Broadcast veteran Tim Knight talks about how he lost respect for CBC's flagship news program The National on July 7, 2011. After 30 years of watching, some years of working there, and pages and pages of notes, Knight asks: Has The National lost its journalistic soul?
The date was July 7, 2011 -- the day Canada pulled its troops out of Afghanistan after nine years of brutal war ending without even a truce. One hundred and sixty-one Canadian soldiers and civilians died in that war. At a financial cost of some $18-billion. By the close of this day we’d lost more troops per capita in Afghanistan than any of the 21 other coalition nations -- including the United States which started it.
July 7, 2011 was the end of Canada’s longest-ever war. An historic, momentous day for our nation. A day to remember. A day to show respect. A day to mourn. A day to celebrate, perhaps.
Yet you wouldn’t have had a clue about this day’s significance if you watched the CBC’s flagship news program on the evening of July 7, 2011.
The National devoted its entire first section to coverage of Will and Kate smiling and shaking hands at the Calgary Stampede. (This followed endless, excruciating weeks of fawning over two pretty celebrities who had never actually done anything of note except get married and come visit us on their honeymoon. Adding to this fiasco, was The National’s hugely expensive weeklong pilgrimage to London to broadcast that wedding live.)
So the thirteenth day of the Will and Kate tour was lead story on The National. Then, after a commercial, a murder trial in Florida, floods in China, a stadium collapse somewhere and a dust storm in Arizona.
Only after all this entirely meaningless celebrity-adoring, foreign crime and weather did The National report on the end of Canada’s mission to Afghanistan -- the sixth story in its lineup, not from brutal, battered Kandahar, but voiced-over from Toronto, using free pool video.
July 7, 2011 was the day I finally lost all respect for The National.
I really, really didn’t want to write this story. The National is in my blood, a truly important part of my life. Back in the seventies, I wrote for, reported for, then produced the program. Back in those days we weren’t perfect, but we were always fiercely protective of its journalistic integrity, its rigorous journalistic standards, it’s mission to bring understanding of the world we live in, its dedication to reporting news that truly mattered. We believed absolutely that The National was the best damn newscast in the whole damn world.
Over the years since, however, I’ve watched it decline from proud, damn-the-torpedoes, public service journalism, to just another rather pointless, hungry-for-ratings, TV news program, no better than the private networks. (At least the privates have the excuse that they aren’t directly subsidized by Canadian taxpayers and aren’t, therefore, mandated to “serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.”)
In a cruelly ironic touch, The National’s campaign to persuade Canadians to watch the news we pay for was overseen by expensive American news doctors. If you really want more Canadians to watch, those doctors advised, don’t spend your money on all that international crap. Nobody cares. If you must run international stuff, you can get most of it for free from other broadcasters and do the voice-over here in Canada. Anyway, viewers don’t want you explaining the world they live in. They want “human” stories. They want celebrities. Crime sells. Disasters sell. Weather sells. Fires sell. Get with it Canadians!
The result -- The National today. A news program that’s lost its soul, its journalistic innocence.
The warning signs have loomed for years. I base this analysis on watching The National for the last 30 years or so. But also from notes (nine pages, 4,000 words) written after screening it every night for seven consecutive days, then re-screening the next day.
• A patronizing chief-anchor-for-life who can read a teleprompter without stumbling yet almost never actually seems to feel the scenes he describes. Unless it’s politics, his specialty, he rather obviously doesn’t care what’s in the stories, doesn’t see the scenes, doesn’t feel the emotions. Has no genuine human response. As a result, of course, neither does the viewer.
• Fill-in anchors, most of whom communicate no better than the ageing king, specialize in perkiness and fake smiles, talk down to us like elementary school teachers.
• Writing that mostly lacks insight, knowledge, wit, clarity and style. Writing filled with clichés, codes, bromides and jargon. Writing that too often tells the entire story in the anchor’s introduction, then has the reporter repeat the identical information in the body of the story.
• Reporters who still follow old newspaper style, starting the story at the end, the climax, then working back to the context. Reporters who seem to have no idea that good storytelling is almost always a chronological journey (context, dramatic development, moving inexorably to climax. In that order.) Why? Because in real life, cause usually precedes effect. And, anyway, life is chronological. Reporters who announce in a most unnatural manner and confuse speed and volume with energy and authority. Reporters who believe asking people-in-the-street silly questions about matters they can’t possibly understand is keeping in touch with the masses.
• And, of course, the aforementioned concentration on often-meaningless “human” stories the news doctors promise will make Canadians watch, thus increasing ratings and bringing glory to CBC executives.
• And much, much more.
I don’t blame the journalists -- that dwindling band of digitally-stained wretches -- who serve The National as best they can. In fact, CBC News still has a few of the finest, most dedicated journalists in all Canada. When they can get airtime, its handful of experienced, travel-worn foreign correspondents are among the very best in the world. Its investigations into wrongdoing are exceptional, if only occasional.
In the main, however, Canada’s public broadcasting flagship The National is no longer in service to the Canadian people. It would rather run “acts of God” disaster stories, and fawn over such as Will and Kate, than tell truth to power. It’s forgotten that as journalism goes, so goes democracy.
Simply put, the senior executives responsible for The National have gone rotten, abandoned the organization’s mandate and, in their frantic race for ratings, lost their journalistic focus and with it their journalistic integrity.
That sad, obsequious, pandering, insolent evening of July 7, 2011 was the inevitable result.
Tim Knight is a freelance Toronto documentary film-maker and communications trainer. He’s won Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi awards for journalism and trained thousands of working journalists in hundreds of workshops in a dozen countries. He’s worked for ABC, NBC and PBS and for 10 years was executive producer and lead trainer for CBC TV Journalism Training. His most recent book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor (lulu.com), is now in its second edition. Knight can be reached at www.TimKnight.org.