Last spring, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff stood in front of Canadians and issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Stephen Harper: unless the government passed meaningful Employment Insurance (EI) reforms, the Liberals would force election-weary Canadians back to the polls. Of course the Conservatives never passed any EI reforms and Ignatieff never defeated the government.
This did not, however, stop Ignatieff and his cronies from trying to discredit the prime minister through some underhanded political moves. On July 8, 2009, Canada was rocked by a political scandal. Harper was caught on camera at a Catholic funeral taking a communion wafer, but the camera did not capture whether or not he put it in his mouth. The circus freak-show that people lovingly refer to as the mainstream media quickly jumped on the bandwagon of what would come to be known as Wafergate.
“IT'S A SCANDAL,” screamed a headline in Saint John's Telegraph-Journal. “At least one anonymous priest alleged Harper insulted Catholics by putting the host in his pocket,” said CBC reporter Rosemary Barton who proceeded to show the video to streeters and record their phony outrage for the 10 P.M. newscast.
That's right, she quoted an anonymous priest. Now there are some situations when it is legitimate for journalists to rely on anonymous sources. Woodward and Bernstein famously relied upon an anonymous source who they referred to as “Deep Throat” during their investigation, which uncovered the Watergate scandal. However, Rosemary Barton is no Woodward and Stephen Harper is not Richard Nixon. There are many issues with using anonymous sources, especially if the journalist doesn't investigate the claims that are being made.
“In recent years, as the number of news outlets has grown and news sources have become more sophisticated in the art of press manipulation, confidentiality has shifted from a tool journalists used to coax reluctant whistleblowers into confiding vital information to something quite different—a condition press-savvy sources imposed on journalists before they would even speak to them,” wrote Kovach and Rosenstiel in their book on journalism ethics.
In this case, it turns out the anonymous priest may not have existed at all. It appears as though the CBC used the same source as the Telegraph-Journal, which issued the following apology almost a month later:
“The story stated that a senior Roman Catholic priest in New Brunswick had demanded that the Prime Minister's Office explain what happened to the communion wafer which was handed to Prime Minister Harper during the celebration of communion at the funeral mass.… There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is the Telegraph-Journal aware of any credible support for these statements now.”
Regardless of whether or not the anonymous priest actually exists, it is clear that the CBC completely disregarded the journalistic principle of originality, which suggests that journalists should actually verify the information they receive to see if it's true or not. You know, the kind of thing you might see in a job description for a detective, or maybe even a reporter. Journalists who do not follow this principle will often find themselves printing stories that aren't exactly true and a journalist's first loyalty should be to the truth.
“The people who got it right were those who did their own work, who were careful about it, who followed the basic standards of sourcing and got their information from multiple sources. The people who worried about what was 'out there,' to use the horrible phrase that justifies so many journalistic sins, the people who worried about getting beaten, rather than just trying to do it as well as they could as quickly as they could, they messed up,” said New York Times reporter Michael Oreskes about the media circus surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
This is the trap the CBC and a number of other Canadian media outlets fell into. Instead of verifying the original newspaper report, they ran with the story and treated it as though it were an actual political scandal. “Now while the paper ran an apology there was no apology from the CBC or anyone else for treating the story as NEWS, not as a sideshow, not as a carnival, not as a oddity on the Internet, but as NEWS, like it really happened, like it was really truthful,” said Charles Adler on his nationally-syndicated talk radio show.
As it turns out, Wafergate wasn't a scandal at all, which brings us back to Ignatieff and his cronies. According to CTV News reporter Robert Fife, it is likely that Liberal Party insiders gave the story to the Telegraph-Journal, which is owned by prominent Liberal supporters. The paper's editor—who later lost her job over the whole affair—published the story without bothering to verify its authenticity. Other media outlets, like the CBC, made the same mistake by not verifying the original newspaper report.
“If the CBC and others want to continue to masquerade as agents of truth… if they want to pretend they are journalists why not practice Journalism 101, check out the facts as the newspaper laid them out. Confirm the story or drop it or say it's in one newspaper, one very liberal friendly newspaper. But if you simply adopt the story as truth because it conforms with your religiously held belief that the Prime Minister is an unknowing, uncaring, unfeeling, insensitive, anti-Catholic scoundrel, well then I suppose you would do what you did. And what you did wasn't honest, ethical, truthful, or useful,” said Adler.
Luckily, not everyone took this story so seriously. The National Post ran a front-page editorial cartoon depicting the prime minister saying “No Thanks, I've Eaten,” as the priest is handing him the wafer. Yet, for the other media outlets, there may be more to this story than a simple case of sloppy journalism. It is widely believed that the Telegraph-Journal ran the story as a partisan attack against the prime minister, since its owners are outspoken Liberal supporters. As for the CBC, the organization is well known for its anti-conservative bias.
In 2000, the CBC destroyed any hope Stockwell Day had of gaining ground in the election by broadcasting a well-timed piece that portrayed him as a scary right-wing religious zealot. This might not be so bad if the CBC didn't accept federal tax dollars to fund its shoddy journalism and partisan political attacks, but that's another ethical issue entirely.
Photograph courtesy CBC News