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After Mansbridge, does the CBC have the courage to build a truly great news program?

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The latest watercooler chat among many Canadians this week is speculation about who will replace Peter Mansbridge as host of The National. Mansbridge announced earlier this week that after 30 years as host of CBC-TV's flagship news program he will step down next year on Canada Day.

Now CBC executives say they are going to usher in "the next phase" of The National.

Jennifer McGuire, the General Manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, told The Globe and Mail she sees Mansbridge's departure as "an opportunity to reimage the program." She said the CBC will look at increasing the digital delivery of The National.

Finding a new host for The National should not be the CBC's main goal.

CBC should address the fact that neither The National nor any other CBC news program is trusted very much by the public. The content of Canada's public broadcaster is just like programming at mainstream media -- and the public doesn't like either.

A Statistics Canada general social survey of national opinions for 2013 and 2014 revealed that only 40 per cent of Canadians had confidence in media.  

Canadians don't like mainstream news because they believe it lacks balance and that it reports lies.

The public is much smarter 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 only second to God when it came to telling the truth.

One of the reasons people mistrust programs such as The National is because we have access to excellent upstart news sources on the Internet. Many sites are run by talented journalists who have fled the mainstream.

Mainstream editors cut stories

People know mainstream media filter out stories that don't suit the owners idea of what should be news. For instance, corporate-owned media -- and even CBC News -- tend to paint a negative picture of organized labour, protest groups and some environmental organizations.

On the other hand, by the nature of its reporting, CBC News tends to endorse our current form of aggressive capitalism as being good for everyone. It seldom covers the negative aspects of giant international free trade deals for the public.

Worst of all, CBC News coverage of many international political stories is disgraceful. In May I analyzed the Canadian coverage of a trip by U.S. President Barrick Obama to Vietnam. Many stories were so pro-U.S. they could have been written by the White House.

The reason for Obama's trip reported by the CBC was that it was a goodwill visit. However, from what I could determine, no CBC News program reported he was there to discuss selling weapons to the Vietnamese that would be pointed at China.

The National needs a revolution

If the 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 reporting, as we say, "both sides of the story."

Content, not style and not personalities, should be the focus of a re-built National. For a start, many of those 1:10 minute long stories could be left to CTV, while The National should focus 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 from night to night to facilitate the coverage of stories of different importance.

For major stories, the evening news would 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, would 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 rich owners needed to find a way to stop journalists from writing scurrilous articles that got their papers into trouble.

Producing such a program would require a highly skilled staff and occasional access to experienced journalists/producers from other programs and even bringing in non-staff guests.

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 program would better serve the public.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who was Canadian Editor of The National for a period during the 1980s. He is waiting for a phone call from CBC brass so they can work together implementing his ideas. Nick is a frequent contributor to rabble.ca. Please visit his blog: nickfillmore.blogspot.com

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Image: Flickr/Thompson Rivers University

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