Post Media defends hate speech targeting poor people

05-5-14

A few weeks ago CWP came across a column in the Windsor Star newspaper that was discriminatory against poor people and full of hateful comments.  Entitled, ““Don’t Encourage Street Pests” , the columnist focused on negative language instead of his argument.  Hiding behind free speech and asking the city to ‘starve’ panhandlers and referring to them as vermin is unacceptable.  Thus far, the Windsor Star has refused to apologize and cease from publishing dehumanizing language targeting poor people and so has their parent company Post Media.  A say day for journalism indeed.

Following initial email correspondence with the Windsor Star, CWP reached out to the President of Post Media, the parent company.   Noting that freedom of speech is no excuse to publish discrimination, we sent Paul Godfrey (President and CEO) our communications with the Windsor Star. He responded immediately:

I am receipt of your email and I have had a chance to read the column in question and discuss it with the senior editorial group at the Windsor Star.

I understand your concern about the points raised by our Columnist but I am sure you realize that all columnist state their own opinion which is not necessarily the opinion of the publication.

I am the CEO of Postmedia which is the largest English language newspaper  in Canada. We operate  10 publications in the country.

Very few days go by when I do not see an opinion piece that I differ with. Newspapers are supposed to provide compelling content and controversial comment for our readers. We often challenge the state of affairs that exist in Parliament,, the Legislatures, Cities, Community Groups etc. As the former Chairman of Metropolitan Toronto I often had Columnists differ with my point of view but I accepted the fact that not everyone will concur with my point of view

We do not apologize for our Editorials or for our Columnists. We do offer space for those that wish to challenge these views

I understand that this was offered to you as well as the opportunity to appear in front of the Windsor Star Editorial Board. This is your call.

I do appreciate you bringing this matter to my attention.

Pvg

In an effort to explain this was not about debating the issue of panhandling, but rather journalistic standards and the toleration of hate speech, we responded:

(Email from CWP, April 23 2014)

Dear Mr. Godfrey,

Thanks very much for your prompt response, particularly on a long weekend. We are very pleased to be in conversation with you about our concerns.

I am not sure I’ve clearly expressed the core of what troubles us about Mr. Vander Doelen’s article, so I’m going to take another kick-at-the-can, so to speak, because I think the issues we are discussing are fundamental to your line of business as well as to our own. 

Let me begin by saying that although I am not a journalist, I understand and very much appreciate the right of free expression for journalists. It is obviously a cornerstone of democracy. I also recognize that free expression means that newspaper columnists, like Mr. Vander Doelen, must be able to freely express their opinions and that doing so contributes to debate and discussion – important aspects of a healthy democracy.  At the same time, I think it is well understood in Canada that there should be some limits on free expression, for example, when free expression becomes hate speech.

We think Mr. Vander Doelen transgressed the boundaries of free expression and engaged in hate speech against poor people.

To understand how we reached this conclusion, you have to consider the following:  There is a critical difference between Mr. Vander Doelen critiquing the act of panhandling and Mr. Vander Doelen de-humanizing, and inciting hatred and violence of sorts against the people who engage in panhandling to defend his position.

The right of free expression mandates that Mr. Vander Doelen be able to express himself freely on the merits of a panhandling bylaw.  But his free expression must be limited at the point where he engages in hateful expression and discrimination.  That is, when he refers to the poor and homeless as “pests” and “insects” (giving rise to the insinuation that they be exterminated), “drunks and drug addicts”, a “plague” on Windsor, and when he suggests that they be “starved” so that they retreat from the city streets. In our opinion Mr. Vander Doelen’s characterization of poor people exhibits the hallmarks of hateful expression: it is dehumanizing, demeaning, it invokes stereotypes and incites violence against a disadvantaged group.

The idea of there being limits on the free expression of journalists is contemplated in the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code which, as you are no doubt aware, states that journalists, must “treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect” [emphasis added].  Mr. Vander Doelen and the Editors at the Windsor Star broke this Code and went beyond the limits of acceptable discourse in a newspaper when they lost sight of the fact that the poor and homeless are human beings deserving of respect.

 CWP remains interested in pursuing an appropriate response to the serious concerns we’ve raised.  The suggestion that CWP submit a rebuttal “opinion piece” is entirely inappropriate. What exactly would we write? “We think poor people are human beings not vermin. They should not be exterminated or starved”? Surely that’s not an opinion by anyone’s standards.   

 While we are pleased that the Windsor Star Editorial Board is open to having a discussion with CWP about poverty in Canada, this is not a fulsome remedy to the situation.  It is still our position that the Windsor Star should issue a formal apology to its readership for having published dehumanizing and demeaning comments about poor people. We know that the Ontario Press Council has suggested this as a remedy in a case similar in nature to this involving a Postmedia newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen.  An apology could simply assert the right of journalists to free expression while apologizing for having published something disrespectful that demeaned poor people.

 Thank you again for your continued attention to our concerns and for engaging us directly.  We look forward to your response.

 Unfortunately, it seems Post Media is reluctant to issue an apology as well, again confirming that hate speech and discrimination against poor people is somehow acceptable in their publications.  For some reason, Mr. Godfrey believes a response editorial would suffice, although this is not about the  merits of panhandling, this is about discrimination plain and simple.

(Email correspondence from Paul Godfrey, President and CEO of Post Media Network, May 5 2014)

I apologize for not responding earlier to your e-mail of April 23rd as I was attending to some urgent business issues.  Once again, I appreciate your stated position but do not understand why you would not want your point of view published in the Windsor Star.  You took the time to express your opinion to me – so I’m not sure why you would not make the same statement in our newspaper.  Our readers could then learn about how you and your organization feel about Mr. Vander Doelen and his opinion on the issues and they could then decide who they agree with.

I previously stated that we do not apologize for our own Editorial position or those of our columnists.

Again, thank you for writing to me.

Paul

This type of language would never be tolerated against other marginalized groups and should not be acceptable to use when describing poor people.  A healthy debate does NOT involve discrimination, but rather reasonable points of view.  The Windsor Star should apologize and cease from publishing further commentary of this nature.  Offering to publish an Op-Ed in response is frankly a non-response by the paper.  It would merely indicate that we are part of this debate, and with discrimination there is no debate.  You just don’t publish it.

Following this insufficent response from the Windsor Star and Post Media we ask that you take action and join our letter writing campaign!

Canada Without Poverty, along with our Windsor colleagues, Pathway to Potential and Unifor Local 444, are mounting a campaign to see the newspaper apologize for discrimination against poor people and hate speech.

In order to make the point heard that this type of reporting is unethical and outside the lines of appropriate public debate, we ask that you join us in sending a letter to the Windsor Star Editor in Chief and CC their parent company Post Media.  The letter should reflect your reaction and opinion but highlight the following key points:

  • The article discriminates against poor people and has elements that constitute hate speech.  It encourages prejudice and misinformed conversation and serves to propagate negative attitudes towards the most vulnerable in society.
  • Hate speech is not necessary to make your point and exercise freedom of speech. He could easily have exercised his free expression and asserted his disdain for panhandling, without maligning poor people through hateful and discriminatory language.
  • The appropriate remedy is a published apology from the Windsor Star for publishing hate speech toward a disadvantaged group.

Consistent messaging will ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear.

The letters should be sent by email to Marty Beneteau: MBeneteau[at]windsorstar.com, CC Chris Vander Doelen CVanderdoelen[at]windsorstar.com and Paul Godfrey, owner of Post Media pgodfrey[at]postmedia.com

We are hoping for a minimum of 30 letters sent by May 31st in order to demonstrate that the community feels this type of reporting is unnecessary and discriminatory and that an apology is warranted.  If the Windsor Star fails to publish an apology, the letters will be used in a complaint to the Ontario Press Council to demonstrate community concern regarding the issue and an effort to seek a remedy with the local paper itself.

*Please send a copy of your letter to Adam Vasey at Pathway to Potential: adam[at]pathwaytopotential.ca and Michele at Canada Without Poverty: michele[at]cwp-csp.ca

If you have any questions regarding the letter writing campaign please contact Michele at Canada Without Poverty: michele[at]cwp-csp.ca