On July 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time, Sun News Network aired an episode of a political discussion program called The Source with Ezra Levant. During one segment, host Ezra Levant had as his guest journalist-blogger Kathryn Marshall. The two talked about a housing program for artists in Edmonton called Arts Habitat (a full transcript of the discussion can be found in Appendix A). Arts Habitat provides housing and studio space to eligible artists. It receives some funding from the municipal and provincial governments, but residents do pay rent to live and work there.
Throughout the segment, Levant and Marshall criticized the governments for using tax dollars to fund this program for artists. Levant repeatedly referred to the housing complex as “free” housing for artists. Marshall generally used the word “subsidized” to describe Arts Habitat, but she too referred to it as “free” on one occasion and she never directly questioned Levant’s use of the term. They displayed photographs of the live/work spaces on the screen and described them as “gorgeous show suites” with in-suite laundry and hardwood floors. Levant and Marshall argued that artists already received grants and subsidies to produce their art, so they should not also receive housing. Marshall repeatedly asked “Why is art so sacred” that it gets all these government benefits? They also suggested that the Mayor of Edmonton should be spending time and money on more important issues, such as the police force given Edmonton’s high homicide rate in recent years.
Two days later, on the July 6 episode of the program, Levant read an e-mail from a viewer during the audience reaction segment of The Source. The e-mail he read accused him of “poor fact-checking” because he had described the artists’ housing as “free” rather than “subsidized”. Levant agreed that the e-mail-writer was correct and that there is a “valid distinction” between “free” and “subsidized”. He went on to say that he nevertheless still objected to the fact that the government was spending money on housing for artists (the transcript of this segment can also be found in Appendix A).
The CBSC received 40 complaints about the July 4 broadcast. Two complainants requested that the CBSC rule on the matter (the correspondence relating to those two files can be found in Appendix B). Both of the complainants’ primary concern was that the program had referred to Arts Habitat as “free” housing when in fact it was subsidized; the complainants pointed out that this was inaccurate information. They also expressed concerns that the segment had “attacked” artists and had not presented an opposing point of view to that of Levant and Marshall. One complainant also suggested that the Arts Habitat units were not luxurious at all, but were rather “one-room bachelor apartments, with rough two-by-four ladders instead of stairs, and low-grade plywood floors without any overlay of any kind.”
Sun News Network responded to all the complainants. It pointed out that Levant had corrected his error regarding the subsidized housing on a subsequent broadcast. It also argued that it was entitled to broadcast Levant and Marshall’s criticisms of the government program and that it was important to explore the controversy surrounding public funding for the arts.
The CBSC’s National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaints under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) and Radio Television Digital News Association’s (RTDNA) Codes of Ethics:
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation
It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster. This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 7 – Controversial Public Issues
Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat fairly all subjects of a controversial nature. Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and the degree of public interest in the questions presented. Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, broadcasters will endeavour to encourage the presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.
RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 7 - Corrections
Errors will be quickly acknowledged and publicly corrected on all platforms.
Accuracy and Bias in Public Affairs Programs
The CBSC has traditionally recognized that hosts of public affairs programs are entitled to hold and express their opinions on the topics discussed during those programs, even when those opinions are controversial, unpopular or provocative. 1 While Clause 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics provides that broadcasters must present all sides of a public issue and treat all subjects of a controversial nature fairly as part of balanced programming, the CBSC has also recognized that broadcasters are not required to bring to light all the divergent views on such topics within a single program. 2
These opinions must, however, be founded on actual facts, and the host cannot base his or her opinion on unproven information. 3
Yet, host Ezra Levant maintained several times throughout the entire program that Arts Habitat offered free housing to artists, when it was in fact a provincially and municipally (Edmonton) subsidized housing/studio program that is offered to eligible artists who are required to pay rent. His guest mentioned on one occasion that the housing in question is “free”, but otherwise referred to it as “subsidized”.
After watching the program and examining all the related documents, the Panel adjudicators unanimously determined that Sun News did not breach the provisions of Clause 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics as both guest and host were entitled to question the relevancy of taxpayer subsidized programs for artists. The Panel did, however, also rule unanimously that Sun News Network and its host Ezra Levant violated Clause 6 of that Code because the opinion broadcast was based on an erroneous premise.
Correction of the Error
On July 6, two days after the program at issue containing his assertions had aired, host Ezra Levant read an e-mail on the air that faulted him for not having verified the accuracy of his information, and pointed out, among other things, that the Arts Habitat program is a subsidized housing and studio program and not a free housing program. The host admitted his error, adding that his opinion remained unchanged with respect to public funding of subsidies for artists.
While the host did not act proactively, and half-heartedly recognized his error only in response to an e-mail pointing it out, the Panel members recognized that he did do so quickly and publicly in accordance with Article 7 of the RTDNA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.
In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant(s). The broadcaster certainly need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner. In this case, Sun News Network responded to all of the complainants with a lengthy letter explaining its position. Sun News met its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.
Given that the broadcaster quickly corrected its error and that there were no other breaches of the Codes administered by the CBSC in the program at issue in this decision, the Panel decided, as various CBSC Panels have in the past, 4 that it would not require Sun News Network to announce on air that it breached Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics.
This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.
1 See, for examples, CFUN-AM re the Pia Shandel Show (Native Land Claims) (CBSC Decision 98/99-0147, October 14, 1999); CKTB-AM re the John Michael Show (Middle East Commentary) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0651, June 7, 2002); CJMF-FM re a commentary on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 05/06-0326, February 3, 2006); CKNW-AM re an episode of Adler on Line (CBSC Decision 05/06-0539, May 9, 2006); CKNW-AM re an episode of Bruce Allen’s Reality Check (CBSC Decision 05/06-0651, May 9, 2006); and Sun News Network re Canada Live (Margie Gillis interview) (CBSC Decision 10/11-1803+, December 15, 2011).
2 See, for examples, CTV re an episode of the Shirley Show(CBSC Decision 93/94-0261, August 18, 1995); CKCO-TV re Provincewide (Education Reform in Ontario)(CBSC Decision 97/98-0412, July 28, 1998); and CJCH-TV, CKCW-TV & ASN re “Save Local TV” campaign and CJOH-TV, CKCO-TV, CFTO-TV & CKVR-TV re “Save Local TV” campaign (CBSC Decisions 08/09-1707+ & -1748+, January 12 & April 1, 2010).
3 See the following decisions in which the CBSC affirmed that principle: CKTB-AM re The John Michael Show (CBSC Decision 92/93-0170, February 15, 1994); CILQ-FM re John Derringer’s “Tool of the Day” (CBSC Decision 02/03-1465, February 10, 2004); CFRA-AM re an episode of the Lowell Green Show (the Qur’an) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1380, May 18, 2006); CHRB-AM (AM 1140) re an episode of Freedom Radio Network (CBSC Decision 05/06-1959, January 9, 2007); CITS-TV re Word.ca and Word TV (CBSC Decision 08/09-2142 & 09/10-0383+, June 22, 2010).
4 CFRA-AM re the Mark Sutcliffe and Lowell Green Shows (CBSC Decisions 96/97-0083+, May 8, 1997); CITY-TV re CityPulse (Neighbourhood Drug Bust)(CBSC Decision 96/97-0216, February 20, 1998); and CIII-TV (Global Ontario) re a report on News Final (“Dual Protests”) (CBSC Decision 07/08-1677, October 22, 2008).