Poor Bashing Considered Acceptable Journalism: Windsor Star

"In our opinion, Mr. Vander Doelen could easily have exercised his free expression and asserted his disdain for panhandling, without maligning poor people through hateful and discriminatory language."
04-17-14

An unfortunate reality has reared it’s ugly head in Windsor, Ontario this past week – poor bashing is alive and well.  In what has become a heated debate on panhandling, the Windsor Star newspaper has decided to take the conversation offside and allow hateful, derogatory language to be published as part of public discourse.  When CWP questioned this judgement, the paper responded citing freedom of expression as the reason for condoning language that dehumanizes and degrades poor people.

As you head off on your long-weekend break, we ask you to consider this question:

Do you think it is acceptable to hide behind freedom of expression in order to openly discriminate against poor people? Or any person/group? 

We certainly do not.

In any public debate there are opposing sides, but there is never room for discrimination.   Columnist Chris Vander Doelen appears to believe that the best way to join a conversation is to incite hate, and openly discriminate against something he finds unpleasant.  Considering the number of ways one can express themselves, and the respect that should be infused on discussion from all sides, this is not only intolerable, it is unacceptable.   You can read his article entitled, “Don’t Encourage Street Pests” here.

It was with shock that CWP read and responded to this article noting the nature of the language used and the decision by the newspaper to allow this piece to run.  Our letter to the Editor in Chief Marty Beneteau (April 17) is below:

 Dear Mr. Beneteau,

Recently your paper has run several stories on the issue of poverty and panhandling in Windsor. One in particular, written by columnist Chris Vander Doelen (April 9, “Don’t Encourage Street Pests”), crossed the line.  

Canada Without Poverty is an organization with a 43-year history representing the voices of poor people in Canada. We are often called upon by government, academics, media and other social justice organizations across the country to respond to issues affecting the low income population. We are recognized as a leading anti-poverty organization and one that is rooted in integrity, humanity and equality. Mr. Vander Doelen’s column may be one of the most harmful and discriminatory we have seen published. In our opinion the Windsor Star exercised very bad judgement when it decided to run the column.

The columnist’s portrayal of people who are struggling to make ends meet was as follows. The title, “Don’t Encourage Street Pests”, sets the stage by drawing a parallel between people living in poverty and vermin, a theme that runs throughout the piece. The title is followed by an onslaught of derogatory and hateful comments about people living in poverty. Mr. Vander Doelen refers to this population as “beggars infesting the downtown like fleas”, “unemployed opportunists with no shame”, he accuses them of being fraudulent, drug addicts and drunks, and refers to them as a “plague”. Taking it even further, he suggests that because panhandler’s poverty is in “our faces” on city streets, the people of Windsor should: “[s]tarve them” so that they will “sneak back to where they came from”.  

CWP believes that provocation can be an effective means of promoting discussion on important issues. We have used it ourselves to promote the interests of people living in poverty. The column you allowed to be published, however, is unduly provocative and does not contribute to positive community debate to move forward an important social issue. It is based in discriminatory and hateful attitudes towards people living in poverty. It encourages prejudice and misinformed conversation and serves to propagate negative attitudes towards the most vulnerable in society. Using a newspaper column as a pulpit for speech full of hatred toward a disadvantaged group goes far beyond the limits of acceptable discourse for a newspaper.

We are certain that this article would not have been published if Mr. Vander Doelen had taken similar aim at black people. No editor would stand by that kind of blatant discrimination, understanding that it is both morally wrong and grounds for discipline or termination.

We request that you publish an apology to your readership for inciting hatred of poor people. We also request a meeting with your editorial team to provide you with a more accurate understanding of what it means to be poor in Canada. Instead of false accusations, a better use of this column would be to discuss the root causes of poverty and why people resort to activities like “panhandling” to make ends meet.

We look forward to your immediate response.

Sadly the response came quickly and with little effort to remedy the situation.  John Coleman, Editorial, Page Editor replied within a few hours stating:

Dear Ms. Farha,

Thank you for your letter regarding Mr. Vander Doelen’s column on panhandlers. This issue has been one of great debate in our community and we have published many stories and letters to the editor on the  subject.

There has been a wide range of views on the  issue, and we encourage all those who wish to weigh in on the discussion to do so. Including those who disagree with Mr. Vander Doelen.

Our intent isn’t to issue an apology when controversial issues arise, but to encourage freedom of  speech.

I hope you will consider submitting a letter to the editor, or possibly guest column, on the subject and we would be glad to consider either for publication.

As well, our editorial board would certainly be willing to meet with representatives of your group to further discuss issues of poverty. Please let me know a timeframe that would be convenient for  you.  

CWP then wrote back to the Editor in Chief indicating that this response was unsatisfactory:

It appears that Mr. Coleman has failed to understand the serious nature of this issue or the concerns raised in our letter.  By asking us to write a guest column on panhandling in response to Mr. Vander Doelen’s column suggests that we wish to engage in a conversation about municipal politics.  As is clear from our original letter to you, we did not raise the substantive issue of panhandling.  This was a conscious decision. To reiterate: our concern and interest in Mr. Vander Doelen’s column is solely with respect to discrimination and inciting hate towards the most marginalized in society as reflected by the LANGUAGE used by the columnist, regardless of his position on panhandling.  Mr. Colemen defends the column in its entirety on the basis of the Star’s right to freedom of expression.  In our opinion, Mr. Vander Doelen could easily have exercised his free expression and asserted his disdain for panhandling, without maligning poor people through hateful and discriminatory language.  Had he done so, we would not be in correspondence with you today. 

Again, while we welcome the invitation extended by Mr. Coleman to speak to the Star’s Editorial Board, we respectfully request that the Windsor Star issue an apology to its readership and the low income community in Windsor who have been victimized by this piece.

We look forward to a considered response to the serious concerns we have raised. 

But it appears that the Marty Beneteau, Editor in Chief, supports this style of discriminatory writing as he responded quickly to say that he “endorses” Mr. Coleman’s reply above, which associates the columns hate speech with freedom of expression.  It leaves you questioning…

When did discrimination become acceptable in public debate?  And how could an established newspaper such as the Windsor Star stand behind hate speech?

CWP will continue to pursue the matter of the Windsor Star’s use of discriminatory language against poor and homeless people.  Stay tuned – watch this website or join our newsletter.