I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Looking for Bias

Over the past several weeks the CBC has once again come under fire from Conservative politicians and conservative rabble rousers for their perceived bias. This has been a regular occurrence for decades. I was with The Journal when Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister and quickly began attacking the CBC. He hired a former CTV newsman and executive to look into the pro-Liberal leanings of the staff and management of the national broadcaster. Since there was never any action that resulted from the inquiry I have to guess that the powers in Ottawa could not find what they were looking for.

At the time I had only been at CBC for a short time and I was surprised by what I had found. I too believed there was a liberal bias, that is, until I arrived and started working with the CBC. Sure there were Liberal and NDP supporters on staff. There were also many Conservative supporters working at The National and The Journal. And guess what, the conservatives were actually the people in power, the decision makers. Barbara Frum would never admit to it, but she was always pushing the conservative viewpoint. In fact she would call her husband, a devout Conservative, and ask his advice before most political interviews. I never asked Mark Starowicz who he voted for but he always struck me as leaning to the right. There were similar stories at The National. As any reasonable person should suspect, there are people of all political stripes working throughout the media and all we should care about is there ability to do their jobs as professionals, not who they may vote for if an election were held today.

More to the point though, I was generally impressed with the fact that the stories that got to air were not particularly affected by any personal bias of the reporters, producers and writers. The staff were, in fact, professionals who were attempting to get their stories right with no time for the political games that politicians or fanatical viewers want to perceive. There have been the odd exceptions but those exceptions have popped up on all the networks and on all sides of the stories.

Now along comes Stephen Harper and his hatchet man Doug Finley along with Conservative Party President John Walsh to renew the CBC bashing when the going gets a little tough for his party. I suppose attacking the CBC might make a few people ignore Afghanistan and Guergisgate, but I suspect that CBC news has slipped far enough from the consciousness of Canadians that the ploy won’t do the Tories any good.

The Harperite attacks should have been ignored by the brass at the “corpse.” They were not. In fact CBC management has over-reacted big time. The CBC’s defensiveness will do more harm to their cause than anything the Harper minions could accomplish themselves.

The first big response was President Hubert Lacroix commissioning a study. How Canadian. Lacroix announced that a team of outside experts would conduct an independent review of its news gathering and delivery. How’s that for a vote of confidence in your staff? The results are due in the fall. How does one measure such things? If the CBC covers Helena Guegis are they being anti-Tory? What about covering a Liberal policy conference? Is that pro-Liberal? It’s a mugs game that will provide the answers that Hubert Lacroix wants or needs. If he needs an excuse to hammer his people into being easy on Harper, the panel will find a pro-Liberal bias. If he wants to back his peeps, guess what? There will be no bias at all. I can’t imagine anyone accepting the results of the study unless it agrees with their preconceived notions.

For 25 years in news I was called too far left by conservatives and too right wing by liberals. I always considered this a badge of honor. Nobody likes the coverage when they are dealing with a negative story about themselves. In the case of Parliament, the party in power always takes more hits than the opposition. Heck, they are making the policy and thus they are open to criticism. Lacroix should understand this and not respond in any other way than to show confidence in and watch the backs of his professional team of journalists. Any other response only leads to more charges and the growing of the story.

Unfortunately the CBC did not stop at a study. In response to the charges that CBC is using a Liberal pollster, Frank Graves, someone at the CBC went really overboard and opened the corporation to far more questions from both within and without. They went out and hired former Harper aide Kory Teneycke just weeks after he left the PMO. Inquiring minds have a question about Kory Teneycke’s new job…NDP MP Charlie Angus’s question to the Ombudsman was how CBC justifies hiring him when there is supposed to be a 2 year “cooling off” period. This is indeed the question that is raised most with the people I know.

But there is another question…who exactly hired him? Nobody I spoke to at CBC ever heard of one person being hired on what we can only presume is one contract to do a multitude of appearances on SEVERAL different programs. Did all the news and current affairs producers just happen to get together and try to entice him to accept such a deal. The ones I spoke to had not been contacted about the hiring. Or, as seems more likely, did CBC management hire him, and then proceed to ram him down the throats of CBC executive producers? Once upon a time, program producers decided who would be guests on their programs.

The CBC is being run by “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Every move they make seems to result in another hole in their feet. If Hubert Lacroix really wants to fix the CBC he should begin with a long and hard look both in the mirror and at the folks running the place and leave the politics to the politicians.

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Where is the new Ted Koppel?

Every once in a while you know you are going to say or write something that will get you into trouble. I’m afraid this is one of those instances. Some of you will disagree with me. Some of you may even be mad at me for what I’m about to write about.

After 40 years of paying close attention to television news and current affairs I’m afraid I have to report that the art of the great interview is dying.

I am amazed at the lack of interviewing talent that exists on network TV and radio in both Canada and the United States. In fact, I will go further. I am astounded at the lousy interviewers that inhabit our airwaves today.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Ted Koppel was a great interviewer when he hosted Nightline at ABC. In my mind he was the best interviewer I have ever seen or heard. His interviews were always focused. He asked the questions the audience wanted answered. He never competed with his guests. He was fearless, never backing away from asking the tough questions. He always did his homework. He was an even better listener than he was a talker. He never failed to follow up when a guest said something that needed follow up. In short, he was an interviewing god. Every television and radio host should be forced to watch a thousand hours of Ted’s work so they can see how it should be done.

There have been other great interviewers. Edward R. Murrow was a pioneer on television. The hosts of 60 Minutes have distinguished themselves. I am sure I am missing many, many great broadcasters from the golden ages of TV and radio. But who stands out today? Name somebody? When I asked friends and colleagues this question most were stumped. One said Charlie Rose. Are you kidding? He never asks a tough question. He spends most of his time trying to look smart and in the process talks about things no audience member knows or cares about. His interviews are about Charlie Rose, not his guests. Another mentioned Bill Moyers. Still another friend said Farid Zakaria; interesting names, but not a real interview “star” among them. More interesting still is that not a single Canadian broadcaster came up on anyone’s list.

Heck, Canada is the country that produced Barbara Frum and Patrick Watson. They were both icons of the interview, fearless questioners who put the audience first in their attempts to get to the heart of a story. So what is happening here in the great white north?

For most of my lifetime the CBC, especially CBC radio has distinguished itself with excellent hosts and interviewers. I already mentioned Barbara Frum but Michael Enright, Marylou Finley and Linden MacIntyre stand out as broadcasters. They dominated the national radio scene when they were on Sunday Morning and As It Happens. Many people loved Peter Gzowski. I didn’t. I thought his interviews were about Peter. I would call him a great radio personality not an especially good interviewer. I once heard him compare himself to Nobel Laureate I.B. Singer when he was interviewing him. I also heard him tell Annie Lennox that he had never heard of her and then ask her why she was a guest on his show.

Michael Enright is still doing a fine job hosting on Sunday mornings. Linden MacIntyre is still doing great work on The Fifth Estate but where is the new crop of talent? The CBC claims they want younger viewers but most of their young talent is not up to the task. For sure George Stroumboulopoulos is glib and personable but does anyone expect great insight or fierce journalism from George? I think not. Jian Ghomeshi always sounds like he is reading his questions from a script. He doesn’t listen to his guests. I know this because there is seldom follow up when a guest says something surprising. As far as the journalists are concerned, Peter Mansbridge is obviously a news reader when he interviews. There is seldom the feeling of a discussion and far too often he goes into Charlie Rose mode, trying to show how smart he is and forgetting that there’s an audience watching. The only time Anna Maria Tremonti surprises is when she asks another inane question that is far off topic. The Current is everything that’s wrong with CBC radio today, simplistic stories, bad guests, poor questions, I can’t think of anything that’s good about the show.

So who do I like? I think Steve Paikin at TV Ontario is the best interviewer in Canada today. I think he could be a little tougher; it upsets me when he starts a tough question with “some people say” or “some people think” as if it is not his question, but on the whole he is more engaged and more informed than anyone I see or hear today. He also brings one more big plus to his interviews: he seems genuinely excited to be there. You can be both entertained and informed by a Steve Paikin interview, a rare combination these days.

While I’ve got your attention I want to mention some former broadcasters who seldom get their due and one radio host who deserves to be lauded for his fine work. Norm Perry was the real deal when he hosted Canada AM. He was always prepared and the story always came first. He never got the attention he deserved.

I worked for two years with Larry Solway. Most of you don’t know who he is but let me assure you, I never worked with a better interviewer. He was tough, honest, smart and always thoroughly prepared.

I was lucky enough to do work with Valerie Pringle on a show for Vision TV. She was amazing. Her depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues was almost superhuman given the circumstances. She never failed to make a bad interview work and a good interview better.

Finally I want to give kudos to Bob McCown. He is hidden away on sports radio and television but he is the consummate broadcaster. He knows how to get to the nub of a story as well as anyone in the business and perhaps more important he understands that his job is to both entertain and inform.

Interviewing is a fine art. I hope the folks who run TV and radio in this country appreciate the difficulty and complexity it entails and look more critically at what they have and as important what they don’t have. If they do we may yet see more Ted Koppels and Barbara Frums on our airwaves in the future.

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Walter Cronkite and the Golden Age of TV News

One of my favorite lines about the sixties states that if you remember them, you weren’t there. I am not sure what I remember and what I don’t but there are some memories that do stand out: the assassination of President Kennedy, the arrival of the Beatles, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, The Vietnam War, Kent State, the moon landing, and I know I’m stretching into the early seventies, the Watergate break-in leading to the Watergate hearings and the downfall of Richard Nixon.

If you asked me what all of these events had in common yesterday I would have waffled and come up with some platitudes about the “hippy” era and the baby boom. Today the answer is clear to me: they mark a golden age of television journalism. The golden boy of that golden age was Walter Cronkite.

It will be hard for anyone under the age of 50 to understand the real power of television news in the sixties and seventies. Without understanding that power it will be impossible to understand the greatness of “Uncle Walter.”

Just about everyone in North America got almost all their news from television. Polls at the time said 75% got 100% of their news from TV. And the man who was the most trusted man in America through those times was Walter Cronkite, a news anchor and journalist.

When Walter was the anchor at CBS I never knew the name of the CBS national newscast. I never heard anyone say they were going to watch The CBS Evening News. You said you were going to watch Cronkite, or Walter, it was like calling all tissue paper Kleenex, Walter Cronkite was more than the brand he was the product. Nobody before or since in Canada or the United States has come close to that kind of power and reach.

Whenever I hired a news anchor it was Walter Cronkite I sought to find. I remember telling my boss at CBC that no host of a show is a success until the host’s name replaces the name of the program in the viewers’ minds. So what was I looking for? I wanted a person who had real journalism experience in the field so that they could empathize with both the reporters and the subjects of the stories. I wanted a person of integrity for whom the story was everything. I wanted someone who was willing to display their humanity on air. Most of all I wanted someone the audience immediately trusted. Walter Cronkite had all of that and one more thing, perhaps the most elusive thing of all, he was a star.

You see it has always been my belief that television is one of the greatest lie detectors man has ever devised. When someone is talking to you on TV you somehow know if they are telling the truth. You can read their character. In 1960 people who heard the debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on radio thought Nixon won the debate. Television viewers were even more certain that Kennedy won. Viewers know when a host or anchor is being real. I believe the success of Lloyd Robertson is that he is exactly the same on and off camera. You see Lloyd on TV you know the man. In Canada, Barbara Frum had many of the same qualities. In the U.S. Johnny Carson was the only person that was in the same league as Walter.

Unfortunately there will never be another Walter Cronkite. Sure there will be great news people, great television hosts, but the world has changed. Television news will never be as important as it was. The internet has seen to that. The opportunity to speak to and sometimes for all the people just does not exist anymore in any medium.

The TV news business has changed too. It used to be a reporter centric medium where the guy on the site of the story provided the all the answers. Today it’s the news desk that writes and produces the stories. The reporter in most cases is just a face holding a microphone. It’s not a lack of reporting talent, it’s a lack of time. In the golden age a reporter had to produce one quality news story per day. Today they have to file for radio, TV, the internet and in some cases for multiple newscasts all day long. They have no time to think let alone assess a story.

Speed has become as important, if not more, than accuracy. And the technology allows for live reporting from any scene anywhere in the world. That means an anchor sitting in New York or Toronto is expected to comment on a story that’s happening right now in Teheran or Beijing. If we have the live pictures we go to air. The technology that was supposed to make TV news more accurate has in fact devalued the news. How can a man or woman sitting at a desk really know what’s happening 10,000 miles away?

A more important change has occurred since the Vietnam War. Politicians came to understand the power of TV. President Lyndon Johnson, I believe was first when he was quoted as saying that when he lost Walter Cronkite’s support for the war in Vietnam, he lost the American people. He decided not to run for re-election. Smart politicians since that time have learned the art of spin. Spin doctors are among their most important staff members. The purpose of all of this is to manipulate the media. In Walter’s time the media, to quote Marshall McLuhan, was the message. Today they are pawns to the message. The power has shifted. The Carl Roves of the world are better at getting their stories out than the reporters that cover them. Carl and his buddies have the time, the expertise and the money. All the reporters have is a camera and a microphone…easy pickings for the pros.

In the end it is no surprise that TV news just isn’t what it used to be. There are too many factors weighing against television journalism.

So when we look back at Walter Cronkite’s career and his amazing accomplishments we should shed a tear not just for the loss a great pioneer and icon but for television journalism. Walter Cronkite is both an example and a symbol of what it has lost and what it has become.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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