Sideshow Don and the great CBC conflict of interest

Good luck trying to lodge a complaint with the CBC about Cherry

Who knew Grapes could swear so much? (NSFW-ish)

Don Cherry does and says what he likes on the airwaves of this country’s national broadcaster, and there isn’t really a damn thing you can do about it. Be it visors, Quebecers, hard hits, soft Swedes or Canada’s non-involvement in the Iraq War, Cherry has run of the roost. It’s part of his schtick: a rhinestone-encrusted version of Canada’s lunchbucket everyman, a plain talking rube with a chip on his shoulder and a buzzsaw for a mouth. Bully for him if this schtick is worth at least $700,000 a year, making Cherry the CBC’s highest paid contract worker, by far. He’s incredibly popular, after all, and success, even when draped in velour and hubris, deserves to be rewarded.

As it turns out, though, Cherry’s schtick actually isn’t a schtick at all. Cherry really can literally say whatever he wants on CBC, on hockey or otherwise, with very little fear of reprisal. Despite having a comprehensive third-party complaints process worthy of any governmental body—and despite the fact that Cherry is, practically by definition, a walking liability—any complaints about Cherry are likely to fall on deaf ears. That’s because those who field complaints about him have a vested interest in keeping him, and his very profitable words, on the air. More on this rock ’em, sock ’em conflict of interest after the jump.

The CBC’s ombudsman role is to act as an arbitrator in complaints involving the corporation. The idea, of course, is that those in charge have a vested interest in what they produce/emit, and therefore can’t be trusted to properly handle complaints against said productions and/or emissions. CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin produces thoughtful if somewhat ponderous reviews of complaints received by the Mother Corp. Notably, Mr. Carlin took to task in 2008 for a spittle-showered Heather Mallick column/takedown of then-U.S.V.P. contender Sarah Palin. “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,” Mallick wrote at the time.

Carlin shook his finger at Mallick for her broadside against men of the right: “[T]here is no factual basis for a broad scale conclusion about the sexual adequacy of Republican men,” he wrote at the time (rest easy, Mark Steyn!). He saved his powder for the CBC in general, however, for having published a righteous lefty screed without printing a similarly righteous righty screed. (You know, perhaps something about how all Democrats are gay.)

However, public funding is one of the reasons the CBC has fairly elaborate policies—there is an obligation to acknowledge the necessity of operating differently than a private entity.  As the policy implies, the CBC should not shy away from pointed opinions, but it should seek out the broadest range that can be found.

He concludes: should have appropriate resources to ensure that a wide range of opinion and analysis is available.

To sum up: Mallick wrote a column, over 300 people complained, Carlin wrote a report and CBC apologized. In short, the system worked.

So what does this have to do with Don Cherry, you ask? Actually, not much–and that’s precisely the problem. The ombudsman only deals with CBC News, and covers only those who report and comment on the news. It makes for a bizarre dynamic: if you are a reporter or a news analyst or commentator (like this guy), you fall under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. Ditto if you are a sports reporter. But a sports analyst or commentator? Neh.

Ah! I hear you say. That’s the way it should be. Uncle Don only comments on hockey, which has about as much to do with current events as Sarah Palin has to do with quantum physics. It’s a game, not news.

Except not. Forget for a second that Don regularly talks about a range of issues beyond the game of hockey: how Canadians should have gone to die in Iraq, just because the Americans were doing it; how “supporting the troops” necessarily means staying in Afghanistan; how Anglophone residents of Sault Ste. Marie “speak the good language.” Also, forget for a second that all of Don Cherry’s hallowed clichés, including his “beloved Anglo heritage,” his inability to “resist taking a swipe at Quebec,” as well as his disdain for “left-wing pinkos,” are hyped to the nines on CBC’s own website. It is his most recent foray into the headlines, and the ensuing blind support of his supposed minders, that shows how wide an institutional birth berth CBC gives to one of its biggest money-makers.

Cherry likes hard hits and big smashes in hockey. He has produced 21 volumes of his Rock’em, Sock’em hockey series in as many years. His mantra is simple: mess with a star? You deserve to get smacked. Play with your head down? Get smacked. Celebrate excessively after a goal? Get smacked. “Turtle” during a fight? God help ye, son, you deserve every inch of the beating coming your way. (Check this video, in which Cherry admonishes starting Chicoutimi goalie Bobby Nadeau for not fighting back against perennial Remparts third-stringer Jonathan “son of Patrick” Roy when the latter viciously attacked Nadeau from the other end of the rink, unprovoked.)

Which is all fine and good, I suppose. Everyone has the right to be a chickenhawk, even on TV. Again, bully for Cherry if you can get paid doing it. Only, this: it is exactly this kind of punchy, retaliatory, smashy-smashy hockey that is damaging the people who play the game—the very players, lest we forget, for whom Cherry constantly declares his man-love. It is the kind of hockey that likely turned Reggie Fleming‘s brain into Swiss cheese in the sport’s bad old days, and for which Keith Primeau, who is all of 39 years old and who has been retired for four years, suffers everyday. It is the kind of hockey just about everyone important, from NHL commish Gary Bettman to the NHLPA to a raft of NHL general managers, are slowly turning against. (Though Bettman, as this Globe fellow notes, is a tad late and a slight bit disingenuous in his criticism.) Yet when Dr. Charles Tator, a recognized expert on spinal injuries, called Cherry out, and when Cherry was subsequently confronted with Tator’s words by a Toronto reporter, Cherry could only respond by reaming out the reporter by using the word “f–k” as a noun and a verb six times in 30 seconds. (Click the above link for the full taste. Someone should set it to music.)

Violence in hockey is a newsworthy topic, something affecting thousands of amateur and professional players across the country, and to have the biggest and loudest voice regularly championing it on the country’s national broadcaster with nary a dissenting voice (except maybe for this guy, on occasion) is absurd. At the very least, Cherry should have some sort of disinterested oversight, like Carlin. But if you want to lodge a complaint to CBC about Cherry, good luck: I contacted three different people at the mother corp and got a variety of answers.

Vince Carlin himself told me complaints go to Audience Relations and are “under the supervision of the Executive Vice-President of English Networks, Richard Stursberg.” CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay said complaints go the various department heads; in Cherry’s case, this is CBC VP Scott Moore, for whom Don Cherry is very important, ratings-wise. Arguably the most important sports commentator on the network, actually. Yet Moore couldn’t exactly say how many Cherry-related complaints he fields every year. “I don’t keep a running tab, but my guess is it’s less than 100 in a year,” Moore wrote in an email. “Compared to the goodwill he creates every time he does a public appearance, and his overall popularity, his value is very clear to us as a network.”

Yes sir. Very clear indeed.