I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The Reporters that got away

I was talking with a few friends recently, most of them still hard at work in the media, and eventually the discussion focused on the quality of television reporting. In general we lamented the poor reporting that makes its way on to the country’s airwaves. There have always been great reporters, there have always been competent reporters, but for the most part poor reporters seldom lasted, especially at the national level. Today we see far more of the latter and way fewer of the former. The merely competent remain in place at all the national network shows.

After a while we disagreed as to what was the cause of so many bad reporters plying their trade. Some say it is the incompetence of the bosses who wouldn’t know a great report if it hit them square between the eyes. Some blame the lack of a local feeder system at CBC that at one time provided all of the networks with the best talent and more important, a place to train where quality counted and a support structure was maintained to train young journalists in the fine art of story telling and performance. Still others say the workloads preclude quality. Once you have to do two, three and even four hits per day, you will never have the time to make your primary story excellent. One person blamed the “journalism” degree. He said we are graduating students who know how to shoot, edit, write and perform but there is little or nothing behind it. These graduates have no degrees in politics, economics, science, literature, history, geography, etc. They only know how to be journalists. In the past, before the journalism degree was a prerequisite, reporters came with degrees in all of the above mentioned areas and more. They had a level of knowledge and learning they could bring to a story or an event. To be fair there are many exceptions…reporters who are doctors and lawyers, correspondents with Masters degrees who majored in something other than journalism and the odd few who somehow overcame the bias towards a degree in journalism.

In truth there are elements of all of the above in the problems being faced today by those attempting to produce the best newscasts.

While we disagreed about the causes we all concurred on one thing: there are too few really great reporters to fill three network news organizations. Having said that, the position CBC finds itself in is all the more puzzling. Considering the fact that they lost their feeder system how could they let so many really terrific correspondents get away? The joke is, if you want to see the very best CBC television news reporters watch Global and CTV.

The CBC has never in my lifetime had a more mediocre to poor reporting staff. Sure they still have some very excellent reporters, my list includes Terry Milewski, Paul Hunter, Adrienne Arsenault, Neil MacDonald and Wendy Mesley, your may differ. Beyond these few holdouts from better days, the pickings are mighty slim. So you have to ask yourself, what were the honchos at CBC News thinking when they allowed so many of their best correspondents to get away? It’s a real poser.

At CTV Paul Workman and Tom Kennedy are two of the finest television reporters in Canada. They both came from the CBC. The circumstances were very different, but the result the same. Kennedy was never given the opportunities he deserved at the corpse and he fled. Workman was pushed out by incompetent managers who insisted he leave Paris and Europe where he had been a stalwart for decades. CTV also has Martin Seemungal whose enterprise as a one man band in Africa for the CBC was doing groundbreaking work; and Kevin Newman who was mistreated at CBC and practically forced to go to ABC in the United States. Wouldn’t Kevin look great hosting a political program on CBC? While anyone would be better than Evan Solomon, Kevin could make that show must viewing for political junkies. He would also be really great to have in the fold as the heir apparent to Peter Mansbridge.

Over at Global, someone had the very good sense to grab up Patrick Brown, the best Asia correspondent we have ever had in Canada. Nobody is more knowledgeable or comfortable with that posting. One of the CBC’s greatest blunders was allowing him get away. Also at Global Eric Sorensen is doing a great job. He was never given an opportunity at CBC. I tried to hire him when I was at Global. I could see that he had what it took to become a fine reporter and I have been proven right.

These six excellent correspondents alone could transform CBC news back into what it once was, a leader in the Canadian news business. They all came from CBC. They were all either ignored, pushed or mishandled. CTV and Global are richer for the blundering of CBC management. CBC is by far the poorer.

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16 Responses

  1. James Turner says:

    Howard, interesting stuff as usual.

    I don’t know if there’s one answer that can explain the problem you’re referring to.

    However, as a full-time, non-broadcast (print/multimedia) journalist (and a mostly content one at that) I can say that the daily demands placed on reporters from all fields in all media are growing to the point that quality can’t help but ride way at the back of the bus.

    Doing breaking news, Twitter, blogging, taking photos, filing to the web, video demands, answering reader emails, dealing with administrative issues and meetings while writing for the print product on deadline at a rate of 2-3 stories a day takes its toll on the end product.

    All that for a salary hovering around, but usually far less than $50K for a rookie (unless you can stand the brutal management style at CBC) and you can see it’s not going to draw a lot of premier talent that will stay in one place very long.

    My experience to date (6 years of full-time reporting at various agencies, including CBC) has been that there’s rarely ever any consideration of reporter or story development any longer.

    Look at the decline in beat reporting over the years across virtually all agencies and you’ll see how much management actually cares about breaking good, enterprise journalism that actually matters to people’s lives — and to the reporters who do the work. Not much, I suspect.

    A young-ish reporter (0-7 years on the job, say) these days is simply expected to sink or swim. Hardly a way to foster greatness.

    And that’s for productive reporters who show an interest in producing.

    I’ve worked with a lot of others who simply could care less, do little and nobody seems to care very much. That leaves the productive ones kind of scratching their heads.

    My gut feeling is that managers (most of whom haven’t been in the field for a long, long time) need to understand the old ethos where ‘it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’ is anathema to many young reporters these days.

    I’m not one of them, but I see it all around me.

    Cheers.

  2. Joe Clark says:

    All very nice, but if you’re going to lambaste journalists you consider incompetent, do so by name and get a comment from each of them.

  3. Max says:

    I agree with Joe Clark on this one. What I immediately wanted to know was which reporters you felt were incompetant and why so I could contrast them with those that you felt excelled.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Joe, Max…I don’t disagree but since quality can be as much the fault of the managers as of the reporters and because performance can be seen as subjective I hesitated to name names. Perhaps that was wrong, I’m not certain. However, if it will make you happy, I think Reg Sherren, Melissa Fung and Ron Charles are not reporters that I would hire for a national newscast.

  4. Dave says:

    And risk the defamation lawsuit? Why?

    You know who’s reporting is not up to snuff when you ask the following questions:

    1. Is the reporter’s pieces primarily wire/press release stuff?
    2. Has the reporter never done an in-depth piece?
    3. Does the reporter’s bias show in their piece?
    4. Has the reporter’s quality dropped off?

    I am sure you can come up with other questions.

    However any news outlet that demonstrates consistently bad reporting – you look to management. A fish rots from the head down.

    Two trends that struck me, one the shallowness of opinion journalism – almost everyone wants to become a columnist these days and don’t have any idea what to do when they become one. Secondly, the quality of journalism in isolated pockets of the internet. Sure most of the internet is s##i but there are ponies in there.

  5. Jason says:

    I agree with James Turner.

    Do more with less money. The winners will be the ones who can file for print, TV, and what’s left of radio, while looking pretty and acting like they care…all the while amassing Twitter and Facebook followers, keeping in touch with said followers all day and night, and if you’re with a certain organization……part of a recognized minority. Diversity is KING.

  6. Turk says:

    Howard,

    If it were up to you, which reporters would you choose to be part of CBC’s National broadcast?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Turk…As I have said before, a large part of this is subjective. Sometimes a reporter’s style, and even the stories they choose, appeal to some of us while they turn off others. For me Terry Milewski is as good as it gets in Canada. He is tough, straight forward and totally believable on-air. I have always been a fan of Wendy Mesley’s reporting, although I liked her best in Ottawa where she was uncompromising in getting to the heart of every story she reported on. Patrick Brown is a star correspondent because his knowledge is second to none and he delivers the goods. I think you may see a pattern here. I like no nonsense reporters who work as hard at getting to the nub of the story as they work at delivering their stories. Finally, what all of these fine reporters have is the ability to write. With desks in Toronto and New York rewriting so much copy these days, it is possible to be a successful reporter without the ability to write. That’s too bad. Good writing from the reporter who was on the scene can make or break a television report.
      In the past I have worked with a few reporters who deserved to be national correspondents at the CBC but were passed over for reasons I could never fathom. Claude Adams and Havard Gould are better reporters in my estimation than many if not most of the current CBC roster. Leslie MacKinnon is a great documentary reporter who has been forced to cover daily news in Ottawa. Janis Mackey-Frayer at CTV is a truly fine reporter who seems to be able to handle the most difficult stories. Worth mentionning at CTV is the work of Avis Favaro who is the best medical beat reporter in Canada, Joy Malbon who can do human interest stories like nobody else and Omar Sachedina who is a star in the making. And, lest I forget, for me, the best reporter in Canada is Linden MacIntyre at the 5th Estate.

  7. James Wicks says:

    Howard,
    Back in 2009 I tackled the same issue from a different angle in a video blog that I created called, Just Sayin’.
    You can see it here: http://bit.ly/ve5Bpg

  8. Farmpunk says:

    I know this is a TV thread, but I’ll toss CBC radio on the table for discussion.

    CBC Radio has at the national level: Mike Hornbrook. Dave Seglins. Micheal Colton. Susan Lunn. Jennifer Westaway (gets my vote for best delivery). James Cudmore. And more. As well as a collection of regional talent that probably aren’t given enough chances to shine.

    I think TV reporting needs to evolve away from “national” types. Give reporters with the skill to shoot and edit their own material (with proper producer support from start to finish) room to do original stories. Then squeeze the story until it is dead or has evolved into another story. Try and get a bit more creative than the clip\script\live format which is deadly boring and looks so dated it’s almost a parody.

    • hlbtoo says:

      You’re right, farmpunk, CBC radio is doing much better than TV. As far as the tv reports are concerned, I just wish people would start reporting again, I mean tell stories. It seems the national correspondents from CBC and CTV just grab local footage, or from BBC or CNN if they are outside of Canada, rework it and add a stand-up. More often than not the national reporter has never been on site at the story. He or she reads the wire copy, steals a few shots from local news, does a live-ish intro, voices some of the footage (probably scripted in Toronto), finally does a live-ish debrief. Where’s the reporting exactly?

  9. Johnny Insider says:

    Howard,

    This is a much needed post. Though I strongly disagree with you on your list of top CBC reporters, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed in an open, frank way:

    Diversity.

    Over a decade ago, in a process that began under Tony Burman, the CBC finally woke up and realized their on-air personnel did not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country. Study after study (both internal and external) showed that CBC was seen as predominantly white and middle-aged, and “out of touch” with the lives of ordinary Canadians.

    In response, the CBC began looking for ways to “diversify.” The current crop of reporters you now see, by and large, are a continuation of that process. Most local markets are now doing well on-air when it comes to diversity (behind the scenes, it’s a very different story as management are nearly all white and in their 50s). But in their rush to add visible minorities, they overlooked one key component:

    Talent.

    In the new paradigm, actual on-air talent and experience took a backseat to being young and a visible minority. During the last “relaunch,” decisions were being made entirely around ethnicity. Management literally sat around a table. One senior leader decided Mark Kelly’s show was “too white” and that “it needs a young South Asian girl.” Same held true for how they tried to re-jig the National, and CBC News Network. The small handful of managers who initiated the relaunch and rebranding treated it like assembling a cast of characters. They established diversity “quotas” which had to be met – for each show and each market – sacrificing genuine, reportorial on-air talent in the process.

    The Kim Brunhuber boondoggle is exhibit A. McGuire et al. decided CBC needed a photogenic, black, male (which the CBC has never, arguably, had) that they would deploy and promote the hell out of, to showcase their commitment to diversity. Kim B fit the bill so they moved him from a floundering, short-term reporter in MTL to permanent network reporter and anchor, building an entire country-wide marketing and promo campaign around him. As anyone who saw the internal promo, and it was clear they were grooming Kim as Peter Mansbridge’s replacement. In doing so, the CBC alienated much of their own staff, including many longtime senior producers and reporters who were left wondering why primetime opportunities were being given to people who are clearly out of their league – while CBC veterans like Patrick Brown, Paul Workman, Duncan McCue, Andrew Nichols, Diana Swain, Eric Sorenson, etc. had all been shafted.

    It was only recently that management realized the mistake, quietly removing Brunhuber from all promos and relegating him to the marginal weekend anchoring shift. Word is they are looking to divest themselves of the mistake. But like too many CBC moves, they’ve locked themselves in.

    None of this is to say diversity isn’t important. It’s critical, now more than ever. But there’s a right way to do it. CityTV and CTV seem to understand this, hiring on-air staff who are talented AND belong to visible minorities. The CBC, and perhaps Global, on the other hand, have a long way to go.

    Just my two cents.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Johnny, your points are well taken…I wonder why CTV had no trouble finding capable, talented visible minority reporters?

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