Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Argument with CTV

Before the 2008 federal election fades into memory, I need to document an issue that cannot be forgotten. It is the scandal over CTV's coverage of the Stephane Dion interview, and more importantly - how CTV used the footage to attack Dion and the liberal campaign.

For the record:
Steve Murphy, CTV's interviewer, asked a hypothetical question about what Dion might have done had he been prime minister. The problem is that the question is phrased badly. Dion actually appears to understand the words, but is unclear as to exactly what Murphy wants to know. Dion attempts to answer more than once, but stops for clarification and asks to start over. Although Murphy assured Dion the outtakes would not be shown, CTV executives overrode the decision and aired the entire footage uncut.

The implication here is that Dion's English is not good enough and/or that he is indecisive about the economy as indicated by his inability to answer. I use the word "implication" here, because the viewer is not simply left to infer these things; CTV insidiously leads the viewer to think something is significantly wrong, by prefacing the airing of the footage with a disclaimer that has all the sensationalism of a breaking scandal. It is despicable. (To view the entire clip on YouTube, see the link at the end of this post.)

The facts:
1) Interviews are stopped and re-started all the time, and then edited before airing. To insist on airing the outtakes proves CTV's conservative bias.
2) Dion is being persecuted with a language double-standard. Harper's French is not good and he has asked for questions in French to be repeated, but he has never been challenged or criticized for this.
3) The problem is not with Dion's comprehension, but with the poor phrasing and faulty grammar by Steve Murphy.

The CONS jumped on this footage, naturally, and claimed that this proves Dion can't lead. Unfortunately, language bias is one thing that flies with the right-wing. The damage was done.

The Toronto Star, to their credit, published an article dissecting the language of the footage and showing why the problem lay in Steve Murphy's phrasing. Below is the article in its entirety.

Dion interview shows need to extend clarity to journalism

J. Fred Kuntz

In journalism, the story you get is often only as good as the questions you ask.

On Thursday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion was interviewed on CTV. His performance, seen by some as showing him in a muddle, was denounced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as proof that Dion cannot lead on the economy.

I've reviewed the video and, in my opinion, it was not Dion who was confused, it was the CTV interviewer.

Anyone can verify this by watching the interview on YouTube.

The first time, the interviewer asked Dion what "would you have done" on the economy, if he were prime minister, "now." Look at that carefully. The verb tense "would have" suggests Dion was asked to say what he would have done in the past; but the word "now" could suggest he was asked what he would do today.

These are two different questions. The first asks: Could government have averted this economic trouble? The second asks: can the current mess be fixed?

Dion rightly asked for clarification: Was he being asked what he would have done if he had been prime minister since the previous election?

The interviewer said no, he was not asking what Dion might have done for the past two-and-a-half years, but rather, if he were to act "right now."

Just to be sure, Dion asked whether the interviewer meant if Dion was elected on Tuesday.

The interviewer explained that he meant "hypothetically" right now, at this very moment. Dion said that he would take the question to mean "today," not after the election and not since 2006.

But just as Dion was about to answer, the interviewer, apparently backpedalling, interjected that he wanted to know what Dion "would have" done.

Moving along, Dion began to answer that he would launch his 80-day plan to boost the economy. But he stopped mid-sentence, displeased with the erratic opening to a pre-taped broadcast. He asked whether they could start over.

The interviewer agreed to a fresh start, a commitment that CTV may have dishonoured by airing the aborted segment.

On second try, the interviewer launched a new wave of confusion, making the question more about the past. He asked Dion, if he were prime minister "now" (present tense), "what would you have already done" (in the past) that Harper "hasn't done."

This was baffling. Had the interviewer regretted saying just moments prior that he meant "today" and, on reflection, preferred to reframe the question as a hypothesis about the past?

Dion paused, then asked just what time frame the interviewer was trying to place him in, this go-round. Now? A week ago? Three weeks ago?

The interviewer, getting fuzzier, said, "No. No. If you were prime minister during this time already." But what did he mean by "this time already"?

Turning away from the interviewer, Dion asked an aide off-screen for clarity. However, she was just as unclear, answering that the time frame was "when Stephen Harper was prime minister." As we know, Harper has been prime minister since 2006.

Dion asked whether she meant since "two-and-a-half years ago."

She replied: "At any given time." In my view, that's a shrug. It could mean two years ago, it could mean today. Dion was no farther ahead.

It was as if the whole studio had gone down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Several people, including Dion, began laughing.

They began a third time.

One could argue Dion should have sidestepped the fog, saying anything he liked about the economy. He might have taken a cue from vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who proved adept in the U.S. debate at ignoring a question.

But Dion, remember, was champion of the Clarity Act, a law requiring any Quebec referendum on separation to pose an unambiguous question. This Liberal leader may be willing to answer questions, but he does demand questions be clear.

It's a fair requirement of any on-air interviewer, or newspaper reporter, for that matter.

J. Fred Kuntz is editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star.

CTV eventually published their defense. In the typical manner of Harper conservatives, they ignored the facts and real issues, and pretended they had a duty to show the footage:

"We decided that it was important that CTV News not hide anything during an election campaign," said president Robert Hurst.

"Central to the campaign was the argument and the issue that here's a guy who's running to be the prime minister of Canada, and he's being criticized for his inability to communicate effectively in English and that was very evident in the interview that day," added Peter Mallette, a senior news producer in Halifax.

The interview, restarted four times because Dion didn't understand a question about the economy from anchor Steve Murphy, was originally broadcast in the Maritimes, but later seen across the country. That night, Murphy said the network had told the Liberals it would not broadcast the fumbling start.

Toronto Star readers chimed in with some good retorts, calling attention to Steve Murphy's poor grammar:

"How many lunches would you have eaten if you were now two-headed?" That's a grammatical equivalent to the question that the CTV interviewer asked Mr. Dion. So the confusion began with the interviewer's inability to construct a question with a logical sequence of tenses.
Michael J. Sidnell, Kingston

Dion hit the nail on the head when he later paraphrased the question as, "You're prime minister today, what will you do yesterday?"
Linda Genova, Toronto

I must ask Mr. Murphy, "If he were not a reporter now, what would he have done in his interview with Mr. Dion last Thursday?"
Duff Sprague, Rossmore

And finally:

Up until Thursday evening, I have always felt that CTV provides exceptional, first-rate programming. However, reading the transcript and viewing Stéphane Dion's interview with Steve Murphy, I also would have been confused about the ambiguity in time frame and verb tense Steve was asking about.

And CTV sank to a despicable level of broadcasting when they decided to air the entire segment instead of respecting their commitment to give Dion a fresh start and discard the earlier portion. We should all boycott CTV until Stéphane Dion gets the apology he deserves!

Hilda Swirsky, Toronto

Before this election, I was unaware of CTV's conservative bias. Talk about a quick education! This whole debacle has made me sick. I don't think there's any doubt that CTV swayed many viewers to avoid voting liberal. It's not just that CTV is biased; it's that they used their influence to appeal to the lowest common denominator: conservative bigots.

I won't be watching CTV any time soon.

YouTube clip of Steve Murphy starting the interview with Dion:


Edward said...

The quote attributed to me in this blog is not mine, but that of:

Duff Sprague, Rossmore


Edward Fenner, Toronto

Edward said...

Thanks for posting the correction quickly, Kim. I believe in giving credit where it is due. You make good points in your blog.

I'm curious, though, how my name got mistook. I did have a letter to the editor that day, but it was on another matter, namely my facebook group in support of the arts. Were you intending to comment on that? Since it raised 62,000 members up to election day, it has drawn interest from bloggers and reporters. In fact, the site continues to grow after the election, where I thought it would shrink.


Kim_in_TO said...

Thanks for alerting me to the mistake!

The comments I included were actually emailed to me by my Mother. I'm guessing she typed them by hand while reading the print version of the Star, and made an error while looking back and forth.

Good work on the Facebook group, BTW!

wrath of khan said...

I thought that CTVs actions were despicable as well. I cannot believe there was no public outrage over such an abusive violation of a person's integrity.

Shame on CTV.