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The Public Has a Right to Expect Integrity From Journalists

06/11/2015 05:36 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
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Evan Solomon was fired this week because he broke a rule in CBC's journalistic practices handbook that prohibits corporation staff from using their positions to gain a private benefit. Solomon's violation of this rule was not only obvious, it was egregious: he connected an art dealer with the rich and powerful he'd come to know through his job, and collected ten per cent on every sale that resulted from the introduction. It earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars, until the arrangement ended badly over, of course, money.

Neither the exact meaning of this "no benefit" rule, nor its exact practical implications, are as obvious as they might seem. For example, many a high-profile journalist has made money on the side by writing books. Others -- Peter Mansbridge and Amanda Lang come to mind -- have made money for themselves with speeches and other public appearances. As someone who has made a study of journalistic ethics, I would accept the legitimacy of the books, but not the speaking.

I make the distinction because it is suggested by the underlying rationale for the rule. Which is: the public has a right to expect integrity from journalists, who, after all, receive many formal and informal privileges in return for doing what is often a well-paying, deeply satisfying job. Integrity in this context means that what you see is what you get. Your favourite political reporter is just that: a reporter who understands he or she is being paid to serve and represent the interests of a constituency of citizens of which you are a member.

Television journalists often become celebrities, whether they like it or not. It comes with the territory. They can either do their best to ignore this aspect of their job, or exploit it. Both the book-writers and the speech-givers are in some sense exploiters, but while the author spends a year or two or more researching and writing on some topic or another, the speech-giver may spend half a day making notes and an hour in delivering the comments. Speaking from experience, I can attest that the speech-makers earn several thousand times the hourly rate of the writers!

Furthermore, and more importantly, the two are being paid for different reasons. The author is paid for the content of the book and not for the author photo on the back cover; the speech-givers are more often than not invited because of who they are rather than what they have to say. They're usually on the podium to add celebrity sizzle to some otherwise humdrum industrial gabfest.

I would argue, then, that the author is capitalizing less on celebrity status and more on substantive work, the production of which is likely in any case to make him or her a better journalist. The speech-givers are almost always capitalizing on their celebrity status, which their appearances further enhance, and which was initially conferred by their positions in TV journalism. The major benefit accrues to the public in the first case; to the individual in the second,

In the immediate aftermath of Solomon's dismissal by CBC, lots of people wanted to know why him, and not Lang or Mansbridge? If there is an answer to this (and I'm not sure there is) then it lies in issues of transparency. As an avid CBC Radio listener and a fan of Power and Politics, I was outraged when I first heard that Solomon been fired, and why. There was no question in my mind that he had to be dismissed, but it took me a while to cool down and identify the source of what was a visceral anger.

The fact is, I felt betrayed. I'd been a fan of Solomon's dogged interview style and admired his comprehensive understanding of his beat, and had even sent him a congratulatory Tweet or two in the past. Partly because he was a product of our public broadcasting system, I assumed I could trust his integrity. Now I discovered that he'd been making hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side, shilling for an art dealer. And keeping it secret. And denying it when confronted by the reporter, the Star's Kevin Donovan, who'd uncovered the whole sordid mess.

If there is a distinction to be made between the cases of Lang and Mansbridge and Solomon, it's that at least Lang and Mansbridge were open about what they did -- the events were, after all, public appearances. Solomon's transgression is much more difficult to forgive, because he kept it secret. (Yes, he did apparently tell his bosses that he was involved in art dealing, but by no means did he give them the whole story. More importantly, there was no public disclosure.)

I do not know Evan Solomon, but I have respected his work. By all accounts, he's a very nice man. He has a young family. I'm greatly saddened that such a promising career should have come to such an abrupt and ignominious end. Perhaps, with time, his audience will learn to forgive him, and he will come to understand how he had been seduced by a false sense of entitlement to wealth and celebrity and the power they confer. I hope that he comes to understand (or remembers) that his profession demands a single-minded commitment to public service, and that what may seem to be sacrifices entailed in this kind of dedication are far outweighed by the rewards.

Wade Rowland teaches in the Communications Studies program at York University. His most recent books are Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Interest and Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting, which is due to be released in August.

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