Listening to Mike Hornbrook’s Saturday evening report on CBC Radio’s The World This Weekend reminded me that all too often, news is not primarily about “facts.” It’s about “stories” with heroes, villains and definite plot lines.
In this case, Hornbrook, who is CBC Radio’s economics correspondent, was telling a “story” about how Finance Minister Paul Martin slew the federal deficit dragon back in the 1990s and what politicians in the U.S. could learn from that exercise now. (Never mind that the so-called U.S. “debt crisis” has been wildly exaggerated by mainstream media outlets including the CBC.)
The “peg” for Hornbrook’s three-and-a-half minute report was the U.S. government’s loss of its Triple A credit rating mirroring a similar Canadian credit downgrade in April 1993 when, as Hornbrook put it, “Canada discovered what happens when you pile debt on top of debt year after year.” Missing from Hornbrook’s reporting is the fact that in June 1993, Moody’s, a prominent New York debt-rating agency, issued a special commentary calling concerns over Canada’s federal debt “grossly exaggerated” and pointing out that Moody’s saw no reason to downgrade it from its Triple A status.
Immediately after his dramatic warning about what happens when governments keep piling up debt year after year, Hornbrook played a clip of a mysterious male voice saying: “I think it’s very important to point out that this is based on erroneous information.” Hornbrook then leaps back in with: “Some politicians tried to deny it. But facts are difficult things.”
Ah yes, “facts.” But Hornbrook never tells listeners who that politician was or why he was apparently arguing that the unnamed bond-rating agency was acting on “erroneous information.” Instead, the CBC reporter turns to Jack Mintz to explain why Canada’s credit downgrade in 1993 “was a real wake-up call.”
Experts in the news
At this point, it’s worth pausing to consider Hornbrook’s use of experts to help him tell his story. He identifies Jack Mintz as an “economist” and “one of the country’s leading tax experts.” These days Mintz hangs his hat at the University of Calgary (Stephen Harper’s alma mater) and he’s also a former president of the C.D. Howe Institute, a think tank supported by a wide range of business interests including banks, insurance companies, investment firms, mining outfits and big oil.
It’s no wonder — given Mintz’s orientation — that he describes Paul Martin’s massive cuts to social programs without mentioning the ongoing harm they inflicted on poor people, students, the unemployed or the sick. Mintz also tells Hornbrook that the U.S. needs tax reform, but that “just raising taxes on the rich I think is a very poor way of actually trying to undertake tax reform in the United States.” (No mention here that Paul Martin himself celebrated his victory over the federal deficit by handing out big tax cuts that benefited big corporations and wealthy individuals most.)
Hornbrook’s only other source of expertise is Craig Alexander, chief economist at the TD Bank. Alexander says that after the Wall Street Journal referred to the Canadian dollar as the “peso of the north,” Canadians were so embarrassed they told pollsters that doing something about the federal debt was a more important priority than health care or education.
Experts not in the news
Hornbrook’s reliance on two experts oriented to business and financial interests suppresses other points of view. It also suggests that Paul Martin had no choice. He simply had to cut federal spending on social programs such as health, education and welfare. To be sure, that’s the prevailing point of view among right-wing think tanks, university business schools as well as corporate and political elites. It’s also a story line that prevails in much of mainstream journalism even though there are other points of view.
Hornbrook’s reporting excludes those who contend Paul Martin’s social spending cuts were ideologically driven and that he could have balanced the books without them. For example, in his 2004 paper, “Paul Martin, the Deficit, and the Debt: Taking Another Look,” economist Jim Stanford argues that many other industrialized countries eliminated deficits during the 1990s without imposing severe spending cuts. Stanford, who works for the Canadian Auto Workers, writes:
Instead of concluding that Mr. Martin is a hero for leading Canadians in an epic battle to eliminate the deficit (a battle which, after all, 18 OECD countries in total accomplished), perhaps we should be asking why he implemented such dramatic reductions in government programs that have been enduringly painful yet, in retrospect, were unnecessary. [p. 12]
It may be that including someone like Stanford would have derailed Hornbrook’s “story” about how the Americans could learn from deficit-slayer Paul Martin who “stood his ground” in the face of controversy over spending cuts. But CBC journalism is supposed to be about more than just “stories.”
CBC reporters are required to abide by prescribed standards of accuracy, fairness, balance and impartiality. “We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion,” the CBC policy states. “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate,” it adds.
Hard to see how Mike Hornbrook’s one-sided “story” even came close to meeting those standards.