Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On the rush to tar and feather Evan Solomon

If you don’t follow Ottawa politics, this blog posting may not be of interest to you. However, it pertains to an event that has caught more than its fair share of public attention over the last 48 hours. Evan Solomon was, until this week, an Ottawa-based CBC TV news journalist who hosted a live daily show about Ottawa politics called Power and Politics, as well as a weekend radio called The House that reviewed the previous week’s biggest political stories. He is, by all accounts, the classic ‘mover and shaker’, always working to get the story, constantly networking to get access to politicians and power figures who aren’t always talkative, and trying to dig deeper into stories than the papers and national newscasts typically do. He has strong connections to political and business elites in Ottawa and Toronto, which are simultaneously a product of his work and a tool he uses to do his work. In other words, he has exactly the skill set necessary to be a leading political reporter.

He was this week fired by CBC after a Toronto newspaper reported that he was working on the side as an art broker, earning commissions by introducing some of his contacts to a friend who is a Toronto-based fine art seller. The people he referred to the broker included Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie and Bank of England Governor (and former Bank of Canada Governor) Mark Carney. Solomon at first denied any involvement in the art markets – a mistake – but has since disclosed publicly what he was doing, and apologized.

It is evident that Evan Solomon’s employment contract with the CBC included terms regarding his using his journalistic work for private gain, and if his moonlighting as an art dealer violated those contractual terms, he was wrong, and there should be repercussions. However, the CBC has said that he disclosed his art dealings to them over a year ago, and that the CBC had no concerns at the time. It appears that the rush to fire Solomon this week may have been the result of sensational rhetoric in the news reports about Solomon receiving “secret commissions”. On talk radio today – including the CBC’s own Ontario Today show – media experts are pontificating on the moral and ethical faults in Solomon’s actions. There is nothing the public likes better than a feeding frenzy that takes down a public figure.

I have a number of concerns here, but let me start with a full disclosure. Most Canadians who know of him as a TV personality; I know him as a former neighbour. Not so well that I’ve been invited to his house for a barbecue or grabbed a meal with him – but I know him. I used to live and work in Ottawa for many years, and we lived close enough that our kids attended the same public school (Mark Carney’s kids also did, for what that’s worth). I would often see Evan and his family at the school, and on spring weekends at the soccer field where he helped coached the kids. When we bumped into one another, he and I would chat about nature and the environment (like any good journalist, he knew what I did for a living). Once, when there was a serious illness in my family, his wife was one of the first to show up on our doorstep with a casserole. In short, I have a lot of time for Evan Solomon.

The first thing I don’t like about this whole affair is how every discussion on radio or TV includes some statement to the effect that, after the Jian Ghomeshi affair, the CBC had no choice but to fire Evan Solomon. This is ludicrous. For those who don’t know, Jian Ghomeshi is a former CBC radio personality who is awaiting criminal trial on five charges of sexual assault. Even though CBC managers had been aware of allegations about Ghomeshi's assaults on women, they chose not to act until the story became public. Nothing that Evan Solomon has done even remotely constitutes criminal behaviour; more to the point, Solomon told the CBC what he was doing and they did not object. Mentioning Ghomeshi and Solomon in the same sentence is a disservice to the latter, and I’m sorry I have had to do so here.

The second thing I don’t like is the implication that Solomon’s art dealings somehow call into question his journalistic integrity. Mark Carney did not appear on Solomon’s shows multiple times simply because Solomon was able to get him a good deal on a painting. He did so because that was part of his role as the Governor of the Bank of Canada. And, if you listen to any of those shows, you will find that Solomon did not lob softball questions at Carney in order to score an art sale commission (it’s not clear whether Carney was even still working at the Bank of Canada when said art purchase occurred). Jim Balsillie is a private citizen and a very wealthy individual. He, too, was hardly going to be swayed to appear on Solomon’s show simply because Solomon was able to connect him with an art dealer (Mr. Balsillie is notoriously reluctant to appear in the media in general). The newspaper report that broke this story breathlessly observes that some of the buyers did not realize that Solomon was receiving a commission for connecting them with an art seller. If that’s the case, the art buyer might have grounds for a grudge against Solomon, but I’m not sure the CBC or Solomon’s audience have much reason to complain.

Should a journalist as well-connected and influential as Solomon have been connecting powerful people he got to know through his work to an art dealer he knows from his home city of Toronto, and get a commission for it? I find this question to be ethically far less troubling than whether CBC news personalities like Rex Murphy should be giving crowd-pleasing speeches to Calgary oil executives – which he does – or whether the CBC’s board of directors should be made up of donors to the Conservative Party (according to this report, most of them are). I bet this morning Evan Solomon wishes he’d never moonlighted in the art market. But no one has shown any evidence this influenced his work as a journalist, and he moonlighted with the full knowledge of his employer. I do not like seeing a good man and his family get tarred and feathered in this way, especially when far more questionable activities are taking place within the walls of the CBC.


Anonymous said...

His journalistic integrity does come into question when he lies that he has a side art business to a journalist Kevin Donovan, who works for the Toronto Star. There is no need to call the paper a Toronto newspaper. The Toronto Star is a pretty damn big newspaper, so I don't understand the reason why you don't name it. After all, Ernest Hemingway did work there, and he's one of the biggest 20th century writers. To end that digression.

If you're part of the fifth estate, you should not be doing things that make one question your integrity.

It is ironic that Mister Solomon has question Senators over their lavish behaviour, yet is from the same trough.

Many people are upset that: Amanda Lang, Peter Mansbridge, and Rex Murphy have done paid speeches / activities that make you question their integrity. Yes those three, should not have a job at the CBC.

So Mister Solomon is lumped in with Jian Ghomeshi. Yes both different cases, but, both out of jobs for questionable behaviour.

The CBC needs to be held to a higher standard.

To conclude, like Ghomeshi, and Solomon, Mansbridge, Murphy, and Lang need to go. It doesn't matter if Solomon is a good neighbour that is great. He might be the nicest person in the world. Cut my grass, check on my family et cetera. The fact of the matter is he did something he shouldn't be doing as a journalist. The optics don't look good. Maybe, if he gave up his trade and focused on that or dubbed himself as a columnist / commentator and not a journalist it would be a bit better. His journalistic reputation is pretty much ruined, and good luck with that. I know that when I was in Journalism school, plagiarism was one thing that was hammered to us, don't do it, and they really need to hammer on about ethics too.

Robert McLeman said...

I accept most of the points made in the preceding comment, and I could indeed have mentioned the Star by name. Nothing was meant by the omission. I do still disagree with the comparison to Ghomeshi, who is being accused of very serious crimes, and whose employers were apparently aware of accusations but didn't act upon them. Mr Solomon has done nothing illegal, and certainly nothing as outrageous as what Ghomeshi's been accused of. The commenter is right in that the CBC needs to be held to a higher standard, and that Solomon's career as a journalist looks ruined. The optics of what he did are bad, but the substance of what other CBC journalists have done, but weren't fired for, seems worse to me. Thanks again for the comment.

Craig Moddle said...

I agree with your Robert. While Evan's activity might be "questionable" it is by no means worthy of dismissal. Especially if he had declared his activity a year ago to the CBC and there were no objections at that time. It all strikes me as yet another Conservative led (read Harpo and his appointees in the CBC et al)to destroy the reputation of the CBC in order to eventually get rid of it. All too sad and shameful.

Craig Moddle

Anonymous said...

I agree on many of your points about Evan. I think firing was harsh. I believe he should have been suspended without pay, and then reinstated as a news anchor.

But we should be clear. Evan also did paid speaking and hosting for events across the country. He did less once he moved to Ottawa, but he was no different than his colleagues in being able to leverage his position and name to earn extra dollars speaking at conferences.

Rex Murphy is a contract employee of CBC. Lang, Mansbridge and until this week Solomon were full time employees. Rex's role is to provoke discussion, and give commentary. He does this well to the annoyance or pleasure of many. Rex does not speak on behalf of big oil. Nor does/ did Peter Mansbridge. Rex supports oil as an industry in Canada because it creates employment. And as a native of Newfoundland, he sees the benefits to his home province from those jobs. He supports teachers and literacy too. Does this mean that he is a spokesperson for them? No. He believes in the importance of education.

Sometimes we try to overthink issues. I am sure CBC decision makers felt pressured to show they could make a responsible and swift call on Evan's future. In part because of controversies of the recent past. The Ghomeshi case being the drop of water that started the bucket of water to overflow.

The actions of Lang, Solomon and any of the CBCers who gave talks at conferences are not equal in any way, shape or form the same as the Ghomeshi issue.

Conferences want people like Mansbridge, Lang, Murphy, Solomon because they are familiar and are trusted. I have heard as many say a speaker has turned down an event because of potential conflict as those who have been accused of being in bed with organization they have delivered a speech to.

Does anyone really think that Rex Murphy can be bought? Or Mansbridge? It's lunacy. People can dislike these people if they wish. But just because you dislike the person or their perceived power, or their opinions, doesn't mean they are those things.

Which brings us back to Solomon. None of this would have occurred if he hadn't contested the commission on one of the art sales. Evan thought the man he was working with would honour their agreement. Money can make people do stupid things.

Evan was forced to disclose his art business To CBC when he started actions to get his commission. My best guess is, because he didn't tell CBC the whole story (and I understand why), when The Star went to the CBC with emails and who the buyers were, their hands were tied. It looked like and felt like their employee lied to them.

The art owner, got annoyed and threw Evan under the bus. How else would The Star have emails?

So Evan Solomon has lost his job, and probably a couple of friends who feel used and will wonder why their friend was taking a commission on their art purchases. And I venture to guess, Evan's lost the respect of colleagues and formerly loyal viewers.

It's a damned shame.

I hope he makes a comeback.

Kathryn Kimiecik said...

Most of this ridiculousness comes from people who have no idea how the high end art business is carried out. Art brokers operate the same way any other broker does: commission basis. To equate sexual abuse to art dealing is misogynistic in itself.

Robert McLeman said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. The more that comes out about this story, the more evident it becomes that Mr Solomon did cross a line that shouldn't have been crossed. One Globe journalist commented that a journalist should never, ever attempt to monetize the contacts s/he makes through his/her reporting duties. If that's part of the journalistic 'code' (I'm not a journalist, so I don't know myself), then it may indeed be appropriate that he should lose his job. Nonetheless, the haste with which he was dismissed suggests to me that CBC management was more interested in damage control than in exercising any rational judgement.