Editor's note: This column was authored by Benjamin L. Woodfinden.
The relationship between President Trump and the media is complex, to put it mildly. In particular, Trump and CNN love to hate each other, but they both secretly need each other too. Yet President Trump took their usual fight in a different direction when he tweeted that “throughout the world, CNN has a powerful voice portraying the United States in an unfair and false way.” The president then argued that the government should start its own television network to counter this “unfair” portrayal. This isn’t surprising coming from Trump, but it’s a terrible idea, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) shows us why state ownership of media undermines journalism.
CBC’s mandate is to “inform, enlighten and entertain” through their online, TV and radio programming. To do this, it received about $1.2 billion (CAD) in public funding in 2018. CBC’s content includes both news programming and a variety of cultural content in both English and French. When CBC was created 80 years ago, there were relatively few private media organizations, and public broadcasting made sense. CBC ensured that all Canadians, regardless of where they lived, had some connection to the rest of the world, and it provided content, especially local content, that the market did not.
This argument simply doesn’t work today. Our contemporary media landscape is characterized by too many voices, not too few. At the click of a button Canadians can access countless sources of information both about Canada and the rest of the world. This has spun CBC into an existential crisis, and the broadcaster now attempts to expand and fill every possible media niche and market. In the process it produces a lot of very expensive but mediocre content. President Trump constantly talks about ratings, but if this is what he cares about, a public broadcaster is ill-advised. CBC’s ratings and viewership numbers continue to decline, despite its significant funding.
CBC now produces news, culture, TV shows, comedy, sports, and much more. But most of it isn’t very good. Take for example the CBC comedy show “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.” The show is an extremely poor man’s version of Saturday Night Live. Scroll through its Twitter account, and you’ll see comedy “gold” like “PM Trudeau says he brought up tariffs to Donald Trump during Paris dinner. It was either that or let Trump talk about how he won the midterms.”
CBC loves to make fun of conservatives, and sometimes that’s deserved, but conservatives frequently complain about the network’s left-wing slant, and for good reason. Take for example CBC’s coverage of Canadians right-wing political maverick Maxime Bernier. Bernier is a libertarian, populist Member of Parliament (MP) who left the Conservative Party to start his own right-wing party. In an interview on “The Weekly,” host Wendy Mesley repeatedly asks Bernier about his supposed connection with the Koch Brothers, just because 13 years ago he worked for a think tank that receives Koch funding. Mesley’s repeated insinuation of nefarious links to the Kochs sounded more like progressive activism than journalism.
Shortly after this event, another prominent CBC reporter, Rosemary Barton, suggested without evidence that Bernier had deliberately timed criticisms of multiculturalism to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of an American woman. Bernier denied these absurd allegations, but Barton refused to back down and defended her claims because Bernier refused to give her an interview to talk about her conspiracy theory. Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a particularly frosty relationship with CBC, and recently snubbed CBC from the media tour for his new book on populism. CBC insists its content is always unbiased, but the consistent criticism it gets from one side of the political spectrum suggests otherwise.
But so what if CBC leans to the left? Lots of outlets have political slants. The key difference is that a public broadcaster receives funding from taxpayers. CBC does some excellent journalism, but it also does some mediocre work. Both Canada and the United States protect freedom of the press, but this gets muddier when public funding is involved. Government-funded speech is supposed to be non-partisan and non-ideological. Yet bias is sometimes unavoidable, and when government funding is involved, perceptions of bias become more salient. If you’re someone that dislikes the CBC, it’s easy to dismiss their good content as simply ideological propaganda. And if it’s poor quality content, it’s easy to point to it as an example of “liberal bias.” In this way, state-run media fuels distrust in both journalism and the government.
So if President Trump is truly concerned about America’s global image, he might want to look in the mirror. But if Trump really is serious about creating a state-run broadcaster, he might want to look at Canada—CBC should give him good reason to think twice.
Benjamin L. Woodfinden is a Doctoral student in Political Science at McGill University in Montréal. He has been published in Maclean’s, The American Conservative, Real Clear Policy, and the Ottawa Citizen. Follow him on Twitter @BenWoodfinden.