Dear Evan, In reply to your recent letter

Barbara Amiel responds to a letter from the host of CBC’s Power and Politics

We all have times when we fear suffering a stroke during a television news broadcast, usually when actually knowing something about the subject under discussion. Public broadcasters in particular are a menace, with their unwavering adherence to the fashions of the times. Mind you, my response is mild compared to the critic in last October’s British Spectator who, after listening to professor Steve Jones talking on BBC Radio about climate change, began his column characterizing a statement of the good prof as a “cherishably stupid, rude, fatuous, crabby, bigoted, ignorant, petulant, feeble, fallacious, dishonest and misleading argument.”

I wouldn’t use all those words to describe Evan Solomon’s letter to Maclean’s about my last column because, for all his shortcomings, Mr. Solomon is a good news reader, rather engaging and anyway, I don’t think he is bigoted. Some of the other words, though, may have a passing application.

My column was about the rather aggressive interview by Mr. Solomon of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on his appointment of lawyer Vivian Bercovici as ambassador to Israel. Clearly, I ruined CBC’s splendid moment catching the government red-handed appointing someone who outspokenly agrees with its policies. Ms. Bercovici, it turns out, is Jewish—though plugged in as I am, I’d never heard of her. Anyway, she’s definitely not one of those nice post-Zionist Jews beloved of public broadcasters the world over who fondly view the prospect of a non-Jewish state of Israel after the lamb has been demographically or otherwise eaten by the lion. Though Mr. Solomon’s interview was in attack mode (the CBC labels the interview on its site “Baird defends [my italics] ambassador pick”), I wanted to nix the notion being floated by some Jewish organizations that his approach proceeded from ignoble motives: “Solomon’s questions,” I wrote, “were not anti-Semitic in intention, only tread-worn . . . Solomon’s discomfort . . . could not be with Ms. Bercovici’s religion, but her pro-Israel views.”

If you thought that cleared the matter up, you’d be cherishably stupid. In his J’accuse, Mr. Solomon says, “Amiel willfully yanks my questions out of context and worse, she cheaply tosses out the notion that I am—somehow—an anti-Semite. This is the most vulgar, odious allegation and it is beneath her.”

Apart from the obvious problem with his truthfulness, there is a further problem, probably due to Solomon’s nodding off during his Crescent School days and missing stuff on syntax. When he writes that I “cheaply toss[ed] out the notion” of his anti-Semitism—which I demonstrably did not—it’s unclear whether he is complaining that I cheaply refused to accuse him of anti-Semitism or that I did. “Tossed out” could go either way. Most media types upset by criticism of their facts think outright lies are an effective defence: Readers rarely bother to look up the original material. And if patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, “out of context” is the first of anyone who may wish to have phrased his remarks differently. Perhaps Mr. Solomon is defending himself against what might be a very serious allegation at the CBC of being insufficiently anti-Semitic?

Of course, Solomon’s adherence to CBC’s received wisdom is unsurprising. Companies generally hire people who agree with them. If you owe your appointment at the CBC in part to agreement with its culture in the same way the ambassador owes her job to agreement with the government, it’s difficult not to promote approved policies, even if they don’t show you in your best light. Solomon’s intro mentions Bercovici’s opposition to “the militant group Hamas, which Canada designates as a terrorist organization.” That terrorist designation is also made by the European Union and the U.S. How else would you describe a group that lobs bombs into children’s school buses and uses civilian homes as shields for its terror? One wonders what they would have to do to earn the CBC’s terrorist designation. And what would you designate a person who designates such people as just “militants”? I’d designate them as people who are not putting their best foot forward.

Non-aggressive interviewers on TV are accused of playing softball—though it’s okay lobbying softballs at “militants” who explain they are misunderstood (vide CBC interview of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, which managed 20 minutes out of 23 before mentioning Syria and avoided Hezbollah entirely). But one must stand up to Stephen Harper’s government. John Baird might well have been asked if the appointment of a strong empathizer on one side of a contentious issue might not make it more difficult to gain a hearing from the other side when wishing to advance government policy. That would have been Solomon’s same question worded in non-accusatory terms.

The larger problem comes with the modern newsperson’s dilemma. I remember my days as a newspaper editor, and then as a performer on BBC’s political question-and-answer programs. Terrifyingly, you were expected to have views on everything without being a specialist in anything. Nowadays, TV newspeople must talk in exclamation marks to keep up with the tempo of the times and the audience’s attention deficit. In this ambience, a news reader’s qualifications are rarely identical with those of a thinker. A thinking person might be too cautious, too lengthy, too boring. When interactive TV screens have four simultaneous points of information, anything above 140 characters is windy.

My solution is to get news from several sources so that the bias and parti pris of the CBC is countered by the bias and parti pris of Fox News, etc. I enjoy Evan Solomon and wouldn’t give him up, even though his letter virtually paints a target on his chest saying “shoot me.” I couldn’t shoot a fly, of course, but perhaps he’ll take this as a caution.

The original letter from Evan Solomon, host of CBC’s Power and Politics

It was not just baffling, but troubling, to read Barbara Amiel’s characterization of the questions I asked Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird about the new Canadian ambassador to Israel (“Open season on Ariel Sharon and Israel,” Jan. 27). Amiel willfully yanks my questions out of context, and worse, she cheaply tosses out the notion that I am—somehow—an anti-Semite. This is the most  vulgar, odious allegation and it is beneath her.

As Amiel well knows, the job of a journalist is to ask national leaders questions. I asked the minister fair questions about the new ambassador and her views and background. I never suggested she was not qualified for the job, and never stated an opinion at all. A full read of the transcript—not a selective one—would make that clear. Of course, I was fully aware that former ambassadors to Israel have been Jewish, but none had ever written public opinion pieces on the region before their appointments. Amiel  should note that the former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Norman Spector, publicly said the questions I asked were perfectly legitimate and fair. But in Amiel’s efforts to be sensational on a sensitive subject, she deliberately mistakes questions for opinions and uses a horrific slur to buffer her argument. In a world where there is genuine anti-Semitism that poses a real risk, to casually use the label to juice a column, as Amiel does, is irresponsible. I recognize Amiel wants to pick a fight, but on a serious issue like this, she need not first invent her own enemies.




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