Peter Mansbridge's abandoned CBC mission

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This would normally be a column I'd write at the time of Peter Mansbridge's retirement as CBC-TV's national news anchor, but I don't see any point in waiting since he's pretty much retired on-air. Not that he lacks energy, it's the mission he signed up for that's been abandoned. In that sense, it's also the epitaph of an institution: CBC-TV news.

The gold standard for anchors was the U.S.'s Walter Cronkite. He was ready to stand up against the state and the flow and was solid as the bronze statue of the American revolutionary minuteman who stood "by the rude bridge that spanned the flood/ His flag to April's breeze unfurled." He had rhetoric and a voice to accompany it: "All things are as they were then except -- You Are There." When president Lyndon Johnson heard Cronkite turn against the Vietnam War, he said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country." Compared to Cronkite, Mansbridge isn't an icon, he's a barometer.

He's happily gone with the flow -- and the pressure. CBC has become numero uno for crime stories, weather coverage (today's snow), product launches, celebrities and awards gossip. None of this is new, or news, and CBC itself doesn't contest the point. The penny story was another example but the one that probably propelled me into this anchor obit was their infinite overkill on the new BlackBerry. (To give CBC radio its due, Carol Off did an item about that on As It Happens.) Also, to be clear, the Z10 drowned in pseudo-journalism everywhere. That's my point: why have a public broadcaster if it duplicates everybody else's obsessions? Nor do I want to romanticize the old CBC news. It was pompous and often misleading. But at least it distorted stories I cared about. Now for vital (in my view) topics, I go straight to CP24. And CTV is a veritable oasis.

With that kind of groundswell could Mansbridge have made a difference? Possibly. Since, as former CTV and CBC news exec Wade Rowland says in a forthcoming book on the CBC, the anchor is "the 900-pound gorilla in the newsroom because he or she is the franchise, the immediately identifiable corporate face of a lucrative enterprise." Mansbridge had been known to throw his weight, and the occasional chair, around. But he rose compliantly to this bait, and also to his feet, hosting endless in-studio panels that replaced reporting and presumably saved money for the big screens and effects. New "journalists" materialized with pasted-on smiles, looking like they never left the building, to describe the stories they were "tracking" versus covering, all with no discernible effect on ratings -- the justification for the entire makeover.

I write this in sorrow as well as anger. Mansbridge is a big amiable lug who's hard not to like and why bother? He's a high-school dropout (who dropped back in to finish later but never went to university) and has the cheery quality of people who know they've surged beyond all expectations. He has an engaging naiveté. He once went to a big, elegant dinner hosted by prime minister Brian Mulroney and didn't know till years later, when a Mulroney flack told him on-air, that he, Mansbridge, was the target of the whole staged affair. He phoned me while throngs of people filed by the casket of Pierre Trudeau wondering what they were all there for. He was genuinely curious and didn't mind asking around. He's been comfy and chatty in his hosting/interviewer roles.

I'm not saying all hope is lost for CBC news; that would be stupid. Nobody knows the future -- though it's been far easier to change news culture there than it's been for Stephen Harper to change political culture across Canada. Some of CBC's news tradition -- good, bad and ugly -- survives in radio, and on TV, in Evan Solomon's politics show, even if that mantle has basically passed to CBC alum Steve Paikin at TVO. Nor are audiences passive; they don't merely respond to whatever's dangled before them. Eventually they assert their own needs, based on their real lives. But for Mansbridge, a moment of truth came and went in his career and he failed, unlike Cronkite, to take a stand. He coulda bin a contender.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: jon.hayes/Flickr

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