Finding a new host for The National should not be CBC’s main goal.
Peter Mansbridge’s long goodbye is a chance for our public broadcaster to face facts – Canadians don’t trust The National, in fact they don’t much like any of the mainstream news on offer.
A Statistics Canada survey of public opinions on Canadian institutions for 2013 and 2014 revealed that only 40 per cent of Canadians had confidence in the media.
The public is much more savvy and more skeptical when digesting the news today than it was back in the 1960s, when CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite was believed to be second only to God when it came to telling the truth.
One of the reasons people mistrust programs like The National is because we now have access to excellent upstart news sources online. Many sites are run by talented journalists who have fled what we now refer to as ‘mainstream media.’
Mainstream editors cut stories
People know mainstream media filter out stories that don’t suit the prevailing wisdom among economic elites of what should be news. Corporate-owned media and CBC News, for instance, all tend to paint a negative picture of organized labour, protest groups, and some environmental organizations.
By the nature of its reporting, CBC News tends to endorse our current form of aggressive capitalism as being good for everyone. When was the last time you heard a rigorous assessment of the negative aspects of giant international free trade deals for the public? Surely this lack of insightful coverage is a major reason for all the surprise this year as Brexit, Trump and other phenomena surged onto the scene, seemingly out of nowhere.
Perhaps worst of all, CBC News coverage of many international political stories is disgraceful. In May, I analyzed Canadian coverage U.S. President Barrick Obama’s trip to Vietnam, and found that many stories were so pro-U.S. they could have been written by the White House.
CBC reported Obama’s trip to be a goodwill visit. From what I could determine, no CBC News program reported he was there to discuss selling weapons to the Vietnamese that would eventually be pointed at China.
The National needs a revolution
If CBC wants to rebuild public support, it has to revolutionize how it approaches the news. The main goal should be to help people understand the news by pursuing insightful, rigorous reporting.
Content — not style and not personalities — should be the focus of a re-built National. For a start, many of those 70-second stories could be left to CTV, while The National focuses more on the big, important events.
The current, one-person studio set up should be thrown out the window. A new, more flexible set could be changed nightly to facilitate the coverage of stories of different importance.
For major stories, the evening news should be co-ordinated by the person who has the most expertise concerning the topic; perhaps the person who has researched the story all day. Other people who know about the story, perhaps including someone from one of the current affairs programs, could also be on the set.
Editors would need to have the insight and skills to write complete, balanced stories. For instance, if Obama makes claims about what is happening in Syria, the story requires a response from either the Syrian government or the Russians. Both the Russian and Chinese media should be monitored for possible stories.
Very important: The National should break away from the myth that journalism can be presented objectively. The lie of objectivity was created by newspapers many years ago when their rich owners needed a way to stop journalists from writing scurrilous articles that got their papers into trouble.
Producing such a program would require highly skilled staff as well as occasional access to experienced journalists and producers from other programs and even non-staff guests.
From where I’m standing, perhaps half of The National’s journalists have the skills required to contribute to a high calibre program. Others would have to be trained. To understand the kind of in depth journalism required, compare the reporting on The National with the journalism on BBC News.
It would take courage for CBC executives to create such a program. Any changes along these lines would bring howls from right-wing members of Parliament. But that’s okay. They’re always howling at something.
CTV has led The National in audience ratings for years, and they still might lead after these changes. What’s important is that a new, more in depth National would better serve the public.
Editor's Note: Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who was Canadian Editor of The National for a period during the 1980s.
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