Somebody asked in the comments section – amid mildly rephrased calls for my beheading – why the Tea Makers wasn’t covering Heather Mallick. Because you all read about her already and this isn’t a general CBC news aggregator, I said. (And because Allan covered the issue.)

Nonetheless, I read CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin’s report on Mallick’s column and its 300 ensuing complaints. (The report is needlessly a PDF, but at least it has the Googlebait filename MALLICK-PALIN.) And I’ve got issues here.

I tend to agree with Carlin that, even when writing a batshit-crazy opinion column, matters of fact should be verifiable. You might want to put your own gloss on them, but fundamentally you cannot get things wrong.

But Carlin is too old-media, and too wedded to literal meanings, to realize that a sentence like “It’s possible that Republican men, sexual inadequates that they are, really believe that women will vote for a woman just because she’s a woman” is an opinion, not a statement of fact. Carlin criticizes Mallick for being unable to prove Republicans are sexual inadequates. She was calling them names, not asserting a truth.

There’s something the Web has barely managed to teach Old Media, even though the phenomenon predated the Web: Opinions are much sharper, more extreme, and krazier online. It’s just too easy to write down what you really think and publish it. Old Media ascribes this tendency to a lack of editors, and maybe in this case they’re right. In fact, Carlin absolutely insists that CBC opinion columnists be edited.

But when opinion columns, under any guise, run unedited, you can’t act all surprised when writers leap outside the polite mainstream centrist middle-class comfort zone. That zone only existed because newspaper editors forced writers into it. Guess what: The zoo unlocked its cages.

That isn’t my big issue. Here is my big issue:

Carlin is so wedded to the concept of balance that he actually thinks opinion columnists have to balance each other out. This has nothing to do with “journalism” or even basic fact-checking. It amounts to second-guessing one’s columnists. Statement X cannot be made without ensuring that someone else makes statements –X, 1/X, and –1/X. Otherwise you aren’t “balanced.”

Now, this has come up lots of times before in other contexts and even in the online context, and the same hypothetical cases are served up time and time again in service of the point that not all opinions are equally tenable – e.g., Holocaust deniers don’t deserve equal time with the B’nai Brith. The fact that even conservative editors would agree with that example shows that there is in fact a comfort zone and even conservative editors work inside it.

You could come up with smaller-scale examples, like giving an assured outlet to anyone who wants to argue that homosexuality is a choice and a sin and should be illegal, or that abortion is murder and a sin and should be illegal. But those too are within the accepted comfort zone, since, in Canada, it’s easy to dismiss them by stating that they stand in contrast to settled law and jurisprudence. Laws are one way we decide what’s acceptable, after all – i.e., what’s in the comfort zone.

But this is the wrong way to argue against what Carlin is saying. In Old Media, space was scarce and expensive. Online, space is functionally limitless and nearly free. There’s room for almost all points of view online. But people misapply the ability to publish anything online to the ability to publish anything on one site.

The entire Web may be big enough for nearly everybody, but your site, or CBC’s site, is not big enough for everybody. What’s true in macrocosm is untrue in microcosm.

This came up with the Times, which, for some reason, hired Bill Kristol as columnist. People lost their shit, but it seemed that Times management had no idea why. (Charles Kaiser: “It’s as though an NFL coach decided to start a four-foot, 65-pound Korean eight-year-old at middle linebacker, and when he got criticized, responded: ‘People are mad we’re using a player of such tremendous size and experience, just because he’s Korean. How intolerant!’ ”)

A news organization is not obliged to publish all opinions on an issue. You’re supposed to pick and choose and play favourites. It’s called editing! But as far as Carlin is concerned (Cruickshank backs him up), the only thing an editor should do is ensure “balance.” Carlin: “CBC should be seeking out the widest range of opinions.” No, it shouldn’t. CBC should publish its own chosen, curated, cultivated ecosystem of opinions and let other people publish dissenting opinions.

Push this to the limit and you’ll have CBC hosting dozens upon dozens of columns calling for the elimination of the CBC. Why aid and abet the enemy? They have their own outlets already and they’re calling for the elimination of the “state broadcaster” already.

The advice applies to you, too. You can’t have your old Tea Makers back and you won’t get it back, because I don’t owe you that. I don’t owe you any kind of “balance.” I don’t owe you a countervailing viewpoint, even though, via guest posts and comments, you get them anyway. (That vitiates your complaint.)

If Ouimet Classic comes out of hiatus like a family of bears in springtime, maybe there will be something to debate. But no matter how often you ask for it or in how many marginally different and functionally interchangeable ways, you aren’t getting what you want. You’re getting what I give you because blogs, like opinion columns, are not in the remotest manner about “balance.”


  1. Allan
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 9:06 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    “unbiased advocacy” would appear to be an oxymoron. Did Cruickshank really say that?

  2. Anonymous
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 8:10 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Don’t let the terminal complainers and CBC bashers get you down – this was a thoughtful piece, Joe.

    CBC has, of late, developed a bit of a tendency to let its journalists twist in the wind when the ombudsman gets involved. Can anyone recall a controversial reporter or columnist that the honchos went to bat for in recent years?

    This same Cruickshank has been doing the circuit recently, developing a new mission statement that calls for “unbiased advocacy” or words to that effect. He talks about dropping the pretense that, as you say here, all opinions are equal. They are not, and burying some stories for fear of seeming partisan (or forcing contrary ones for appearances’ sake) is a waste of tax dollars that serves nobody.

    Well, it’s 0 for 1 in standing behind that so far. Good luck developing any risk-taking in this atmosphere.

    How long before commissions a right-wing rant to add “balance”? If you feel that Palin is mensa and McCain is Ron Jeremy, CBC is seeking your opinion.

    Oops, I just barfed after creating that mental image. Sorry.

  3. Allan
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 5:57 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    All of the staff at The Hour are invited to tell George what they think of him and his show.
    As long as the answer is – “GREAT!”

  4. BrainDrainXP
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 5:54 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    “A news organization is not obliged to publish all opinions on an issue. You’re supposed to pick and choose and play favourites.”

    Only if you are TASS, Pravda or the CBC….

  5. vancouverguy
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 1:15 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    “A news organization is not obliged to publish all opinions on an issue. You’re supposed to pick and choose and play favourites.”

    Sorry, that’s mostly wrong.

    Journalism demands appropriate coverage of all pertinent facts. And where opinion is concerned, journalism involves presenting a balanced representative set of views. Certainly not the viewpoint of the news organization itself.

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