Asking Tara Henley to explain what she means

The former CBCer said she was stifled by the broadcaster's "radical political agenda." We wanted to know: how so?

In 2020, Tara Henley published Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, a nonfiction look at burnout that drew heavily on her 2016 experience of leaving a contract job at the CBC in search of a healthier existence.

“Had I really given up a fantastic gig at the heart of Canadian media, inspiring colleagues, a solid social circle, and an upscale apartment for this? For fruit flies and financial instability?” she asked in the bestseller’s first chapter. “Had I traded security, success — glamour, even — for fresh air and some vague suggestion of work/life balance?”

Having since rejoined the CBC, she once again left in December, this time laying out her reasons for departing her contract in a January 3 Substack post, “Speaking Freely: Why I resigned from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.” Accusing the public broadcaster of having dispensed with core values in favour of a “radical political agenda,” Henley’s 1,000-word missive made a far bigger splash than her 336-page book.

The next day, her dispatch ran on the front of the National Post and on page 3 of the Toronto and Ottawa Suns. By the end of the week, the former associate producer for various morning radio shows had spoken with Fox News and was getting cited in a Conservative fundraising email blast.

She’s also the guest on this week’s CANADALAND, where host Jesse Brown presses her for evidence for her contention that the CBC’s ostensibly “woke worldview” has come at the cost of journalistic integrity and coverage of issues that matter:

What follows is a condensed and edited version of that conversation:

Jesse Brown: What I didn’t get a good sense of from your piece were specific instances in the newsroom where a “radical political agenda” stopped you from doing the kind of serious journalism that you think the CBC should be doing. Can you provide some specific examples from your newsroom experience?

Tara Henley: I’m not going to say anything about my colleagues, and I—

Brown: Don’t use names, but speak freely. Tell me about stories you wanted to tell that you couldn’t tell and how the “radical political agenda” stopped you.

Henley: I think what’s happening is there are multiple pressures that are converging on the newsroom all at once. So first of all, we’re in a pandemic. Current affairs is usually this massive mix of stories, right? We’ve been doing two stories a day on Covid for a really long time. And then there’s the pressure coming from Twitter, which shapes the dialogue and sort of reinforces certain ways of looking at things. There is also the pressure from above: there is definitely a specific set of ideas on how to diversify the newsroom and how to diversify our guests. I will never argue against diversity. This is about the how.

Brown: So tell me how the woke “radical political agenda” of the CBC stopped you from doing stories you wanted to do.

Henley: There are some guests that are considered problematic to book. Sometimes it’s very subtle. I’m talking about an atmosphere in the newsroom that makes critical thinking really difficult and that makes it really difficult to represent a plurality of voices.

Brown: Can you substantiate that with examples from your experience?

Henley: The examples in the piece that I think really matter are the Dave Chappelle example and also the vaccine mandates. Those are two stories where I really didn’t see an appetite, and I just didn’t see a lot of opposing views on those.

Brown: Did you work on those stories?

Henley: On Ontario Morning, no, we did not work on the Dave Chappelle story. The vaccine mandates, I absolutely worked on that story.

Brown: And what was forbidden speech on the vaccine mandates?

Henley: It’s not about forbidden speech. This is not how it works.

Brown: Or forbidden arguments or forbidden guests?

Henley: I’m not saying I’m being censored. That is not what I’m saying at all.

Brown: But you are saying in your piece that certain ideas were not welcome, and you just told me certain guests were not welcome.

Henley: This is about a bigger picture of how this operates. This is about all of these different pressures all at once, contributing to an atmosphere that is really stifling and that does not encourage us to look at different perspectives. I’m talking about the ethos in the building right now, what people are telling me, what people are talking about.

Brown: You went viral with an essay saying that everybody who works there has abandoned their journalistic integrity.

Henley: That is not what I was saying at all.

Brown: “To work at the CBC in the current climate is…to abandon journalistic integrity.”

Henley: This is my experience of working at the CBC.

Brown: Did you abandon your journalistic integrity when you worked there?

Henley: I felt like there were many times, as we were going through story meetings, as we were trying to figure out stories, as we were going through the process, that I felt like it was not possible to represent a plurality of voices.

Brown: Can you give me an example of that happening?

Henley: Yes, I can. I think that, you know, in terms of the race conversation, it’s very hard to book a Black conservative. It’s often very hard to get someone like Jamil Jivani on the air.

“We have gone from that kind of MLK idea of colourblindness and ‘judge me on the content of my character and not on the colour of my skin,’ and we’re now moving into this other idea”

Brown: You tried to get Jamil Jivani on the air, and you were told no?

Henley: It’s not how it works at all. It’s the conversations about who we’re gonna talk to and who we’re not gonna to talk to. This stuff is very subtle, and it’s also something that I think that the audiences can pick up on immediately. I’m not arguing that we should not cover identity stories. What I’m arguing is that we need to increase the perspectives that we are showing and that we are talking about.

Brown: You say that you don’t want to single anyone out, but in your piece you said that the CBC shouldn’t be prioritizing stories about “non-binary Filipinos concerned about a lack of LGBT terms in Tagalog.” That is a specific story that was written by one of your colleagues about how, in Tagalog, there’s a word for “gay” and there’s a word for “tomboy,” but there’s no word for any other type of identity. You were saying that that’s the wrong kind of story.

Henley: No. That’s not what I was saying at all. I have no problem with that story being covered. It’s the second part of that, when local issues of broad concern go unreported. What I’m arguing for is all the stuff that’s not getting resources, all the stuff that is not getting delved into. We are not talking about the billionaires and the wealth gap. We are not talking enough about the opioid crisis.

Brown: To do this in a substantiated way would be to do an analysis over time of where resources have gone or where the coverage has shifted or who they’re hiring. Another way to do this would be from personal experience, to say “I worked there for eight years and I’ve got 10 examples of this happening.” But I’m not hearing that. The idea that that story about Tagalog took something away from more serious stories is a binary you suggest, and I just don’t know how you got there.

Henley: I think that the public response is demonstrating that these editorial priorities are pretty obvious to the public.

Brown: I don’t think you can just say, “The public shared my story a lot, so obviously it’s true.” If you’re gonna say that covering identity issues takes away from covering the opioid crisis, it’s quite a claim.

Henley: What do you think is wrong with the CBC right now?

Brown: How much time do you got? I have a whole podcast. I felt like the big flaw in your piece was that you defined the CBC itself as being politically radicalized. I have never met a political radical in a senior editorial position at the CBC. My experience of the CBC was that there are a lot of great journalists there, but management, it’s almost like a government ministry. It’s a big bureaucracy. So one day under Stephen Harper, when I worked there, the marching orders were, “We need to balance this with conservative thought. Where’s the conservative on this panel? We’re going to get beaten up for being too lefty.” And then the political winds change, because there is a reckoning in newsrooms across the world right now.

Henley: When you talk about the leadership not being to the left, I think we’re kind of confusing the woke worldview with actual leftist politics.

Brown: What is the “woke worldview”?

Henley: Well, let’s talk about specific issues. So if we talk about obesity, there’s a narrative on obesity. If we talk about gender issues, you probably have noticed that the CBC has sometimes started using words like “birthing person” or that type of language.

Brown: I just searched “birthing person” on the CBC website, and it came up twice.

Henley: Yeah. It’s there.

Brown: You specifically criticize the practice of having to fill out a form when you book a guest that tells management if they were white or what. But the statistics have been conclusive: the makeup of the guests who are on the air has not been representative of Canada. It’s been overwhelmingly white on the CBC and on other media. My understanding is that racialized journalists at the CBC fought very hard for that just to be acknowledged, for the CBC even to count those numbers and then to move on to saying, “Okay, we have a responsibility to actually reflect the Canadians who pay for us to do this and to reflect their points of view and to not be a racist workplace.” I don’t know how you do that if you don’t count who’s on the air.

For the launch of CBC/Radio-Canada’s 2022–2025 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan, Anand Ram, a producer for The National, explained how the CBC tracks the diversity of people appearing in its content.

Henley: I respect that view, and I have a different thought on that. So first of all, the process is very strange, because you’re booking a guest, but it wasn’t a case where you could ask a guest how they identified, because it wasn’t a public project. And so you’re kind of like rooting around on social media, trying to identify the race of the guest. I found all of that a very weird process.

Brown: The point I took from your essay is that we shouldn’t be tracking these things. Did I get you wrong?

Henley: I’m not saying that. What I’m talking about is the approach. I found it very, very weird to be profiling people by race, and I don’t know that race is the best way for us to represent a plurality of views. So what will happen oftentimes when we take this approach of trying to increase the racial diversity on the air, we’re not increasing the diversity of thought on the air. You will still have a lot of guests who are professionals, who are downtown Toronto, who have a certain kind of political leaning. That’s what I was trying to get at. I’m not the perfect person to talk about this, but when we talk about race, the thinking on race has really begun to shift, right? We have gone from that kind of MLK idea of colourblindness and “judge me on the content of my character and not on the colour of my skin,” and we’re now moving into this other idea where the way to best represent racial justice and diversity is to look at the exact demographics of a population and try to apply those demographics onto institutions.

Brown: When we made it that “we’re all colourblind here in the newsroom and we just put the best ideas on and we want people with great opinions,” it ended up being a lot of white people. Do we have an ethnic and racial diversity problem that we need to fix in media?

Henley: Of course we do! I would never say that we don’t.

Brown: You talk about the public reception to your piece as if everybody was like, “Yes, we want to help fix the CBC with Tara.” But I don’t know if Fox News or the right-wing British press gives a damn about fixing the CBC. And when Erin O’Toole says he wants to sit down with you to get your thoughts on fixing the CBC, I know that that’s a leader of the Conservative Party who wants to defund and gut the CBC.

Henley: Let me just go on the record right now and say that I do not support that at all.

Brown: Do you think that the conversation that you’re now going to be hosting on your podcast and your Substack is with an audience that wants to work with you to reform public broadcasting? Or do you think that you’ve kind of been embraced by the people who hate the CBC and want to see it die in fire?

Henley: Did you read any of the comments on my Substack page?

Brown: I did.

Henley: I found them overwhelmingly thoughtful and overwhelmingly across the political spectrum and really wanting to have different conversations about all of this. I can’t be responsible for who on the political spectrum identifies with ideas that I’m putting out there and who doesn’t. That’s an unsustainable idea as a public person.

Brown: The Conservative Party of Canada just sent out a fundraising letter referencing your piece.

Henley: You can’t be responsible for how an audience picks up what you’re saying.

Brown: You wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail about the former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and how she successfully converted her viral resignation letter into an $800,000-a-year gig. Is that what you’re trying to do?

Henley: Absolutely not. If I was trying to do that, do you think I would be writing about current-affairs nonfiction books? I mean, it doesn’t sound like the biggest cash grab in terms of an audience, does it?

Brown: Where I hear the most informed and thoughtful and frustrated criticism of the CBC’s dogma and policies is from racialized journalists, who are watching management stumble and get it wrong, and only call up a certain Black pundit when there’s a Black issue, and shoehorn journalists behind the scenes into certain beats and stories. But in your setting up the tiny bit of headway that has been made in diversifying the CBC as the reason the CBC sucks now, it feels like a lot of heat where there could have been light.

Henley: All of us want a better CBC. That’s the common ground. Nobody is satisfied with where it is right now. And I think that’s a really big problem. There’s a lot of different concerns and a lot of different ways that we can move forward, but that’s the issue. Nobody’s satisfied with what we have right now.

CANADALAND requested an interview with a CBC representative, specifically Nick Davis, who’s in charge of diversity efforts there. That request was declined.

But Chuck Thompson, the CBC’s head of public affairs, offered a statement:

We respectfully disagree with Ms. Henley’s perspective. A few minutes on Google Search will surface countless recent CBC News stories on the very subjects she claims we’re ignoring, from the housing crisis and affordability to the epidemic of drug overdoses.

It’s somewhat ironic Ms. Henley laments the state of our journalism, after CBC News, Current Affairs, and Local received a record number of award nominations in 2021, including for the Michener Award, the country’s highest journalism honour.

We do not apologize for broadening and deepening our journalism by bringing more voices and perspectives to our stories. Our mandate calls for CBC to be predominantly and distinctly Canadian, reflecting the regions and the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.

Canada is changing. It is imperative that we continue to evolve and grow, too.

Top image includes Henley’s author photo by Rebecca Blissett, as well as the two-page spread devoted to her Substack post in the January 4 Toronto Sun.

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