Story, not style
By Jim Poling
Published Sept. 22, 2016
Like a lot of folks, there was a time when I never went to bed without watching CBC’s The National. Like a lot of people now, I almost never turn the program on.
The National began losing thousands of viewers many years ago when it opted for personalities and style over solid, serious journalism. It became a water-filled balloon that developed a pinhole. Viewers dripped away, then dribbled and squirted out until the pinhole widened into an escaping torrent.
Now it routinely runs behind the CTV and Global national news in audience ratings. Its ratings are somewhere in the range of a specialty channel.
The problem with The National is that personalities are more important than the story. And in journalism, there is nothing more important than the story – the fair and factual story.
The most important personality at CBC, of course, is Peter Mansbridge, aptly named Pastor Mansbridge by Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle. He has announced he is leaving The National but is not retiring from the Mother Corp. He is 68 and will show up doing something else at CBC, no doubt being paid his million-plus bucks.
Nothing illustrates the CBC’s cult of personality more than his departure announcement. His last broadcast of The National will be July 1 next year, Canada’s 150th birthday. How excellent! Two major Canadian events the same day: Mansbridge’s last broadcast of The National and Canada’s 150th. Which would you vote for as the most important?
The National lost touch with Canadians when it decided that its intellectual superiority makes it the best editor of what news the great unwashed should receive. It represents the Toronto left-leaning establishment and Peter Mansbridge is the voice of that establishment.
We’ve all seen the scandalous results of the personality cult developed during Mansbridge’s painfully long run at The National. The Amanda Lang scandal in which The National’s star business correspondent was accused of taking speaking fees from companies on which she reported. She had a too cozy relationship with the Royal Bank of Canada.
Then Evan Solomon, once touted as Mansbridge’s successor, was fired when it was learned that he pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in secret commissions for art sales to people he dealt with as a CBC TV on-air host.
And Jian Ghomeshi, the CBC star who admitted a fondness for rough sex and who was accused of sexual harassment and assault. He stood trial for sexual assault and was found not guilty. The CBC had to dump him.
Mansbridge and Rex Murphy, The National’s annoying know-it-all, both crossed journalism’s ethical boundaries by taking big buck speaking fees from companies or others who might be in the news. CBC management said it was disappointed anyone would think that taking large speaking fees would affect any on-air person’s journalistic integrity. Then it turned around and forbid on-air staff from taking paid speaking gigs.
What it should be doing is forbidding anything that nourishes its personality cult. Like Mansbridge accepting the Order of Canada, which should be for people who work tirelessly, often without reward, for the good of their communities.
Mansbridge’s semi-retirement is a huge opportunity for CBC management to return The National to its years-ago position as a powerful news source for Canadians. It is an opportunity to give the news operation back to real journalists who see the story more important than themselves.
A “star anchor” to replace Mansbridge is not necessary. Let a variety of news people with on-air competency present the news stories that they are involved in.
Aside from dealing with its inner cancers, CBC also must reshape itself to become relevant in the online world of news. Online news is a revolution that has brought incredible changes, with more to come. We no longer need to turn on the TV at 10 p.m. to find out what is happening in the world. We already know because we get online news every minute throughout the day.
All traditional news outlets are struggling with how to survive in the new and changing world of news. When it all shakes out, one longstanding axiom will still be there: Content, not style and personalities is the key to good journalism.