Aug. 3, 2018, the Globe and Mail published a column by Margaret Wente, “The conservative case for guaranteed income.” It was the usual Wente fare—paragraphs of blithering nonsense on a topic about which Wente knows very little. But by far the most appalling part of the column was when Wente endorsed Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, calling it “one of the most prophetic (and wrongly maligned) books of our time.”
The Bell Curve: you know, the racist book that says that Black people on average have lower IQs? The book which has provided legitimacy for white supremacy? The book that has been widely debunked by the scientific community? Yeah, that one. Obviously, many people were outraged at both Wente for endorsing a book on race science and the Globe and Mail for publishing the column, and they turned to many outlets to express their dismay—one being the National NewsMedia Council (NNC), which received five complaints. The NNC's response was predictably disappointing:
The news media organization acknowledged that Murray is best known for his older and “very controversial” book, The Bell Curve. Noting the column writer described the book as “prophetic” and “wrongly maligned,” the news outlet also noted the opinion writer did not specify what arguments or statements in the book she felt were prophetic or maligned. Given that lack of detail or explanation, the news outlet argued that in the absence of a contested fact there was no basis for a complaint of factual error. The NNC upholds the prerogative of an opinion writer to express unpopular and provocative points of view. It is the role of a columnist to be a catalyst for discussion, even on uncomfortable issues. In light of the above, the NNC dismisses the complaint.
I say disappointing because, as a self-professed “self-regulatory ethics body,” the NNC demonstrates a shallow understanding of media ethics; predictable, because Canadian media has always played a role, whether deliberate or not, in perpetuating racism. While the NNC, whose members comprise most of Canada’s English language print and online news sources, claims to promote ethical practices with respect to “fairness of coverage, relevance, balance and accuracy,” its second mandate—to represent “the public and the media in matters concerning... freedom of speech and freedom of the media”—offers insight into why they do not always properly address ethics.
With their response to the complaints about Wente’s column, the NNC is upholding the Globe and Mail’s right to endorse a book about race science while also acknowledging a well-known truth in much of Canadian media output: that journalistic responsibility will very often take a backseat in favour of the misunderstood concept of press freedom. The NNC’s response highlights an issue I believe to be one of the most pressing concerns facing Canadian journalism today, and that’s the issue of journalistic responsibility.
One argument put forth by the NNC in favour of Wente’s column is that she did not specify what aspects of The Bell Curve she found to be “wrongly maligned.” This is a weak defense—one that uses weak journalism as an argument against journalistic accountability and responsibility. A key tenet in good journalism is context. Good journalism provides context, is not vague and would have clarified what items Wente thought were “prophetic” and “maligned.” Wente’s column did none of these, and yet somehow this defends her against any criticism about her endorsement of The Bell Curve. I’m not buying the NNC on this one, and neither should anyone else.
The line I take most issue with from the NNC’s response was this: “The NNC upholds the prerogative of an opinion writer to express unpopular and provocative points of view. It is the role of a columnist to be a catalyst for discussion, even on uncomfortable issues.” According to this document and in light of the content of Wente’s column to which it is in response, the NNC seems to be claiming that promoting a book on race science, regardless of whether the opinion piece was specifically about the book, is merely an “unpopular” and “provocative” opinion, and that the harm inflicted upon Black people by Charles Murray’s assertions that they have lower IQs is no more than an “uncomfortable issue.”
While opinion writers should be able to draw attention to issues that they deem not to receive enough public attention, such opinions must be legitimate and based upon fact. Race science is not legitimate, nor is The Bell Curve based on accepted facts. Furthermore, The Bell Curve has done a lot more than simply make Black people uncomfortable, but I suppose this concept is beyond the mainly white Canadian media establishment’s ability to comprehend.
It is also apparently beyond the Canadian media establishment's ability to comprehend the weight of press freedom, and the response of both the Globe and Mail and the NNC to the complaints about Wente's column is illustrative of this.
According to the NNC, press freedom was upheld in this case because, by not clarifying her statements, Wente was technically not guilty of “factual error.” (I know, those are some mental gymnastics there.) But by making this argument, the NNC ignored the far more important aspect of press accountability. As Elliot D. Cohen so clearly expressed in “Three Essays on Journalism and Virtue,” “when a journalist works for a newspaper or news corporation that is violating the public trust, he or she cannot avoid responsibility for whatever evils are worked by that network.”(1) By publishing a column that endorses a racist book without context or clarification about what parts of the book the writer was endorsing, or even mentioning that the book is widely considered factually false and deeply racist, the Globe and Mail was violating the public trust and providing legitimacy to a book that has helped to push the white supremacist agenda. This is not sound media ethics, and the NNC should not in good conscience have dismissed the complaints against the Globe and Mail.
This draws attention to an important point: press freedom does not come without responsibility. And while there are laws in place, such as those about libel and hate speech, that prevent journalists from taking things to the unethical extreme, very little is legally in place to keep members of the media accountable. To do so, it is argued, would infringe on freedom of the press. It is for this reason that journalistic responsibility so often falls to the individual journalist, and especially when it comes to opinion journalism, it is a role that is not taken seriously enough.
Here’s a [sometimes] real unpopular opinion: opinion writers are important to journalism. Columnists, in the best of circumstances, are able to give deeper insight into issues, draw attention to lesser-heard concerns and introduce different perspectives. However, an opinion writer should ideally be well-informed on the topics they choose to cover. Media hacks and pundits like Margaret Wente rarely fit this mold, and this leads to the spread of misinformation—something that falls directly in opposition to the role of the media.
Furthermore, the NNC’s assertion that the role of the opinion writer is to express “provocative points,” without bringing up the importance of responsibility, is the very same type of argument that compels the CBC time and time again to invite Barbara Kay on air for panels on trans issues. Barbara Kay is about as informed on trans issues as a rock is informed on the art of crochet, and her presence on such panels does more harm than good by spreading transphobia and false information. Giving Wente a platform in the Globe and Mail without requiring her to be held accountable for her irresponsible and uninformed endorsement of The Bell Curve is the same thing.
In order to move forward, journalists and the public must understand that freedom of the press is NOT freedom of expression, although both are misunderstood concepts and neither provide a shield against all consequences. First of all, as media ethicist Stephanie Craft argues, the press is never truly free; there are always political, social and economic factors working upon it. (2) The Globe and Mail's decision to publish Wente for the sake of being provocative and attracting readers is an example of an economic pressure on the press, and serves as a reminder that when audience wants are placed over audience needs, there is risk of conflating the marketplace of ideas with a literal marketplace.(3)
It is for this reason that media institutions must uphold journalistic responsibility as much as individual journalists, since the external social, political and economic pressures affect journalism at the institutional level more so than the individual.(4) After all, it wasn't Wente alone who published an endorsement of The Bell Curve; the editors at the Globe and Mail made the final call to put such an endorsement in the public eye, and the NNC upheld their right to do so. Margaret Wente is entitled to her own uninformed opinions, but she is not entitled to a paid platform with which to voice them—a platform that gives her uninformed opinions added legitimacy.
This is where the second reason comes in for why freedom of the press should not be equated with freedom of expression. The press has a duty to inform society and to spread accurate information, and this responsibility must be placed foremost. In the 1947 American Hutchins Commission, it was written that “[the press’] moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of accountability. Its legal right will stand unaltered as its moral duty is performed.” In other words, if a news outlet or journalist abdicates their moral responsibility to accountability, press freedom becomes irrelevant. It’s a fairly strong statement, but one that all journalists must keep in mind if they are to fulfill their role of helping the public to make sense of the world.
It is the onus of individual journalists and news corporations, and media councils like the NNC, to uphold journalistic responsibility. The NNC should not have dismissed the complaints regarding Wente’s column, and the Globe and Mail should not have received a pass in these circumstances. As Canada’s newspaper of record, theirs is a heavier burden, and the Globe and Mail’s editors should have known better than to let Wente’s statement about The Bell Curve stand as is. Yet Wente’s column passed through the editorial process with only an acknowledgement that The Bell Curve is a “highly controversial book.” The fact that the Globe and Mail, as a newspaper, decided that vague statements and lack of context indicated an absence of factual inaccuracy is concerning. We need a national news council with the knowledge and courage to point this out.
The whole incident surrounding Wente’s column demonstrates the failings still present in the Canadian media. The Globe and Mail did not accept responsibility, showed ignorance about how much damage The Bell Curve has inflicted on Black people, and chose provocative, factless writing over well-informed, knowledge-based commentary. The NNC, by dismissing the complaints leveled against the Globe and Mail, perpetuated this ethical failing and further legitimized it. Canadians deserve better. Until it becomes the norm for the Canadian media to accept responsibility for everything they publish and to put journalistic responsibility above press freedom and the factors acting against it, it will always fall short of its mandate. A press without responsibility fails its moral duty, its calling and, most importantly, the people it serves.
1) Stuart, Adam G.; Stephanie Craft & Elliot D. Cohen (2004) "Three Essays on Journalism and Virtue", Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19:3-4, 270.
2) Craft, Stephanie (2009) "Press Freedom and Responsibility", in Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach, ed. C. Meyers, New York: Oxford University Press, 45.
4) Ibid. 48-49