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

Quitting Solves Nothing

Okay, okay, enough already, for three days I have been getting calls, emails, posts and pleas to wade in on the Kai Nagata story. Kai’s the former CTV reporter who worked in, or should I say was, the Quebec City bureau. He has walked away from his job at the naïve young age of 24 but not before writing an impassioned essay on why he left and what is wrong with broadcast, no, all of journalism.

Kai’s screed has been an internet sensation among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Not just because it was passionate and well written, but, because there are too many sorry truths to ignore in his ramblings.

Kai says he quit his job “…because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata’s main criticisms of his former profession are all right on the mark. He decries the need for good looks as a television reporter and says that sometimes, perhaps many times, looks are more important than the ability to report, write and produce top quality stories. He felt he could not do the kind of reporting he thought was necessary. He especially thought reporting on the Harper Government was a non-starter because his bosses did not want to tackle what he saw as the flaws in policy, those include Harper’s foreign policy which Kai believes has diminished Canada on the world stage, the lack of funding for science and research which he calls a “war” on science, and the Harper plan to increase prison sentences at a time when the crime rate is falling.

It appears that Kai was especially upset by the wall-to-wall coverage that Will and Kate got for more than a week on their Canadian tour. The royal romp across Canada seemed to upset him for two reasons, first, that while so many major stories were percolating all over the world, TV journalist wasted their efforts and broadcasters wasted their air-time on what is after all a very unimportant story. Second, he was disappointed to see and hear some of televisions best journalists stoop to become breathless groupies gushing over the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As I said, Kai was right on all counts. So I ask myself, why am I not as impressed with Kai as it seems most of the rest of my world seem to be?

First and foremost Kai answers my question by reporting that he had lots of journalistic freedom to cover the Quebec Assembly and Quebec politics. This was after-all his job and by his own admission he was allowed to do it and do it reasonably well. When he took the job in Quebec City he did not expect, or did he, to cover federal government policy.

Second, and probably most important, while it is true that broadcasters and newspapers sometimes abdicate their job, that of covering the most important stories, this so that there will be more room for the most popular stories of the day, the stories that will bring in many, many more eyeballs and perhaps help pay for the expensive services that journalists provide, it should be pointed out that over time journalists have done an excellent job of breaking extremely important news. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, I should not have to tell people what kind of work journalists can and do accomplish. Ask the starving people of Ethiopia if Brian Stewart’s expose of the drought was effective journalism? What about the coverage of Chretien government’s sponsorship scandal that may have brought down a political party? From tasers to tainted tuna we have all witnessed some excellent journalism by broadcast journalists who didn’t let the coverage of Princess Diana or the Bollywood film awards get in the way of the vital news they had to deliver.

I see people like Terry Milewski and Craig Oliver continuing to hold authority up to scrutiny. I see a new young guard of people like Omar Sachedina and Adrienne Arsenault who deliver the kind of stories that Kai says he wants to see. I see what could have and should have been an opportunity for a bright young man to take on the system and make it better. Alas he quit. He walked away when there was work to be done.

This is a case where being right doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing, I know because I made the same mistake once. I was news director at Global TV when the Oka Crisis was happening just outside Montreal. My boss, the vice president pulled my crew out of Oka without asking or informing me. I was shocked. I stormed into his office and asked him how he could pull our news crew away from the most important story in Canada? His response: Howard, we don’t have to cover it anymore. We got our license renewal on Friday.

I went down to my office and wrote a letter of resignation leaving 75 people to deal with an ignorant boss and a new toadie who would take over the newsroom.

To this day I regret the rash decision because I was in the process of turning Global News into a serious force in Canadian journalism. My departure left the wolves in charge of the hen house and it took a decade and new leadership at Global before they could start to claw their way back to credibility.

Kai Nagata seems like just the kind of young journalist the industry and the profession need to survive and prosper. Nobody has ever changed things for the better by walking away. By leaving he has in fact, helped those that seek to trivialize broadcast journalism and ceased to be of aid to those who want to make it better.

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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