Citizen Action Monitor

Response to CBC Ombudsperson’s dismissal of complaints re Venezuelan coverage

Criticisms raised by complainants are valid — “CBC’s overall coverage was one-sided and tilted against Maduro,” says Helga Wintal

No 2468 Posted by fw, May 4, 2019

“In conclusion, I remain convinced that the criticisms raised by complainants are valid: the CBC’s overall coverage was one-sided and tilted against President Maduro. This is evident in the pro-Guaidó framing of the CBC’s coverage, and the absence of a diversity of opinion. Details critical of Canada’s position were, in your only example, relegated to a short radio interview, while facts critical of US actions were downplayed or ignored in CBC’s coverage. I fail to understand how you can conclude that CBC programmers ‘are making appropriate efforts to be accurate, to be balanced, and to be impartial.’”Helga Wintal

Yesterday I posted a letter on this blog from CBC Ombudsperson, Jack Nagler, to Helga Wintal, who was one of several complainants who “criticized the overall coverage of Venezuela as one-sided.” Included in yesterday’s post is a recap of the previous emails between Helga and the CBC, and, as well, links to four related, recent posts featured on this blog. For convenience, here again are links to all four of these earlier posts in chronological order from the earliest to the latest —

Letter of complaint to CBC Ombudsperson re CBC News – The National’s coverage of Venezuelan crisis : Reporting since early February has not presented an accurate, fair, balanced and impartial analysis of events. No 2437 Posted by fw, February 19, 2019

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

CBC’s defence of its National News Venezuelan coverage collapses under critical content analysis : The National’s choice of which images and narrative to include and which to exclude created an unbalanced, inaccurate, pro-regime-change storyline. No 2453 Posted by fw, March 31, 2019

CBC Ombudsperson responds to Helga Wintal’s letter of complaint re National News Venezuelan coverage : Ombudsperson dismisses complaints, concludes CBC is making “appropriate efforts to be accurate, balanced and impartial.” No 2467 Posted by fw, May 3, 2019

Below is a copy of Helga’s new letter to Mr. Nagler in response to his review and dismissal of complaints submitted to his office about CBC’s coverage of the Venezuelan crisis.

A reminder: Helga Wintal, B.A. (Hon.), LL.B., is a retired public servant with extensive experience in federal, provincial and county governments, including experience working for a federal Ombudsperson in the early years of her Federal Public Service career.

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Subject: Feedback on Review of CBC’s Venezuela Coverage

After reading your two-part review of the CBC’s Venezuela coverage, it took some time to get over my disappointment and set down why I found the review so inadequate. I provide these comments as feedback. No doubt, you will continue to receive complaints from informed viewers unless and until the CBC becomes serious about applying its Journalistic Standards and Practices.

May 5, 2019

Dear Mr. Nagler:

On Feb. 18, 2019 I sent a detailed email to you raising 6 complaints about The National’s coverage of the situation in Venezuela.

Daniel Getz responded to me on March 3, 2019, on behalf of the CBC. He dismissed many of my concerns as “… your interpretation of the coverage or opinion about it rather than something which can be objectively evaluated” and made only one concession, “that CBC News should dig deeper into Mr. Guaidó and his rise to prominence”. I wrote a detailed critique of Mr. Getz’ response to each of my complaints and emailed it to you on March 31, 2019 for your review.

I had put a lot of thought, effort and research into documenting my complaints. Based on my experience working for a federal Ombudsperson in the early years of my Federal Public Service career, I expected that my two emails and Mr. Getz’ response would be carefully considered and that I would receive a personal response with the results of the review. You emailed me on April 2, 2019 that “This office is already conducting a review of CBC’s coverage in Venezuela. We will send you a link to the review once completed.” As promised, on April 11, 2019 you sent me a link to your review of CBC’s coverage of Venezuela.

Imagine my surprise when the link was to an April 11, 2019 review of a complaint submitted by Gregory Duffel, “one of several who criticized the overall coverage of Venezuela as one-sided”. You mentioned that several other complaints had been received and summarized them as follows: “the journalism has not been balanced and is tilted against President Maduro.” You described three recurring themes in the complaints raised with you – that there should be more attention paid to the impact of US sanctions; more skepticism about Canada’s position and US motives; and more aggressive questions about the legitimacy of Guaidó

Your link led me to another, earlier review, dated March 29, 2019, also on the topic of the CBC’s Venezuela coverage. The complaint came from Joe Emersberger, who thought that an online story about the debate over food aid in Venezuela got the facts wrong, and was unfair to the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Mr. Emersberger’s concerns about the food aid reporting mirrored one of my six complaints.

In summary, then, between your description of the three recurring themes and the description of Mr. Emersberger’s complaint, I expected that most of my six complaints would be addressed. I was, subsequently, bitterly disappointed by the tone and content of your two reviews.

I will outline the reasons for my bitter disappointment:

1/ My biggest disappointment was the format of your two reviews dealing with the CBC’s Venezuela coverage. The reviews were confusing and deficient in addressing the three recurring themes in the complaints raised with you.

As I understood your approach, you were using your reviews of two specific complaints – those of Mr. Duffell and Mr. Emersberger – to determine whether the CBC was applying three of its Journalistic Standards and Practices to its Venezuela coverage: the principle of accuracy was covered in the review of Mr. Emersberger’s complaint, and the principles of impartiality and balance were covered in the review of Mr. Duffell’s complaint. This enabled you to cite examples of coverage which, in your view, demonstrated adherence to one of these principles without necessarily dealing with the issues raised by complainants.

2/ Your attitude and that of Mr. Getz – speaking on behalf of CBC management – is that only the opinions of journalists matter; as for the opinions and interpretations of members of the informed public, “your view is just that – your view as you stated to Mr. Duffell.

How can you so curtly dismiss the views of a number of individuals who wrote to you with similar concerns about the CBC’s Venezuela coverage? If they, as interested viewers, saw the coverage as biased, inaccurate, and omitting key facts, their common perception should prompt the CBC to consider how its broadcasts could be improved. Instead, CBC management rushed to the defensive.

3/ You seem to have accepted without question the explanations of CBC’s Daniel Getz and Adrienne Arsenault instead of critically assessing their responses.

For example, you accepted Ms. Arsenault’s explanation of why, in her fawning interview with Guaidó, she failed to question his legitimacy. She told you that “most people in the audience already had views on whether he was legitimate or not, and that nothing he would say to that would be different or newsworthy.” Perhaps that was true for the Venezuelan audience, but not necessarily for Canadians watching The National – in my opinion, they deserved to hear some probing questions and arguments regarding Guaidó’s legitimacy.

You also accepted Ms. Arsenault’s feeble excuse that she was not expecting to have an interview with Guaidó. I would have expected that the mere presence of a Canadian film crew to cover Guaidó’s speech — combined with effective pre-production planning — would have led an experienced reporter like Ms. Arsenault and crew to expect and prepare for a possible interview.

4/ You failed to address Mr. Duffell’s key concern about Ms. Arsenault’s reports on Guaidó: “that she probably rejects any consideration that Maduro might simply be the legitimate President of Venezuela.”

Mr. Duffell’s complaint was similar to my own. We were both concerned about the CBC’s seeming reluctance to delve into the issue of Guaidó’s legitimacy. Some of the concerns you could have reviewed, but didn’t, include:

  • When the CBC quotes information on the number of countries that have recognized Guaidó, in the interests of fairness and balance, shouldn’t the CBC also mention that 141 countries continue to recognize Maduro, compared to 48 that recognize Guaidó? Otherwise, the implication is that Guaidó’s legitimacy is unchallenged.
  • The CBC has not mentioned, in any broadcasts I viewed, that the UN continues to deal with Maduro as the President of Venezuela – another issue of fairness in reporting.
  • The CBC has broadcast, without challenge, Guaidó’s statement that his self-proclamation as President is constitutionally legitimate. Guaidó’s interpretation is just that – his interpretation, and there are valid opposing arguments. Why has the CBC shied away from reporting the views of constitutional experts in Venezuela and Canada on this crucial topic? The principle of accuracy requires that the CBC “…learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.”
  • When the CBC cites the opinion of the opposition, and of countries that believe Maduro’s election in 2018 was illegitimate, shouldn’t they also mention that Maduro had asked the UN to send observers to monitor the election and that 150 members of an international electoral accompaniment mission filed four reports, all concluding the elections were free and fair.
  • How can the CBC ignore that Guaidó only received 26% of the vote in his own riding when he ran for the National Assembly in 2015, that his party only holds 14 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly, and that he did not run for President in 2018 – hardly facts that demonstrate Guaidó has the support of the Venezuelan voting public.

5/ You rejected complainants’ contentions that “the entire framing of CBC’s coverage” was not impartial but favoured Guaidó, despite evidence to the contrary.

On a visual medium, such as the National News broadcasts, the film footage and other visual images selected to accompany the journalist’s narrative play a major role in helping to tell the story, particularly as humans are a visual species. So, in my view, “framing” consists of selected visual images, language used, facts conveyed and facts omitted — but it is the visuals that leave the most powerful impression. Clearly, in the National’s coverage of the events unfolding in Venezuela in 2019, the CBC’s framing focus was on showing positive images of Guaidó and designed to favour regime change.

Let me illustrate with four examples.

First, consider this selection of visual images of Guaidó versus the images for the Maduro government: Guaidó was shown with hands clasped in prayer, arms raised in addressing crowds, riding with his supporters to help deliver aid, meeting with US Vice president Pence and offering amnesty to soldiers who deserted. In sharp contrast, the images linked to the Maduro government were scenes of shortages, barricaded bridges, skirmishes, defiant rejection of aid and burning aid – even though a pro-Guaidó supporter had “accidentally” set the aid on fire. No question which man would appeal more to a Canadian audience.

Second, consider Ms. Arsenault’s interview of Guaidó, where she asked “How are you going to get the aid through?”, after showing a blocked bridge and commenting, “Just look at what the Venezuelan military has done just across from Colombia, blocking the road to block the aid.” (NOTE: the bridge that was shown had never been opened.) Ms. Arsenault had already framed the whole aid delivery drama into one of Guaidó – the aid deliverer versus Maduro – the aid blocker.

Third, consider The National broadcasts focusing on the delivery of US Aid. You admitted, in your review, “Maduro, as you know, felt those shipments of food were less a humanitarian gesture and more a political tool of the White House to undermine him.” This fact may have been perfectly clear to you, but not necessarily to The National’s viewing audience. However, in The National broadcasts, neither Ms. Arsenault not Ms. Duncombe explained why the particular aid they were covering was so offensive to the Maduro government nor that the UN and the Red Cross had warned the US not to send aid for its own PR purposes. These two facts would have produced an entirely different framing of the aid story. Instead, what Canadian viewers saw was Maduro’s army blocking the entry of aid into a country which had grave food and medicine shortages.

Fourth, consider The National’s broadcast showing heartbreaking Caracas hospital scenes to expose the suffering caused by a shortage of medicines and supplies. Ms. Arsenault did not mention the devastating impact of US sanctions which limited the government’s ability to import food, medicine and basic supplies. Nor did the broadcast mention the UN resolution condemning economic sanctions against Venezuela. If Ms. Arsenault had prefaced her hospital tour with the comment: “Here’s an example of the impact of sanctions, which restrict the Maduro’s government’s ability to import basic supplies and medicines”, the framing would have shifted the blame from Maduro to the impact of US sanctions.

Clearly, the framing of CBC’s coverage favoured Guaidó, demonized Maduro, and omitted the real story behind the Venezuela crisis, one of sanctions and political interference by the US and others who stood to gain from a Guaidó Presidency. How could this blatant bias in the framing of CBC’s coverage be ignored?

6/ In assessing whether the CBC’s coverage was balanced, you admitted that “There was substantially more airtime devoted to critics of the government” but concluded that “Balance is not achieved by a robotic slave to mathematics and stopwatches.”

I took your comment as a snide reference to my approach, as I used a content analysis breakdown of several National broadcasts to illustrate the imbalance in the CBC’s Venezuela coverage. For your information, content analysis is an accepted humanities, media, and social science research tool and is taught in university-level journalism courses. It can be very effective, for example, in assessing whether bias is present in the item under review.

7/ Your examples of balanced coverage – defined in the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices as “reflecting a diversity of opinion” and that “content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matters and views” – did not meet the defined standard.

To elaborate, you accepted that CBC reporters “used information based on what they have seen, what they can attribute, and what they can verify.” Of course, what CBC journalists saw and observed was in locations where they felt safe — primarily in anti-Maduro and wealthier sections of Caracas, where they would not get a good cross-section of views. Mr. Getz admitted, in his response to my complaints to you, that “it was too dangerous to go into places where there was Maduro support”. Difficult, then, for CBC reporters to see beyond the views of pro-Guaidó, pro-regime change supporters!

On The National, for example, Ms. Arsenault interviewed both Guaidó and a prominent opposition politician – known for her far-right views – but no interview with a government official, pro-Maduro politician or knowledgeable Venezuelan journalist, academic, lawyer or economist who could offer an opposing perspective.

You cited two examples to demonstrate that the CBC’s coverage of Canada’s position was balanced: a January 25 As it Happens radio interview with Raul Burbano, an independent observer of the 2018 Presidential elections in Venezuela; and “…a [January 24 National News] segment, which explains Canada’s position, yet also includes critics and background information on the history of coup attempts in Venezuela.”

The January 24, 2019 National News segment featured CBC reporter Evan Dyer and Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former Ambassador to Caracas, explaining why Canada endorsed Guaidó, followed by a clip of Svend Robinson briefly questioning Guaidó’s legitimacy without providing specific reasons. The Rowswell interview contained some questionable facts and inaccuracies. A day later, the Raul Burbano interview did present an opposing view to that of Dyer and Rowswell. However, the Burbano interview was one of six topics covered on a radio program and there was no guarantee that a radio program would reach the same audience who had watched the National segment with Dyer and Rowswell. Without presenting the case for and against the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó on the same program, viewers might have only been exposed to one side of the story – the one favouring Guaidó, complete with inaccuracies – presented on The National. In situations where there are clearly opposing views, the CBC should present them on the same program, to meet the CBC’s principles of balance and impartiality.

8/ Despite identifying US sanctions as one of three recurring themes in the complaints raised with you – “there should be more attention paid to the impact of US sanctions on Venezuela as a contributing factor to the country’s economic hardships” – your review was totally inadequate and inaccurate.

You stated that Raul Burbano, in an interview on As it Happens, “pointed listeners to Alfred de Zayas, who authored a report on Venezuela that casts blame for the country’s problems primarily on US sanctions.” I read the transcript of the broadcast. Although Burbano did refer to Alfred de Zayas, no reference was made to what de Zayas said about sanctions, or whether the topic was even covered in his report. And that was the only example you cited in response to complainants’ concerns!

Why do complainants believe the US sanctions are so important? Because the latest sanctions, in 2017 and 2019, are the most draconian sanctions imposed on any country to date, except possibly against Iraq and Iran, and are intended to destabilize Venezuela’s economy, erode the support for Maduro and help to bring about a regime change favourable to US business interests.

As just a partial summary, the US government cut off Venezuela’s access to borrowing in US financial markets; seized assets belonging to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company; stopped the import of Venezuelan oil into the USA; pressured other countries not to buy Venezuelan oil and, most recently, sanctioned 34 vessels used to transport Venezuelan oil.

Venezuela, as you probably know, imports most of its food, supplies and medicines and depends on the cash from oil exports to pay for its imports. By drastically curtailing Venezuela’s access to hard currency, the US sanctions help to explain why Venezuela is experiencing shortages of food, medicine, repair parts, diesel fuel for its backup thermal generators as well as other basic supplies.

Because economic sanctions “disproportionately” affect “the poor and most vulnerable classes,” threatening the realization of human rights” and “threaten the sovereignty of statesthe UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution A/HRC/37/L.34 on March 19, 2018 condemning economic sanctions against Venezuela by the United States, Canada, the European Union and their allies.

Not mentioning the sanctions when the CBC shows images of shortages is, as I previously mentioned, an example of framing which leaves Canadian viewers with only one person to blame – namely, Maduro. And omitting a key fact from its broadcasts – the UN’s condemnation of the use of sanctions – would, in my view, violate the CBC’s espoused principles of accuracy, fairness and impartiality.

9/ Your review of a second key theme raised by complainants – “there should be more skepticism about Canada’s position, and more skepticism about the motives of the United States in fomenting dissent against Maduro” failed to demonstrate that the CBC had “contribute[d] to informed debate…by reflecting a diversity of opinion” .

In my comment 7/ above, I discussed the two examples you cited to demonstrate that Canada’s position, and criticism of that position, was covered by the CBC: a January 25 As it Happens radio interview and “…a [January 24 National News] segment .

In my view, your two examples were unlikely to enable viewers to have an informed opinion on Canada’s support for regime change. The Canadian government seems to have an inordinate interest in Venezuela, as evidenced by its 71 Ministerial Communications, Statements and Declarations between June 1, 2016 and Feb. 14, 2019 which criticize the Maduro government and favour regime change. Our government claims its interest in Venezuela relates to concerns for democracy and human rights. However, others have linked Ottawa’s interest in Venezuela to its significant gold deposits and the unpaid settlements to two Canadian mining companies. Canada’s oil industry also benefits from the drop in Venezuelan oil exports due to US sanctions.

As for skepticism of “the motives of the United States in fomenting dissent against Maduro,” the only clear reference in the examples you cited was a single statement by Svend Robinson on the January 24, 2019 National segment in which he alleged that the US interest related to Venezuela’s huge oil reserves. Yet the many facts that were omitted from CBC’s Venezuela coverage, which demonstrate US manipulation to bring about regime change – including draconian US sanctions, ignoring the UN’s condemnation of sanctions and ignoring the warnings of the UN and the Red Cross against using aid for PR – were downplayed or absent.

In conclusion, I remain convinced that the criticisms raised by complainants are valid: the CBC’s overall coverage was one-sided and tilted against President Maduro. This is evident in the pro-Guaidó framing of the CBC’s coverage, and the absence of a diversity of opinion. Details critical of Canada’s position were, in your only example, relegated to a short radio interview, while facts critical of US actions were downplayed or ignored in CBC’s coverage.

I fail to understand how you can conclude that CBC programmers “are making appropriate efforts to be accurate, to be balanced, and to be impartial.

Yours truly,

Helga Wintal, etc.

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