Oh God, this is needlessly complicated.
Deep breath and here we go:
1. Ricochet, the crowd-funded and explicitly left-leaning news site, is publishing profiles of key battleground ridings. First up: University-Rosedale in Toronto, where the Liberals are running Chrystia Freeland against the NDP’s Jennifer Hollett. Buried in this profile is a shocking paragraph:
Dana O’Born, Freeland’s campaign manager, spoke to Ricochet by telephone earlier this month. She said the Freeland campaign plans to run on family issues among others, and will highlight the fact that Hollett is not a mother, while Freeland is a mother of three.
2. Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen pulled that nasty bit for a post of his own, essentially aggregating the Ricochet story while throwing shade on it for being “unverified.” In fact, Ricochet says they did verify it, with editor Ethan Cox calling Dana O’Born to fact-check the comment. Cox says O’Born verified that she had indeed made the comment, and Ricochet stands by the piece. McGregor updated his post with Cox’s defense and with a more expansive statement from Dana O’Born, which he presented as a denial.
3. Here’s that statement. Let’s read it carefully:
“In my conversation with Ricochet Media, I listed a number of aspects from Chrystia’s biography, which included the fact that she is a mother. In no way did this comment have anything to do with the other candidates.
When Mr. Cox called me this afternoon, I strongly denied that the campaign would ever focus any other candidate’s family status.”
You might read that and think that Dana O’Born is denying that she ever brought up Jennifer Hollett not having kids. But she isn’t. When she writes: “in no way did this comment have anything to do with the other candidates,” the comment she’s referring to is the one where she brought up Freeland being a mom. It is entirely possible, based on her statement, that O’Born did bring up Hollett as a non-mom in a separate comment, which she is simply avoiding making any reference to.
In other words, this reads to me like an evasive and carefully-worded non-denial denial. i.e. “Did you eat that pie?” “How dare you! I would never eat a cake!”
I could be totally off with this, but if so, it would be pretty easy to clear up. O’Born could simply say that she never raised Jennifer Hollett’s parental status in any way. But that’s not included in her statement.
UPDATE: Dana O’Born has explicitly denied raising the issue. Here is our email exchange:
Thank you for getting in touch. Here is my comment:
“To be absolutely clear — I did not and would never make the comments being wrongly attributed to me.”
Thanks Dana, but I didn’t ask you anything yet!
My question is very specific, and a yes or no answer will suffice- though feel free to expand if you like:
Did you bring up to Ricochet in any way the fact that Jennifer Hollett is not a mother?
4. Everything shifted and escalated when writer Alheli Picazo (who has contributed to this site) did some social media digging and discovered that Trent Lee, the young and very green Ricochet reporter who wrote the initial post, was actively campaigning for Hollett. She says he was involved with her campaign as recently as a few weeks ago.
Lee and Ricochet were pilloried by big name journalists including Kady O’Malley and David Akin for what seemed to be a pretty glaring conflict of interest.
Sorry, but in what universe is it okay to have someone volunteering on a campaign report on ANY candidate in that race?
— kady o’malley (@kady) August 27, 2015
I got Ricochet editor Ethan Cox on the phone this morning to try and sort this out.
Here’s what I learned from Cox:
-Trent Lee is a young freelancer with a background in entertainment writing. He wants to shift to political reporting and pitched the Riding Guide to Ricochet. He disclosed his involvement with the NDP and Ricochet told him he’d have to give up his partisan activities if he wanted to write about politics, which Lee did. Cox says he didn’t know that Lee had worked directly for the Hollett campaign, and if he did, Ricochet would have run a disclaimer on the post (they’ve since added one).
-Once Cox saw the article and learned of Lee’s affiliation, he knew he needed to fact-check the quote. I asked Cox how that went down. He says:
“I asked O’Born, ‘did you say that you plan to highlight the fact that Freeland has kids & Hollett has none?’ She confirmed that she had, in a voice I recognized as someone realizing that they said something they shouldn’t have.”
-Cox wishes he or Lee had recorded their conversations with O’Born, as many online have scolded them for not doing. But he points out that recording every call is hardly standard practice in journalism, and he’s right.
-As for the accusations of conflict of interest, Cox points to Ricochet’s posted policy, which prohibits reporters from having active partisan affiliations. But there is no “cooling-off” period, so hypothetically a partisan warrior could be volunteering for a candidate on a Monday, then quit and report on that candidate on a Tuesday. This should probably be avoided, Cox concedes, and if not, a disclosure on Lee’s volunteering would have helped a lot.
-But it’s also true that mainstream news organizations are filled with reporters who were politically active in the past. It goes in the other direction too, and a big irony here is that both Freeland and Hollett are themselves former journalists. Cox says:
“If this were a reporter and editor from any major news org, the criticism wouldn’t be the same. It’s clear that people saw this as an opportunity to put us in our place.”