The Canadian government spends about $1 billion each year on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which serves markets both large and small with radio and television programming — including news and entertainment — designed to preserve what makes us distinctly ourselves.
In this role, CBC Radio is unequaled in this country. So the title “Jian Ghomeshi, Canadian public radio host” quite misses the point. It fails to convey the depth of his cultural power, the importance of his platform, or the part he played in the national psyche during his years as the host of the arts show “Q” on CBC Radio One.
Most of us “knew” Ghomeshi, in a sense. He was in our homes. He spoke to our children.
And most of us who didn’t know him very well thought he was a nice guy. Until 2014, when Ghomeshi released a detailed and shocking Facebook essay ahead of, what he believed at the time, would be a published exposé into his conduct with women. The host had been fired after he showed his bosses graphic images, the result of notable violence, that he claimed was proof of consensual BDSM-style sex.
Sure enough, the Toronto Star published several pieces. Among the most disturbing details listed: several women said Ghomeshi kept a stuffed animal known as “Big Ears Teddy” in his room and turned the creature away before he engaged in violent acts like choking and slapping. “Big Ears Teddy shouldn’t see this,” a woman recalled him saying.
Most notably, these women refuted the notion that they consented to violence. Ultimately, 24 accusers came forward with stories — though few allowed themselves to be named and only three allegations were heard in open court.
Ghomeshi, with the aid of an exceptionally competent and expensive lawyer, was acquitted. For Ghomeshi’s critics, the trial highlighted the failings of the criminal justice system — a living example of why women don’t come forward with allegations of sexual assault. As the result of a separate court proceeding for sexual assault, he was forced to admit to wrongdoing and to apologize to a former co-worker whom he harassed at the CBC. All this was enabled by a toxic host culture at the organization: Ghomeshi’s celebrity — his platform — enabled him to behave abominably toward his colleagues.
He has also been accused of abusing that platform by allegedly trading a sexual encounter for a job interview on his show. So while Ghomeshi was, indeed, acquitted, he was never really found to be innocent.
There was too little evidence to convict him of a crime, perhaps. But that did not mean he should be allowed back into the tiny realm of power and prestige of the Canadian media elite.
Those who place their faith in the court process were horrified by this outcome, of course. But Ghomeshi’s exile did seem to serve a kind of natural justice; it was, truly, a sentence handed down by a jury of his peers.
All anyone could do was wait for the day when he would attempt his comeback. And, lo, he did so in the October issue of the New York Review of Books, in an utterly self-pitying, poorly written and indulgent personal essay: “Reflections From a Hashtag.”
The decision to publish Ghomeshi’s essay led to the ouster of NYRB editor Ian Buruma, which was announced on Wednesday.
Most of the criticism of the essay tended toward the easiest tack: the media loves a redemption arc. By giving Ghomeshi a platform, the magazine contributed to the terrible asymmetry between the public abuser and the silent or anonymous abused. No national publication is going to run 24 first-person narratives from the women Ghomeshi allegedly harmed.
But I do not believe that simply giving Ghomeshi a platform was Buruma’s primary sin. No publication exists solely to give voice to the aggrieved. Anyone, even the very evil, can have something worthwhile to offer — even if only to allow some splinter of insight into their own dark natures.
No doubt Buruma will have his defenders. Those who will see this as a frightening precedent: Twitter mob overthrowing an established and prestigious editor over a controversial bit of work.
But Buruma’s failure was not that he gave Ghomeshi a platform, but rather that he gave the former radio star a pass.
“Reflections from a Hashtag” is rife with omissions, obfuscations and manipulations. Any competent editor willing to skim Google should have been able to challenge this writer on any number of points. (Independent media website Canadaland offers some basic fact-checking here.)
Buruma’s lazy moral equivocation was on full display in a stunning interview in Slate. He failed to do his due diligence, the most basic duty as editor. Had Buruma done his job, Ghomeshi’s essay would have read very differently. As it stands, the former radio star betrays no genuine remorse and seems like a man gaming out every social interaction, relentlessly searching for advantage and weakness. The essay revealed a man who has not changed at all.
It also reveals the blind spots, agendas and prejudices of the people who failed to see Ghomeshi for what he is.
I do not believe that most of Canada remains so confused, however. Q has been re-branded to “q,” fronted by a new host. The CBC continues. The country, and the platform that once served Ghomeshi, have moved on.