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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Global gets Serious

Global’s national newscast has never been taken very seriously by anyone who works in the news business. Sure they got good numbers when Kevin Newman came on board, he was a terrific anchor. But who and what did Kevin have behind him? That was always the question. Could anyone name any of Global’s reporters? Did any of them make an impression?

The truth is that Global News has long been known for spending all its money on big name anchors. Kevin Newman and now Dawna Friesen are the latest of a long line of excellent hosts that date back to Peter Trueman, Thalia Assuras and Peter Kent. Unfortunately the people who ran Global, never saw the necessity of hiring excellent reporters, writers and producers to back up the fine news readers. They were all about the big splash, the advertising potential attached to the big name on air.

When I worked there, the folks in charge told the CRTC they had a budget of close to $13 million for the newscasts. That was a blatant lie. Close to half the news budget was appropriated by every other department at Global. It was a ruse to make it look like Global was spending big bucks on Canadian content. Somehow, they got away with it. It was so bad that the bosses refused to allow me, the News Director, to see a copy of my own budget.

Needless to say I did not last long at Global. After I was hired with loads of promises about improving the newscasts, it became abundantly clear that there was no truth to the promises. I had a plan to upgrade the staff, create beats, and solidify the reporting by bringing good people in from the outside and training the people on the inside. Every time I wanted to move ahead with my plan I heard another excuse as to why we couldn’t do it right now. First it was the union negotiations. Then it was the ownership fight. Finally, in my time at least, it was let’s wait until Izzy Asper completes his remake of the station.

In the end nothing ever got done because Global saw news as a distasteful obligation that had to be done to keep the license and CRTC approval. I was told to my face by one vice president, if I spend a dollar on news I will be lucky to get back seventy-five cents, if I spend a dollar on U.S. programming I would have to be an idiot to not get back two dollars.

Global News did not create stars or even good reporters for themselves. When they lucked into an excellent reporter or producer they tended to run to CTV or the United States at the very first opportunity. Global was seen by many young television news people as a way into the Toronto market where, if they did a great job, they would be seen and snapped up by the opposition who took news seriously and were willing to pay a decent salary for someone other than the anchor.

I know, I know, I am going to hear the argument about the relatively good ratings Global gets. It’s true. Global National does very well, and their local newscast is a strong second to CTV in many markets. I believe that has had more to do with smart scheduling, great lead-ins, and a long line of popular hosts. Ask viewers to name the reporters or react to which story drew them to Global and you would draw a blank stare.

A while ago the disastrous ownership of the Aspers came to an enforced end and Shaw picked up Global for a song. Nobody knew what that meant for the future of Global News. Today we may have heard our answer. Global announced that they are hiring two of the better journalists in Canadian Television history.

I have had the pleasure of working with Tom Clark at CTV. He has always been an excellent journalist and in any people’s opinions, including my own, a fine on air talent. I was sorry to see him leave CTV when he didn’t get Lloyd Robertson’s job and I am happy to see him back where he belongs with a national broadcaster.

More surprising however, was the announcement that Patrick Brown was hired to be the Beijing correspondent. Nobody in the business, at least anyone that I have ever spoken to, questions Brown’s ability as a fine foreign correspondent. He had a long and distinguished career with CBC and earned all the accolades he has received with excellent work. I have never worked with Patrick but I know he has reputation for being very prickly, very difficult to work with. I can’t say whether that too is well earned. What I do know is that a Beijing Bureau is a very expensive proposition and demands a lot of travel around China and Asia, this exactly the kind of expense that was unheard of during the past ownership of the network.

So kudos to Global for these two moves. Maybe we are about to see the long promised third option, with Global as a serious national television news source, actually come to fruition. I know everyone in the news business hopes so. We will all be watching closely to see if these hires are backed up with the kind of upgrades that Global News needs to be taken seriously.

Filed under: Media 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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