CFTO-TV re News Beat Today (Wide World of Fun)

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0088)
M. Barrie (Chair), A. MacKay (Vice-Chair), P. Fockler, T. Gupta, R. Stanbury, M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

During his review of the motion picture Disclosure on The Wide World of Fun, an entertainment segment of News Beat Today on CFTO-TV at noon on December 12, 1994, Robin Ward made a comment which offended a viewer. Ward said:

…unlike his Disclosure co-star Michael Douglas, another star ofthe film, Donald Sutherland, says he won't treat women anydifferently know that he's made a movie about sexualharassment. Sutherland says he's too old to change and hesays he even takes off his hat when a woman comes into theroom. But the last time he did that he said the woman gave hima dirty look. Well, come on, Donald, taking off your hat in frontof a woman you've never met before … now that's sexualharassment if I've ever heard it. Watch it.

The viewer sent her complaint to the CBSC on December 14. In her letter,she said:

The remark was in no way an editorialized statement. It wasmade spontaneously. A remark as such [sic] has no place in anentertainment clip or on television in general.

She explained that she called CFTO-TV immediately and felt that she hadbeen “brushed off” by the person to whom she had spoken. The complainantwent on to explain the substance of her concern:

If a T.V. personality is going to comment on a reality as seriousas sexual harassment, then there needs to be sensitivity to theissue, not an open invitation to belittle its existence. Not onlydoes Mr. Ward need to be sensitized and educated about issuesof such gravity, he needs to know if he wants to share his viewshe can do so in an editorialized offering. Someone needs to takeresponsibility for such an offensive remark.

CFTO-TV's Vice-President of News and Public Affairs, Ted Stuebing,responded to the letter on January 12 upon receiving a copy of the complaintfrom the CBSC. He reacted in the following terms:

Upon reflection, and after discussion with a few of mycolleagues, I've confirmed my first impression of these [Mr.Ward's] remarks. I think they are harmless. They do notencourage sexual harassment or belittle its existence.

The intended humour is of a very gentle nature and flows I takeit from the wide range of opinion in society about the nature anddefinition of sexual harassment. Much legitimate comment ismade about this.

May I say that I have known Robin Ward for many years andhave found him to be a person of considerable judgement andsensitivity.

The complainant reacted to Mr. Stuebing's letter in hers of January 31. Shereiterated her concern about the rude treatment she had received upon callingthe station in the first place and related that treatment to the CFTO Vice-President's response by letter.

Having read Ted Stuebing's response to my concerns, I feel Ihave been given somewhat the same treatment. Since I haveattempted to make my complaint known I have had my opinionscoffed at and disregarded.

In a second letter to the CBSC of the same date, the complainant providedmore of a point-by-point response to the CFTO letter. She noted that she did”not consider an offensive comment about sexual harassment to have a placeanywhere in CFTO's programming especially on The Wide World of Fun! There is nothing fun or funny about sexual harassment.” She then challengedMr. Stuebing's consultation with a few of his colleagues, asking “Did he botherto consult any outside opinions for further perspective on the issue?” Shethen dealt with the CFTO Vice-President's personal comments about RobinWard:

Ted Stuebing's acknowledgement that he has “known RobinWard for years and have found him to be a person ofconsiderable judgement and sensitivity” does not convince me tolay down my pen. The fact remains that Robin Ward made anunacceptable comment about sexual harassment. I personallydon't care if Ted Stuebing thinks Mr. Ward is a great guy! It'sobvious after reading Mr. Stuebing's letter that he doesn'tunderstand why the comment was unacceptable any more than Mr. Ward did when he made it.

The complainant was clearly unsatisfied by the CFTO response andrequested that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate Regional Councilfor adjudication.

Clause 15, CAB Code of Ethics:

Recognizing that stereotyping images can and do causenegative influences, it shall be the responsibility of broadcastersto exhibit, to the best of their ability, a conscious sensitivity to theproblems related to sex-role stereotyping, by refraining fromexploitation and by the reflection of the intellectual and emotionalequality of both sexes in programming.

Clause 4, Sex-Role Portrayal Code for Television and Radio Programming,in pertinent part:

Television and radio programming shall refrain trom theexploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degradingcomments on the role and nature of women, mcn or children insociety shall be avoided.

The Regional Council members considered that the comments of Mr. Wardhad not been in breach of either of the cited clauses but they were concernedby a number of the complainant's perceptions.

In the first place, she alleged in two of her letters that she had been given short shrift by the CFTO person who answered her initial call. Since she did not identify the individual (she may not have known the person's name), there was no way for the CBSC to pursue this matter with CFTO. There is thus no way for the Council to know whether the complainant's concerns were reasonable or not. While the CBSC does not therefore arrive at any conclusion regarding the telephone response of the broadcaster in this case, it believes that it should reiterate for all of its broadcast members that civility and sensitivity in the initial contact with a viewer or listener are particularly important in allaying the concerns of the caller.

The foregoing being said, the next point of contact is generally the written response from the broadcaster and the Council usually reserves its comments in this regard to the end of the decision. In this case, however, the CBSC believes the quality of the broadcaster's written response should be dealt with at this early point in the decision.

The Council notes the complainant's observation that she had had her “opinion scoffed at and disregarded”, not only initially but in the CFTO Vice-President's letter. Council members read and re-read the letter and discussed this issue, paying particular attention to the viewer's pointed concern. It was their view that Mr. Stuebing's letter did not remotely “scoff at” or “disregard” the viewer's perspective. It was not a lengthy reply but, in the Council's view, it responded to the major concern of the complainant regarding the nature of Mr. Ward's remarks. It described them as “harmless” and “of a very gentle nature”; it stated Mr. Stuebing's belief that they neither encouraged sexual harassment nor belittled its existence. It was, however, clear that Mr. Stuebing did not agree with the complainant. It is, of course, his right not to agree with any given complaint although it is the Council's view that he is obliged to respond satisfactorily to a complaint. Disagreement and disregard are not the same thing. The Council concluded that the complainant's sensitivity to the substantive issue led her to conclude that the CFTO response was derisive.

The complainant appeared to be of the view that Mr. Stuebing had justified the comments themselves simply by emphasizing the pertinence of the program title The Wide World of Fun. In her view, Mr. Stuebing's attitude had been that such comments as hers had no place regarding a program with a term such as “fun” in its title. She had furthermore observed in her first letter that the remark “was not an editorialized statement”.

In the Council's view, Mr. Stuebing, by providing the title not only of the segment but also of the program including the segment was merely situating the offending remarks. Nothing more material could reasonably be concluded therefrom. As to the allegedly un-“editorialized” nature of the remarks, it was undoubted that these were editorialized, which is to say that they were not presented as news or fact. They could not reasonably have been interpreted otherwise than as opinion or comment; hence essentially editorial in nature.

The question then remains for the Council to give the reasons for which it considers that the opinion, comment or editorial remarks constitutes a breach of the sex role portrayal obligations existing within the Code of Ethics and the Sex Role Portrayal Code. In this, by analogy, the Council refers to its previously expressed opinions on questions of human rights. In CFOX-FM re the Larry and Willie Show (CBSC Decision 92/93-0141, August 30, 1993), the British Columbia Regional Council pointed out that it is not every comment which will be sanctioned but only those which are abusive or discriminatory. The Council put the issue in the following terms:

The CBSC is vigilant in its application of Clause 2 to all forms and levels of programming in the sectors of the industry to which the Code applies but it is equally conscious of the countervailing importance to the public of the fullest expression of the freedom of speech. It is not any reference to “race, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap” but rather those which contain “abusive or discriminatory material or comment” based on the foregoing which will be sanctioned.

In CFRB re Ed Needham (OWD Publication) (CBSC Decision 92/93-0096, May 26, 1993), the Regional Council decided that the host's language was abusive. In that matter, the host had been referring to a booklet entitled Words that Count Women In, published by the Ontario Women's Directorate. The Ontario Regional Council decided that

the host used abusive, degrading and discriminatory language when referring to women, in particular, when he claimed that, “A lot of women nowadays will vomit this one at you … 'why do you feel threatened?' … 'This is their favourite little way, because they can't think and they can't argue properly — these radical feminist nutcakes' …. 'Don't even respond to that' … 'Don't talk to the dumb stupid idiots', and 'bug off, bimbo!'” The host added, “That's how these crazed, unhappy, twisted creatures who turn out this kind of swill are. These are unhappy people, hard to get along with in the world, can't find a real job, so they turn to producing this kind of nonsense. You know, it's a shame. They need help. They really need help.”

In sharp contrast to the foregoing comments by Ed Needham, the remarks of host Robin Ward in the program segment involved in this matter were, in the opinion of the Regional Council, neither intentionally nor even inadvertently heavy-handed. They were perhaps an attempt to suggest that society may be taking itself too seriously or going too far in sanctioning any behaviour which may be seen to deviate from some absolute norm. There are, after all, some limits to what may and what may not be abusive or discriminatory. In a society where freedom of expression is a fundamental principle, it must be a remark of significant departure from the norm which will be sanctioned. In the view of the Council, Mr. Ward's comments lightly poked fun at the limits of sexual harassment and not at all at the issue of sexual harassment itself. Unlike the Needham comments, these fall comfortably, in the view of the Council, within the limits of supportable comment.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and may be reported, announced, or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.