What the decision in a dispute between CBC and Ahmar Khan proves about how Canadian news organizations fail racialized journalists
In a decision released Wednesday, an arbitrator ruled that the public broadcaster “acted improperly” in firing CBC Manitoba journalist Ahmar Khan after he set off “a chain of events” with his tweet calling Don Cherry’s final on-air tirade “xenophobic.”
However, a closer examination of those events, involving Khan, a colleague, his manager as well as higher-ups at the CBC, raises serious questions about a professional culture that outwardly strives to “improve diversity and inclusion” yet fosters an internal environment that systemically fails racialized journalists.
The grievance centred on the 2019 termination of Khan, who was fired after a colleague searched private messages on a shared computer, which, according to the arbitrator’s account of events, revealed that Khan had told Canadaland about his boss’s directive to delete the Cherry tweet.
The colleague, CBC Manitoba reporter Austin Grabish, has since said on Twitter that he was motivated to report Khan for what he described as “a thread of misinformation about the CBC and several homophobic messages,” including a slur he said he was “disappointed and hurt” to encounter, based on his experiences with homophobia as a gay man.
Grabish reported Khan to CBC Manitoba managing editor Melanie Verhaeghe, who, the arbitrator’s report said, believed the instigating tweet had violated CBC’s code of conduct. In his written decision, arbitrator Lorne Slotnick said that Grabish viewed and sent the messages to Verhaeghe and that some of them were cropped, omitting contextual information (a detail Grabish disputes in his recent tweets).
“I don’t condone or believe in discrimination of any kind,” Khan said in a statement to J-Source. “I and a friend were mocking a friend who uses that word. Later in the same text message, we told that friend he needs to not use that language as it’s derogatory and hurtful. This important context was omitted from the selective texts that Mr. Grabish decided to showcase.”
While Slotnick wrote that the breach of privacy over the search of Khan’s shared laptop “far overshadowed” other reasons given for his dismissal, the chronology of events vividly detailed in the arbitrator’s report is especially illuminating.
It highlights the ways in which Khan’s fellow journalists contributed to a culture that is prevalent in most Canadian newsrooms, one that promises informed reporting on issues of social justice but fails to deliver when it comes to supporting journalists who challenge the notion of “objectivity” in journalism, or so much as comment on these issues when they occur in their own news organizations.
The decision offers a case study in how a hegemonic newsroom culture shapes racialized journalists’ experiences and creates hurdles that slow and erode their potential for success within an organization.
1. Lack of organizational support for journalists who receive hate messages.
In newsrooms, lived experience of racism and hate is often minimized in favour of third-party evaluations. According to the arbitrator’s report, Verhaeghe forwarded threatening messages Khan had received after his tweet to the CBC’s head of crisis management and emergency preparedness, who wrote back that “while extremely unpleasant I don’t see a threat.”
The threshold for what is considered a threat appears to be unclear and expert judgement outweighed Khan’s own experience of the messages. In the case of Global News host Supriya Dwiwedi, who resigned in December after being the constant target of vicious comments from listeners of her radio show, the lawyer for Global’s parent company told her that if she “cannot tolerate the trolls of social media, then she does not belong in talk radio as practiced in North America.” It’s appalling to see Khan’s and Dwiwedi’s own experiences of racism discounted so summarily.
2. Barring journalists from expressing “opinions” on issues of basic human rights.
Making basic news-related judgements based on an anti-oppression framework is often seen as the equivalent of stating an opinion. The CBC code of conduct cited in the decision says “the expression of personal opinions on controversial subjects, including politics, can undermine the credibility of CBC journalism and erode the trust of our audience.” When Muslim journalists in Canada, including Khan as noted in the text, posted about Andrew Scheer’s failure to identify Islamophobia as the motivation behind the Christchurch massacre, were they expressing opinions or asking important questions?
It echoes the difficulty many news editors still have in labelling a politician’s racist remarks as “racist” instead of the gentler, more ambiguous “racially charged.” In Slotnick’s decision, he wrote that he supports the idea that Khan sincerely believed the rules were being applied selectively at the CBC. Khan wrote to the Canadaland editor: “white journalists at the CBC do (this) all the time, but nothing is ever done.”
3. Continuing on a Quixotic quest for objectivity and lack of bias.
Last July, in a letter to CBC senior management, members of the Canadian Media Guild equity committee urged the CBC to “take action to dismantle systemic racism” within the corporation. They expressed frustration with “white managers who treat their POC subordinates as adversarial by default, leading them to feel that in order to succeed at the CBC, they must leave their humanity at the door.” In the chronology of events in the Khan case, Paul Hambleton, who is in charge of CBC’s journalism standards policy, told Verhaeghe that Khan “isn’t the first employee to feel this way and not only about Cherry. … If (he) wants to be an activist, he should step down.”
How can you draw a line between activist and journalist because someone called out racism in your organization – or anywhere for that matter? You could argue that a news organization’s decision not to name white supremacy or Islamophobia is a bias in itself. Racialized journalists are rarely afforded the privilege of objectivity, wrote former CBC Radio producer Pacinthe Mattar in The Walrus. They are unfairly shouldered with not only having to prove the veracity of the stories they tell about marginalized people, but also with having to prove a lack of bias in their own reporting.
4. Fostering a culture of unhealthy competition.
At the beginning of my newspaper career, I worked for an editor who liked to boast that he believed in “the conflict school of management.” He pitted reporters against each other for bylines and it resulted in the newsroom’s constant preoccupation with where you stood in his highly subjective estimation. In explaining his decision, Slotnick said the actions of Verhaeghe and co-worker Austin Grabish, who told his boss about homophobic slurs he found after searching What’sApp messages on Khan’s shared laptop, “suggest a somewhat enthusiastic plan to cause trouble for an employee who was viewed by some fellow employees as a problem.”
It’s unclear why Khan was cast as a difficult colleague in the past, though that label is often used to describe journalists who question the status quo and offer alternate perspectives. The CMG letter also notes that “25 per cent of CBC workers are precariously employed. Those temporary workers are disproportionately young and racialized — in other words, the very people the CBC must retain and promote if it is to reach its stated goals for diversity and inclusion.” In Khan’s case, targeting a precariously employed racialized colleague for being difficult takes them out of the running for future opportunities.
5. Reinforcing organizational hierarchies and power structures.
In the wake of Slotnick’s decision, CBC senior managing director John Bertrand sent a note to the newsroom in which he reiterated Khan’s status as a “temporary reporter,” expressed his support for Verhaeghe and Grabish’s “very difficult and deeply emotional 24 hours” and repeated spokesperson Chuck Thompson’s words that the broadcaster’s “actions were not considered discriminatory and there was no Breach of Human Rights law.”
His message will no doubt have a chilling effect on CBC’s racialized journalists. In November, CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon announced plans “to improve diversity and inclusion,” but how can news organizations effectively deliver on the promise of new equity initiatives when they still have yet to do the hard work of dismantling a system that has historically failed racialized journalists?
Since Khan’s dismissal, journalists, including Mattar, Chatelaine executive editor Denise Balkissoon and Refinery29 senior editor Kathleen Newman-Bremang, have spoken publicly about their experiences in Canada’s predominantly white newsrooms. While the fight for equity within news organizations has a deep legacy, it has recently been galvanized by an unprecedented sense of urgency, sparked by the treatment and media coverage of violence against Black and Indigenous communities and individuals.
In my journalism classes, we discuss journalist and author Desmond Cole’s column about leaving the Toronto Star, as well as the impact of tweets from editors at the centre of the “appropriation prize” controversy.
Khan’s case is another critical example to add to the conversation. The fact that he was willing to take his case to arbitration, despite the personal and professional costs involved, is a story that I’m looking forward to sharing with emerging journalists, and especially racialized students, who struggle to find journalists like themselves thriving in Canada’s newsrooms.
Asmaa Malik is an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University.