Look, I love the CBC as much as the next person. To me, it has the same patriotic appeal as Tim Hortons, maple syrup, and a third Canadian thing. But that doesn’t mean I’m beyond a little criticism of our public broadcasting corporation. This is an uncertain subject though, and I’m not sure I’ve convinced myself, so bear with me and hear me out.
The impetus for this piece is an interview that aired on the May 18 edition of The Current, the primetime weekday news and information program on CBC Radio 1, hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti. But I believe it represents a key vulnerability that the CBC faces: perception of its politicization and corresponding declines in support and trust for the organization in conservative circles.
That interview is available here, it starts at approximately 1:35 and lasts over eight painful minutes. While it’s not necessary to listen to the whole thing to understand what I’m saying, I invite you to bite the bullet for a few minutes and endure the potent mixture of awkwardness, incredulity, stubbornness and frustration presented there.
This specific interview was part of a larger segment examining why the Republican party remains loyal to Trump following the most recent scandals. To accomplish this The Current interviewed two Republicans: Adi Sathi, a hardline Trump supporter and former Vice-Chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and Charles Sykes, a more moderate conservative commentator who was “banging [his] head on the table” after hearing the first interview.
The effect of the ordering is to present the bad and then the good, show the insane disease spreading through the Republicans, and then reveal the principled, reasonable cure. Seen in its wider context within the segment, the first interview gains a bit of merit as an instrument of contrast, but I argue that it is not enough to redeem the interview of its negative effects. I also think it’s important to view the interview itself in isolation, as there are many listeners who might not grasp the overarching theme of the segment or even find that theme worthwhile.
The interview is hard to listen to. As Tremonti attempts to nail Sathi down with questions concerning the newest scandal out of the White House, Sathi awkwardly stumbles from one deflection to the next. He brings up everything from the Clinton email scandal to the birther conspiracy in an attempt to establish what Tremonti correctly identifies as a false equivalence between Trump and other presidents or politicians.
Tremonti valiantly presses on, in a vain attempt to get Sathi to say one negative thing about his party’s leader, or express one iota of concern about the Trump scandals. Sathi flatly denies every accusation or allegation against Trump, with many of his answers amounting to “it’s just not true.”
That’s pretty much all there is to the interview, and it’s clear to me that this is a problem. Beyond the fact that the piece is incredibly frustrating and uncomfortable to listen to, the interview fails to offer anything of substance. It doesn’t achieve any discernible objective except one: embarrassing Sathi and his point of view.
Now you might say, “well listen to the interview, this guy is obviously a toady, a partisan, and a moron, he deserves to be embarrassed and its important for people to hear how stupid he sounds.” Well said, I agree with you. And in almost any different context, I’d be happy to see Sathi flounder about pathetically as he goes to the wall for his party.
Anna Maria Tremonti does her best, fighting a losing battle. Credit: CBC.ca
But this is the CBC we’re talking about. The CBC should be about more than demonizing and embarrassing one side of a story in order to make someone else seem reasonable — or to prove a political point. As a public broadcaster, it has a greater obligation than a private network that can afford to do bits like this to make themselves and their listeners feel good.
Think about some of the core arguments in favour of a publicly subsidized media network. Without needing to rely on advertising or subscription funding, the CBC can afford to be impartial and unbiased, choosing the most important stories and giving both sides of an issue a fair hearing. Most importantly, it can resist the temptation to engage with partisans who have obvious bias and offer little real value, a practice that is way too common on many networks now (CNN is the ultimate culprit for this).
A publicly funded network can focus not only on pieces that will up their audience numbers (though this is to be desires) but on genuinely informative and educational segments. Most importantly, the CBC should work in the way I referred to it in the introduction to this article, as a unifying, patriotic institution that all Canadians can at least identity with, if not wholeheartedly support.
To me, these are all convincing arguments as to why, in an ideal world, a public broadcaster can provide valuable content to the entire country, and can give every side in an argument a fair hearing. The objectives of impartiality, educational value and a unifying spirit are worth pursuing through taxpayer-funded networks.
None of these objectives were fulfilled in this interview. It involved a partisan who had no incentive to engage in reasonable discussion, nor was he an especially effective surrogate. It was not educational or informative. And it was, if anything, divisive. Sathi, who was clearly not capable of defending his party but was obligated to do so, was unwittingly transformed into a strawman for the Republican party, and then bludgeoned. The fact that Sykes is interviewed next makes it abundantly clear that Sathi was only there to provide a counterpoint to the more moderate view. Both the content of the interview in isolation and the structure of the segment itself make it clear that The Current was not holding to any sort of unifying impartiality.
I think it’s perfectly fair that Tremonti, as she often does, should go after Sathi for his obvious attempts to obscure the facts and deflect attention from the scandal. But for that to be the only goal of the interview corrupts its value. I’m unconvinced that there’s enough value in simply showing over and over how far some Republicans have fallen.
If I were a conservative in Canada, I think there’s a good chance I would look at this and have my worst fears about the CBC realized. I would see that the broadcaster wasn’t committed to fostering reasonable debate or accurately portraying conservative views. Rather, it had very clearly stacked the deck against Trump supporters, both by engaging with a less-than-capable defender and by structuring the segment to benefit the more moderate view. I would be worried that these tactics would be applied to my views in the future. I might think they’ve already done so in the past.
The worst case scenario for something like this is that trust in the public institution, which is already viewed with skepticism by the right-wing (and that’s probably being charitable), could be even further reduced. Since there is so little to be gained from this interview in the first place, even a small chance that the interview could be seen in this way should evoke caution from the CBC.
At the end of the day, it’s a tricky situation, one in which I’m personally torn. On one hand, I think its good for the unthinking partisanship of some Trump supporters to be exposed, and for the moderate view to be promoted. But I don’t know if the CBC is necessarily the best place to do it, at least not if it contributes to the growing narrative that the public broadcaster has been politicized against conservative perspectives.
I think it’s best if the CBC seeks to avoid, as much as possible, the same partisanship and clear politicization that we have seen from networks south of the border (and pioneered by the late Roger Ailes). I don’t think I should be able to easily place the CBC along a political spectrum. Better to pursue the impartial, informative, and unifying vision uniquely available to it as a publicly funded enterprise.