Power and Politics: The Downfall of Evan Solomon

This paper was written for RTA 918 Ethics in Media at Ryerson University and received a grade of 95%.

Impressive display of knowledge that moves beyond material discussed in class. Your paper is thoughtful with a sophisticated argument and use of evidence. – Dr. Ger Zielinski
Evan Solomon was dismissed from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in June 2015 after it was revealed that he quietly received payments related to art sales involving people he dealt with as a host. While Solomon’s art business was a clear ethical violation, his downfall was short-lived. An articulate and astute political analyst, he now works as Bell Media Radio’s national affairs specialist, hosts Ottawa Now on 580 News Talk Radio, and Real Talk, a syndicated weekend radio program. He also writes a column for Maclean’s magazine in addition to recently becoming host of CTV’s third-longest running program, Question Period. If Solomon’s ethical error does not pose an issue for a network with as much clout as CTV or a respected publication like Maclean’s, could CBC have found another way to deal with this ethical breach?
There is no question that Solomon’s business brokering art deals violated CBC’s code of ethics. The code states that employees must not use their positions to further their personal interests (Donovan). CBC determined that Solomon’s activities were inconsistent with its conflict-of-interest and ethics policies, and its journalistic standards and practices (McKnight). Scandals such as this one can lower audience opinion of both the public broadcaster and the government, which determines the corporation’s funding (McKnight). But Solomon argues in the statement that followed his dismissal that he had disclosed his art business to CBC earlier in the year. CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson initially agreed that Solomon had disclosed his involvement with an art business and that CBC had no concern (Donovan). “Evan didn’t trade on his journalistic contacts,” he added (Donovan). Moreover, at the time of his firing, Solomon had already ended the business relationship (Solomon). The business involved only two clients (Solomon), Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) and Mark Carney, the former Bank of Canada governor and current governor of the Bank of England (Donovan). While Carnie appeared on Power and Politics, Balsillie never did (Donovan). The biggest issue here seems to be that Solomon did not disclose to the buyer that he was being paid fees for introducing buyer and seller (Donovan). How much does it matter that he introduced buyers to a seller? Toronto artist Charlie Pachter notes that referral fees of 10 to 20 percent are common in relation to art sales (Kingston). As Pachter sees it, Solomon’s 10 percent cut is negligible considering that galleries take 50 percent (Kingston). Over the two years that Solomon was a partner in the business, he earned about $300,000 from the pieces purchased by Balsillie (Donovan). Solomon also brokered the purchase of a $22,500 painting to Carney (Donovan). Assuming that Solomon received the same 10 percent share as the Balsillie deals (Donovan), the sale to Carney would have netted him only $2,250. This problem presents an obvious breach of ethics but in imposing a judgment, it must be considered that the business does not appear to have influenced Solomon’s journalism, nor were his profits from the already defunct business that significant.
Although Solomon did err, CBC could have justified a decision not to follow the rules in dismissing him. First, the art deals did not cause harm to anybody; Carney and Balsillie ultimately made the deals with the art collector on their own. The fixed rules found in minimal standards codes, such as CBC’s, focus discussions on moral issues, but expecting such codes to resolve all concerns can short-circuit the process of “doing ethics” (Black and Roberts 42). As Aristotle pointed out, minimum codes cannot solve the majority of ethical dilemmas (Black and Roberts 42). People also “have a short attention span, especially in broadcasting,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto (Wong). Solomon was swiftly tapped by SiriusXM to provide coverage of the 2015 election and resurfaced recently as the new host of Question Period on CTV, Canada’s largest private broadcaster (Wong). Neither other news outlets, nor the public seems to care about Solomon’s art deals. Sometimes, doing ethics means transcending our own rules, even our own codes of ethics (Black and Roberts 39). Decisions should be made based on clear, defensible thinking rather than arbitrarily following rules or authority-based rationales (39). CBC placed substantial value on Solomon’s violation of its code, however, the “missing link” in Canadian political journalism, according to Dvorkin, is that there are very few tough questioners (Wong). Solomon, known as an interviewer who pushed his interviewees brought this missing link to an audience of 90,000 on Power and Politics, CBC News Network’s daily two-hour flagship politics show (Kingston). An effort to transcend its code of ethics would have done more to improve CBC’s reputation in this instance.
In this scenario, CBC has more to lose than does the well-regarded Solomon. A marquee name with a large following in Ottawa, Solomon was considered a potential heir to national news anchor Peter Mansbridge (Wong). Understandably, the broadcaster was sensitive to the optics of ethical breaches following previous conflicts involving Mansbridge, Amanda Lang, and Jian Ghomeshi. Still reeling from a report on its mishandling of sexual assault allegations involving Ghomeshi (Szklarski), CBC needed to look like they were taking all ethical issues seriously. Solomon’s dismissal also came a few months after CBC backed Amanda Lang on conflict-of-interest allegations. Lang reportedly tried to sabotage a 2013 story about the Royal Bank of Canada and its use of temporary foreign workers, spoke at bank-sponsored events, and had a “serious relationship” with a bank board member (Szklarski). Labour lawyer Erin Kuzz says that it seems as though Solomon was held to a “different, harsher standard” (Szklarski). Does CBC not owe Evan Soloman a duty of loyalty? Black and Roberts suggest that bosses owe their subordinates considerations and that if more good than harm emerges from these special relationships, many moral arguments can justify reciprocity as long as those justifications are clear, rational, and transparent (143). In a misguided attempt to minimize harm to its reputation, the broadcaster neglected Solomon’s viewership who have since proven their loyalty to him, following him to each broadcast he takes over. CBC would have been better off to retain its special relationship with Solomon and offer the public a meaningful justification for doing so, rather than lose the viewers who departed along with him. While professionals may display loyalty to specific stakeholders, their more enduring commitment is to their professional calling (Black and Roberts 144). Instead of displaying loyalty to Solomon or its professional calling, CBC weakened Power and Politics by replacing Solomon with Rosemary Barton. Barton, a biased and less skilled moderator even inspired a Change.org “petition for objectivity” which called for her removal as host (Rilstone). Mass communicators’ ultimate loyalty should be to the public because well-told stories on important topics enhance public opinion and collective decision making (Black and Roberts 145). Providing the public with Soloman’s “tough but fair” brand of political analysis should be more important than the perception of saving face.
One way to define propaganda is “the art of influencing, manipulating, controlling, promoting, changing, inducing, or securing the acceptance of opinions, attitudes, action or behaviour” (Black and Roberts 280). In a statement to CBC employees on June 10, 2016, Jennifer McGuire, editor-in-chief of CBC News said that the public broadcaster represents the “very highest standard of journalistic conduct and ethics” and Solomon did not meet that benchmark (Szklarski). McGuire went on to say that any ethical lapse reflects badly on the entire profession and that it was time for every professional journalist and media organization to stop providing ammunition (Szklarski). It is a valid point; the Solomon story was explosive. Unlike Jian Ghomeshi, who faced criminal charges, however, there is no suggestion that Solomon did anything illegal; nor does evidence exist that Solomon’s personal relationships influenced news coverage, unlike the allegations against Amanda Lang who remained with the network (Kingston). Propaganda – especially propaganda that matches a person’s already-held beliefs meets media audiences’ need for predigested presentations (Black and Roberts 283). CBC knew its audience was angered by its handling of previous scandals and bet that firing Solomon would make it appear as if it is cleaning up its act. Unfortunately, McGuire’s spin reads as disingenuous in light of the other, more egregious controversies that preceded the Solomon case. Consumer-citizens need to be open-minded as they encounter the marketplace of ideas: curious, questioning, unwilling to accept simple answers to complex situations (Black and Roberts 282). In firing Evan Solomon, CBC has offered the public a simplistic answer to a complex problem, one that does not significantly improve its image.
In January 2015, following the Lang debacle, CBC moved to ban on-air journalists from making paid appearances (Houpt). Journalists are now barred from accepting any form of payment from third parties, including reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses (Houpt). Transparency, however, is not a simple solution to media credibility problems (Black and Roberts 278). Some questioned why the new policy applies to only on-air journalists. Ivor Shapiro, the chair of the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says he does not understand the logic of it, “Would it not be a problem for the executive producer of As It Happens or Sunday Edition to accept a paid appearance, or to speak to a lobby group?” (Houpt). Nevertheless, already in the process of becoming more transparent, CBC could have built on this action in the Solomon case. While allowing skeptical audiences to see more media opening themselves up to public criticism could have short-term negative consequences and confirm prejudices that media are flawed institutions, it is more likely to cause a short-term drop in credibility but ultimately improve public understanding and trust in the long run (Black and Roberts 278).
Ethical lapses reflect badly on the entire profession and truth-telling is not a simple matter in the media world. As Black and Roberts point out, it often must be balanced against other compelling values, such as the value of minimizing harm, or the value of sustaining relationships with sources, clients, subjects and audiences (224). In a statement issued by the Canadian Media Guild, National President Carmel Smyth writes, “As a union, we are concerned that there may have been a rush to judgment here and a disproportionate response to what at worse may have been an unintentional breach of corporate policy that had no impact whatsoever on how Evan conducted himself as a host and journalist. We are concerned that factors unrelated to this case have caused management to single out and treat a respected journalist unfairly and in a way that may be very damaging to his career” (Smyth). We are blameworthy, though, if we violate a code of ethics’ minimal standards and as such, Solomon deserved to be disciplined (Black and Roberts 42). Instead of firing Solomon, however, CBC might have temporarily put Solomon on leave while it recalibrated its policies and crafted a genuine and transparent message justifying its decision. Solomon would have to be part of the repair process, penning a more thorough explanation and apology to be published online and, most importantly, offering a sincere on-air version to his viewers as well. This resolution meets CBC’s needs for transparency and image repair, while allowing it to continue to provide high-quality political analysis.
As a result of applying its ethics inconsistently, CBC has suffered a crisis of credibility. CBC’s overly simplistic solution to the ethical dilemma posed by Evan Solomon did little to repair that credibility, or regain the public’s trust in the institution. Instead, the corporation did more harm than good to itself; after sweeping more serious scandals under the rug it looks foolish in imposing such a harsh sentence on Solomon, whose ethical breach by all accounts did not affect his journalism. Rather than defaulting to a standard response based on its code of ethics and resorting to hollow propaganda, if CBC had done the process of ethics, it could have transcended its code of ethics, justified saving Solomon, and prevented doing more damage to its reputation.
Works Cited
Black, Jay, and Chris Roberts. Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Donovan, Kevin. “CBC Host Evan Solomon Fired after Star Investigation Finds He Took Secret Cut of Art Deals | Toronto Star.” Thestar.com. Toronto Star, 10 June 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
Houpt, Simon. “Following Conflict-of-interest Allegations, CBC Bans On-air Journalists from Making Paid Appearances.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
Kingston, Anne. “The Fall of Evan Solomon.” Macleans.ca. Maclean’s, 19 June 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
McKnight, Zoe. “CBC Host Evan Solomon Scandal ‘mystifying’: Ethics Expert.” Macleans.ca. Maclean’s, 10 June 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
Rilstone, Mike. “CBC Management: CBC: Replace Rosemary Barton on Power and Politics.” Change.org, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.
Smyth, Carmel. “Excessively Harsh Judgement | CMG.” CMG. Canadian Media Guild, 10 June 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
Statement from Evan Solomon. Globe and Mail, 9 June 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Szklarski, Cassandra. “CBC’s Editor-in-chief Says Evan Solomon Didn’t Meet Ethics Standard | Toronto Star.” Thestar.com. Toronto Star, 10 June 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.
Wong, Tony. “Evan Solomon Returning to TV as Host of CTV’s ‘Question Period'” Thestar.com. Toronto Star, 21 June 2016. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
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