Citizen Action Monitor

CBC responds to Helga Wintal’s letter of complaint re coverage of Venezuelan crisis

As I am sure you will anticipate, for the most part I respectfully disagree with your criticisms.” —CBC Executive Producer

No 2452 Posted by fw, March 18, 2019

Just to recap:

On February 18, 2019, Helga Wintal, (my partner), emailed her complaint regarding CBC coverage of the Venezuelan crisis to the Corporation’s Ombudsperson. With Helga’s consent, I posted a copy of her letter on this blog under the title: Letter of complaint to CBC Ombudsperson re CBC News – The National’s coverage of Venezuelan crisis.

The Ombudsperson responded promptly, noting that her letter had been forwarded to the Producer of Network News, and that she could expect to receive a timely reply to her complaint.

The Producer’s email response, dated March 6, 2019, was received and is copied below, in full.

In closing, the Producer writes: “… if you are not satisfied with my response, you may wish to ask Jack Nagler, CBC Ombudsperson, to review the matter.”

In recent weeks, Helga has been busy researching and composing a letter detailing her counter arguments to the Producer’s defence of CBC reporting on Venezuela. Helga’s follow-up letter will be emailed to the Ombudsperson, with a Cc: to the Producer. As well, her rebuttal will be posted to my blog.

Note: the misspelling of Guaidó’s name in the Producer’s letter has not been corrected.

**********

March 6, 2019

Dear Ms. Wintal,

Re: Ombudsperson complaint of February 18, 2019

I am writing in response to your e-mail of February 18, 2019 addressed to Jack Nagler, CBC Ombudsperson, and posted the following day on the blog Citizen Action Monitor. You wrote to draw our attention to coverage on The National of ongoing developments in Venezuela. Since programming on The National is in part my responsibility, Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, has asked me to respond.

Your e-mail is very long and detailed but the main substance of your complaint is that, in your opinion, The National’s Venezuela coverage is inaccurate, unfair, lacks balance and takes a side. In your view, as illustrated by your “6 main complaints”, the stories fail to meet CBC News’ journalistic standards and practices.

I will do my best to respond to these complaints, although, in truth, it is a challenge to deal with all of them head-on as much of what you express is your interpretation of the coverage or opinion about it rather than something which can be objectively evaluated. As I am sure you will anticipate, for the most part I respectfully disagree with your criticisms.

    1. “Mischaracterizing the persona and the legitimacy of Juan Guiadó”

You allege that The National has “accepted without question his self-proclamation as Venezuela’s interim President”. This is simply untrue. The National and CBC News more generally take no position on the legitimacy of Mr. Guiadó [sic]. Rather, we have carefully chosen to use language such as that in the following partial transcript from Ms. Arsenault’s reporting on February 5, 2019:

>> Adrienne Arsenault (AA): As Ottawa hosted the Lima Group of countries dedicated to stabilizing Venezuela and establishing free elections, they recognize opposition leader Juan Guiadó as the legitimate interim president…Today 13 European countries also lined up behind Guiadó.

Similarly, most of the online articles published refer to Guiadó as “self-declared interim president” and point out that he has been recognized as such by other countries including Canada and the United States. Quite simply, CBC News has not taken any position on his legitimacy as you argue, instead relying on factual language in its coverage.

I do, however, agree that CBC News should dig deeper into Mr. Guiadó and his rise to prominence as part of its ongoing coverage of the story in Venezuela. As I’m sure you can appreciate, when news developments move as quickly as they have in Venezuela, it can be a challenge to broaden out and deepen reporting beyond the events of the day.

    1. “Ignoring independent observers’ assessment of 2018 election as free, fair and transparent”

You assert that CBC News “continues to characterize the election of Maduro in May 2018 as undemocratic and illegitimate”. In fact, it does not.

The May 2018 vote which elected Maduro for another six years was at least controversial – with Maduro, the government and its supporters endorsing the vote and the opposition parties, which largely boycotted it, and others criticizing it, following widespread reports of coercion, fraud and electoral rigging.

But whether the vote was or was not fair is not a matter for CBC News to decide. CBC News is prohibited by federal regulation and corporate policy from supporting or advocating any particular point of view on controversial issues such as this or the broader political crisis in Venezuela.

We report what we know; but when – as is often the case – we do not or cannot know about something with certainty, we attribute that information. That way CBC News listeners, viewers or readers know the source of the information and can make their own judgment about its reliability.

And that’s what we did about the election. Here is an example from a February 1, 2019 online story: “The opposition argues Maduro’s re-election last May was a sham.” Another online story posted on February 1st said countries including Canada, Argentina, France, Germany and Haiti “believe Maduro has illegitimately given himself a second term in office following a widely condemned vote last year”. That’s not a CBC News conclusion, but a conclusion, the story said, reached by five countries after an election that was “widely condemned”.

Although you criticized CBC News coverage for “omitting facts”, I should be clear on a couple of points. Yes, independent international observers have overseen some Venezuelan elections, but independent international observers were not on hand for the May 2018 vote. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was not there either. His Carter Center says it monitored Venezuelan elections in 1998 and 2000, but not 2018.

    1. “One-sided coverage of demonstrations”

You argue that The National’s in-country coverage of demonstrations was one-sided and gave short-shrift to pro-Maduro demonstrators. You also assert that the pro-Maduro rallies were “just as numerous”. This is factually wrong. There were pro-Maduro rallies, as noted in our coverage but they were significantly smaller and less frequent than the pro-Guiadó or opposition rallies. On February 2, 2019, the New York Times reported:

On Saturday, Mr. Maduro held a rally of his own before a crowd of supporters wearing red, the color of his socialist party, and uniformed members of a pro-government militia group. The turnout was far smaller than that of the opposition, experts said.

Ms. Arsenault did, as you acknowledge, speak to some pro-Maduro demonstrators and included their voices in the coverage. The reality, however, is that the streets of Caracas are not very safe for foreign journalists, especially in the midst of a pro-Maduro rally. The security of foreign journalists is under threat; witness the recent detention of a Univision news team during their interview with President Maduro. Jorge Ramos and his crew had their equipment confiscated and spent two hours in custody in the presidential palace before being released. Their equipment was not returned.

Furthermore, the security team hired by CBC News in Caracas advised against trying to conduct interviews in Chavista neighbourhoods or other places where there is Maduro support, saying the safety risk was too great due to roaming bands of colectivos.

    1. “Appeal to emotions without explaining the reasons for the economic collapse”

You appear to be suggesting that coverage which shows suffering among the poor and hungry or in poorly-equipped hospitals is somehow manipulative, unfair or invalid unless there is a detailed historical-political explanation for why the situation exists. I disagree. Sometimes the role of the correspondent on the ground is simply to expose the suffering. That’s what Ms. Arsenault did in her most recent trip to Venezuela.

But we were also clear about the importance of the sanctions. A February 6, 2019 story on The National talked about the economic impact of the U.S. halt to Venezuelan oil purchases. A story on February 22, 2019 referred to how the oil sanctions will hurt Venezuelans. And, a story from Washington on February 25, 2019 described new sanctions announced that day by the U.S. vice president.

However, as I explain below, it is unreasonable and impractical to expect that every segment of news coverage or storytelling on Venezuela will go in depth into the long-running internal and external events that brought us to where we are today.

    1. “Total misunderstanding of the use of food as a political weapon”

CBC News has indeed reported several times on the use of food as a political weapon. For example, in an article entitled Fight over food aid a high stakes battle in Venezuela as hunger hits hard on February 8, 2019. Your assertion that CBC News “omitted” the authorization of emergency aid by the U.N. in November 2018 is wrong. The article cited above links to another article specifically on that point.

As for the bridge never being opened, CBC News reported on that too: How a bridge between Colombia and Venezuela became part of a propaganda fight.

    1. “Why the U.S. support for regime change under Guiadó?”

You assert that CBC News has not addressed the issue of why the United States (and other countries) supports regime change in Venezuela. This is wrong. There are frequent references in CBC News coverage to humanitarian, democratic, security and economic factors which underlie the positions of governments which support Juan Guiadó and oppose the government of President Maduro. To suggest, as you do, that the only reason for the support lies in the notion that Guiadó will allow foreign and private investment in Venezuela’s oil industry is a gross oversimplification.

All of CBC News programming is subject to the organization’s journalistic policy, as set out in our Journalistic Standards and Practices (“JSP”). The JSP sets out an approach to editorial decision-making and programming based on our mission as Canada’s national public news and information service, relying on certain principles:

OUR MISSION

To serve the public interest — Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

To reflect diversity — We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our principles.

To protect our independence — We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

OUR PRINCIPLES

Accuracy — We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Fairness — In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them evenhandedly.

Balance — We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Impartiality — We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Our mission is to report on matters of public interest, reflect a diversity of points of view and to do so in a fashion which is not beholden to a particular set of interests. We strive for balance “over a reasonable period of time”.

One important role of the correspondent in the field is to describe and portray events unfolding before their eyes and captured by their cameras and microphones. The goal is to help the audience see and understand what is happening. Sometimes, the correspondent can provide detailed analysis and context for those events; but often, particularly in difficult circumstances or dangerous situations, it is hard to provide a broader view.

In fact, though, as part of her coverage in Venezuela, Ms. Arsenault appeared in a dual role – that of correspondent in the field, reporting on events and places she witnessed personally and that of co-host of The National delving into other international aspects of the Venezuela story told, in part, by various CBC News reporters and using material gathered both inside and outside the country.

The situation in Venezuela is complex and evolving. The reasons for the crisis and who is to blame are hotly debated and interpreted through different political lenses. There is widespread disagreement over how best to respond to what is happening there, both among Venezuelans and in the international community.

CBC News has provided significant coverage on various angles and aspects of the Venezuela story on all of its platforms, including network television and radio, local television and radio and online. A range of viewpoints has been canvassed in news reports and analysis pieces. Ms. Arsenault has filed a series of stories in two separate trips to the region. I am also certain that CBC News will continue to cover developments in Venezuela in the weeks and months to come.

You may disagree with coverage choices or details of storytelling on The National but, as I have demonstrated, there is no evidence to support the assertion that coverage has been inaccurate, unfair, lacking in balance or actively promoting one side over the other. It lives up to the obligations set out in the JSP.

It is also my responsibility to tell you that if you are not satisfied with my response, you may wish to ask Jack Nagler, CBC Ombudsperson, to review the matter. The Office of the Ombudsperson, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with the CBC’s journalistic policies. The Ombudsperson may be reached by mail at Box 500, Terminal A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6, or by fax at (416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at ombud@cbc.ca.

Yours sincerely,

Executive Producer of Network News

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