Separating Evan Solomon's conduct from CBC culture is hard to do

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I can imagine Evan Solomon preparing a pitch to the dragons on CBC's beloved Dragons' Den -- beloved by CBC itself. "I traffic in people of great power. That's my world," he says, repeating a line from a recent profile. Then he continues: I leverage these relationships -- make connections -- to orchestrate deals and I take a percentage. No labour or startup costs and the returns are huge. As you guys say, Greed is good. The dragons raise a few doubts over his public role and this biz on the side but they like it. They're in.

Evan is surely the boss of his own conscience but still, he may have found it confusing at CBC regarding what was valued there. Big emphases on money-making and business shows, led by the happy crassness of Kevin O'Leary till he very consistently dumped CBC, having made his rep there, for bigger money in the U.S. Vast discrepancies between salaries and deference paid the top dogs/hosts, who often do little of their own work, and the grunts they depend on. Even the ads that clutter broadcasts. Isn't this supposed to be owned by the people? You don't get such messiness at the BBC.

There's always been something odd about news with sponsors. For years, Eaton's (you can Google it) ran the biggest ads in Toronto papers and used that to suppress all stories about union drives there. One of TV's earliest newscasts was Camel News Caravan; picture it reporting links between smoking and cancer. It's often been a tricky balancing act but especially at a public, non-profit network. I suppose privatization will eventually smooth out the kinks.

I've known Evan since he was a McGill undergrad. He said he thought we had similar interests in theatre and religion. After his studies he returned to Toronto to start a small literary magazine. But he quickly realized, he said, that it would be "dead in the water" -- which I think meant long years of struggle with at best small success -- so shifted (the magazine was Shift) to pop culture and tech; then used that as a platform to propel himself into broadcast media, always aiming at CBC. In this way I think there are parallels with Jian Ghomeshi.

Both grew up feeling Canadian in ways defined by institutions like CBC. Ghomeshi's band, Moxy Fruvous, was seen as custom built for CBC radio: lyrics referencing CanLit etc. (Both also flamed out at 47. Should there be a 47 Club for self-immolating Canadian culturati, parallel to the 27 Club for rockers?)

Then they get there and it's not as advertised, it's bending over before the forces of power and commercialism. If money doesn't rule, fame does. In one of Ghomeshi's late interviews, with Adam Cohen, son of Leonard, they moaned about how painful the need for fame can be. Cohen said "the old man" wouldn't stop recording, instead of getting out of the way. "I hear you, man," said Jian, or something -- I can't quote since the actual interviews were expunged by "our" network. Did they feel some confusion and anger at being deceived, like Willy Loman's son finding his idolized dad down and out in a hotel room? It's rare to watch a national institution undermine itself so artfully.

Of course CBC won't ever be an enclave of pure resistance to those forces since it's part of the same society in which they're ascendant. But it could put up a fight, even while recognizing them inside its own culture and workforce.

Evan had become very good at what he did, I'd say, and really was serving Canadians, far more than others there. He'd become a rare practitioner of the follow-up question, instead of letting politicians brush past him.

It's fun to imagine him interviewing himself about his excuses for his transgression. Wasn't what he had as a journalist enough, why did he use it to reach for something tawdry and less desirable? What does that say to young journalists? Does it reflect his lack of initial commitment to journalism: that it was mainly a means to an end, which was vague and ego-driven? Is this just another tale about what used to be called the bitch goddess, Success? But CBC has its role in this failure too.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Alex Guibord/flickr

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