The great (white) debate?

The aftermath of this year’s leaders’ debate was a little same ol’: frentic coverage focused on who won, who didn’t answer the questions, who did (did anyone?).

In this quick-and-dirty  coverage many journalists ignored what drove the whole affair: the questions posed by so-called “ordinary Canadians” on tape. One journalist didn’t; for two days after the debate, CBC Radio’s Toronto morning show host was clearly perturbed by the debate’s “look.”

On Metro Morning on April 14th, Matt Galloway referred to listeners who wrote and called him with the same concern:

“One thing that struck a lot of people about the leaders’ debate was the make-up on the panel, and the make-up, actually, of everybody involved in the broadcast: It was all white, all male. Not a single diverse face in that English leaders’ debate — certainly not reflective of this city, or this country.”

To be fair, that’s not entirely true: three of the six Canadians who put questions to the leaders were women; all three were white. The rest: white men.

But if the point of the questions was to hear from “real people” (rather than journalists as was the format years ago), then why didn’t producers make the lineup more diverse?

“We didn’t have a long lead time,” says Mark Bulgutch, CBC’s senior executive producer/producer for the debate. With an assistant, he waded through 6,000 submitted questions before whittling the final few to six.

Representatives from the other networks, CTV and Global, read their own questions. Everybody then met on April 6th with their shortlisted questions — about 20-30 — in hand.

To get to that shortlist CBC screened out any obvious lobbying and then followed what most people characterize as good common sense.

“If we got 1,000 questions on health care and one on UFOs,” says Bulgutch, “We’d be asking the health care question.” And that health care question, by the way? It’s no mystery, adds Bulgutch, every debate he’s ever been to, or watched, has had a health care question. Bulgutch and team’s job is to find a question that will “let the leaders kick the doors down in any direction they want to go.”

As for the diversity of those asking the questions: Bulgutch says the broadcasters did look at the names of everybody they chose. However, he adds: “It’s hard in e-mail to tell what colour somebody is.”

Take one of those chosen: Veselka Omelko, who asked about the leaders’ vision for Canada on the world stage. Deduce what you will from her name, but Omelko turned out to be as blonde as they come. And Robert Bahlieda from multicultural Newmarket? White.  

Instead, Bulgutch and the others decided to focus on the sure-things: gender breakdown, and geographical diversity. Here they hit it: three men, three woman — all spread across the country. One of those women (white) even asked about immigration. (Do you think that immigrants to our country should adopt the social practices of Canadians already living here, or not?)

And while Bulgutch says he does wish some of the participants were, say, recent immigrants, the question-picking process is not designed to favour one race, or culture, over the other. Really, given all we know about the way it works, he adds, you could argue the process is actually colour-blind.

That intention, though, may be exactly what troubles some: When Galloway interviewed Alexandra Bravo, manager of leadership programs at the Maytree Foundation, a foundation to reduce poverty and inequality in Canada, she called the debate a “missed opportunity in terms of who was asking the questions of the leaders.”

Galloway asked her: “When you don’t see Canada, the diversity of Canada represented, is there — what’s that message that goes out to the people that are watching?”

Bravo answered: “I just think we need to accept and to embrace the fact that Canada is an urban nation. Eighty per cent of the people live in cities and most cities look like ours [Toronto] — diverse with many people born outside of the country with all the colours of the world represented, and that is a lot of value.  It produces a lot of economic and social opportunities for this country. And that certainly was a missed opportunity in terms of the responsibility to represent Canada as it is and to give voice to who’s here.”

In fact, it’s worth asking not just whether the questions selected (and those asking them) reflected Canada’s multicultural population, but whether the leaders’ debate is really relevant to Canada when it’s all-white. After all, as any journalist knows, without the right questions you can’t get the right story. So, did debate organizers pick the right questions?

J-Source asked the debate’s own moderator, Steve Paikin, what he thought of the questions, and whether those asking them reflected Canada’s diversity. “The fact of the matter is,” says Paikin, “I kicked the wire off the back of the monitor on the table just as the debate was beginning — I didn’t see anything.” (Paikin writes about the experience in The Globe and Mail.)

Where the questions all from white Canadians? Equally from men and women? Paikin had no idea. But were the issues discussed important ones? Yes. When you truly go into it blind, his experience suggests, those questions don’t seem so one-colour.

Like Bulgutch, the three-time moderator believes the debate organizers ensure diversity in the best way they can: through gender and region. “That’s kind of all you can be sure of,” he says. Besides, he adds, think of what it would be like to ask somebody what race they are before you set off to film their question — or even worse, the suggestion you’ll base your decision to film them on their answer. Offensive? Yes.

When it comes down to it, questions of diversity are not easily answered. Doing so brings us into murky territory: not only regarding the media’s sensitivity toward discussing coverage of race and culture, but also acknowledging the sacrifices that come with deadline pressure, squeezed time, and big events.  “It’s all well and good to identify this short-coming,” says Paikin, “But how do you fix it?”