Dion's Do-over

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CTV sideswipes Liberal Leader by airing raw footage

Did they do us a public service, or cross the ethical line?

Those are the positions being taken, as controversy ramps up over the Stephane Dion interview on CTV Atlantic (formerly ATV).

The entire chain of events and some of the fall-out is summarized here, in this Globe & Mail story of October 10.

In a nutshell, Dion repeatedly flubbed the answer to a question on the economy, and, because it was being taped, asked if he could start again each time. News anchor Steve Murphy agreed. The practice, known as a do-over' in the industry, is quite common for taped interviews.

The question was, "If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?"

Dion clearly didn't understand the question, and asked Murphy to repeat it. This happened three times before he got to the answer.

While he handled himself with humour and dignity, it was clear that Dion was having difficulty grasping the question. However, by agreeing to allow him to start again, CTV Atlantic also agreed that the false starts would be removed in editing. They could have said, "I'm sorry sir, we have to use all of this." They didn't.

After the interview, the network agreed that the verbal missteps would not be used.

But then, a change of heart. CTV Atlantic's commitment was apparently over-ruled by the CTV brass in Toronto.

"On reflection, CTV News believes we owe it to you to show you everything that happened," Murphy said, before airing the unedited, raw footage.

Stephen Harper pounced, calling a news conference immediately and going for the kill.

"When you're running a trillion-and-a-half-dollar economy you don't get a chance to have do-overs, over and over again," he said, adding: "I don't think this is a question of language at all. The question was very clear. It was asked repeatedly."

I am not so sure of that. The question was not clear and the significance of Dion's stumble was blown out of proportion.

He was thrown off by the present-tense "now" to speculate about what he would have done "then".

There's also the fact that, after 30 days of non-stop campaigning, a person's ability to concentrate will be affected, at times. We are electing people, not superheroes. Simon Lono offers some insight into this, and Dion's hearing issue, in his blog.

In my view, CTV violated journalistic ethics on this one. Their sanctimonious declaration that "we owe it to you" to show you the footage might be more accurately rephrased to say "we'd love to get a ratings kick from this little flub."

Questions could also be asked about whether the reporter, news director or even the network has a Conservative' leaning, and used this moment to help out the home team. I have no foundation to make such a claim, and invite comments from those with more knowledge of the subject.

I am not the only person critical of CTV's ethical transgression on this piece. Doug Scott, a former journalist who now works in communications, says the network did something "totally unethical and blatantly unfair."

"As a writer and a former journalist, I can't help but comment on the question, itself," Scott wrote, in an email. "It is poorly worded and could have been posed in a much clearer way. It's obvious that Mr. Dion struggled to understand the question's conditional subjunctive tense, before attempting to answer"

Scott said he allowed countless do-over' moments while working as a journalist.

"I can recall many times when I was a writer/broadcaster with CBC Radio that I would do a taped interview that wasn't live, where I would allow the person being interviewed an opportunity to correct something that may have been misspoken," Scott said. "I would never air an interview which contained an error or stumble if I had agreed previously that I would edit it out. I really think that CTV should be taken to task for this."

Other respected voices have come forward to criticize CTV for airing the tape. In this Canadian Press story, media ethics professor Stephen Ward said there is nothing compelling enough in the interview to warrant the reversal of CTV's commitment. In the same story, Chris Waddell, a journalism prof at Carleton University in Ottawa, also said the interview should not have been broadcast.

That's not all. Now, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has leaped to Dion's defence, criticizing Harper's attack on "Dion's English," calling it a "double standard in Canadian politics." That's going to do wonders for Harper's popularity in Quebec, isn't it?

I think it's safe to say that this incident has backfired already, on both CTV News and Stephen Harper.

Here's another thought: If it's now fair game to start broadcasting awkward do-over' moments, I challenge the networks to go back through their files and compile blooper reels on Stephen Harper.

After all, by leaping all over the Dion tape, Harper has consented for the networks to broadcast his verbal missteps too.

I invite other journalists, especially in broadcast media, to offer their points of view on this. To everyone else, let's please not get sidetracked into partisanship. I may exercise my right to delete such threads.

Update: Thanks to Jodi Cooke for pointing out a typo - Steve Smith is actually Steve Murphy - and ATV is now called CTV Atlantic.

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  • Deirdre
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    As a communications professional, I've seen innumerable do-overs - some of them at the interviewer's request or offer. This sometimes happens when a journalist takes compassion on an inexperienced interviewee, or when a journalist would like to give the interviewee an opportunity to answer a question in layman's language that will make sense to a larger proportion of the audience. I have always appreciated the courtesy and kindness this shows, or in the latter case the sincere interest in getting the story in a way that really communicates to the audience.

    I now have to ask myself whether I need a written interview contract to be confident that any do-over agreed to by the interviewer will not be recinded by other decision-makers in the media outlet.

    CTV/ATV's decision breached the (sometimes tenuous) trust between interviewer and interviewee and could easily precipitate a very negative change in the relationships between journalists, communications professionals and interviewees. That cannot be in the best interest of public interest and public discourse.