Veteran broadcast newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs.
Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Subject: CBC News and the budget cuts
Unkindest cut of all -- The dreaded 2012 Conservative budget comes out on Thursday and terror stalks the gloomy halls of CBC.
HuffPost's Althia Raj has learned that Heritage Minister James Moore, up to now a rare defender of the CBC in Conservative ranks, is going for the whole enchilada. Not just a five per cent cut, which was the CBC's realistic dream, but ten per cent, which is the CBC's worst nightmare.
If it so comes to pass, I predict a frightening future faces Canada's only national public service broadcaster, the people's network. Quality will drop everywhere. There will be firings, mostly of newer, younger people. Regional stations will close. And staff morale, already miserable, will plunge to even deeper depths.
I worked for CBC for some 15 years as writer, reporter, and producer. Always on the news and current affairs side, so I don't know much about the other departments in the corporation. But I do know a fair amount about the news department, by far the most significant and important part of Mother Corp.
For all its manifold and manifest flaws, CBC news has always set the Canadian standard. It still has some of the finest journalists in the country. Journalists dedicated to public service. Journalists who believe their jobs are to serve the public's right to know, without fear or favour, and are fiercely proud of their independence from political, corporate, or commercial influence.
I also know that if CBC news is devastated, the private broadcasters will pop open the champagne and gleefully cut their own news budgets. The following day. Likely to the bone. And we -- and democracy -- will be the lesser.
The choices -- I believe that when the budget smoke clears, when the tumult and the shouting die, only two choices will remain for CBC News.
The first is to accept the inevitable, dutifully do the culling and sullenly carry on much as before.
The second is to re-think the CBC's entire approach to news. And abandon the blatantly populist Eyewitness News concentration on disasters, crime, weather, and smartass over-enthusiastic reporting. (Full disclosure: back in the early 70s in New York, I was a reporter/producer for the very first Eyewitness News. It soon became the world's most popular and, I believe, deceitful news format.)
It should be replaced with what former CBC executive Jeffrey Dvorkin calls: "context-rich programs, seamlessly linked to the news online."
As Dvorkin points out, Canadians already know what's happening through online information outlets like all-news channels, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. "Now they need to know why."
That's the key. The why. The single most important question in responsible public service journalism.
Forget all that routine disaster, crime, and weather (which make great and easy video) unless they're really significant and/or have some meaning. Instead, concentrate on the bringing of understanding.
What does the story really mean?
How will it effect the people involved?
How will it effect Canadians?
Will it bring understanding?
Verdict -- It's not too late for CBC News to regain the public trust which is so essential for a news organization and was once was its proud hallmark.
As the great poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his epic poem Ulysses: "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."
In fact, whatever happens on Thursday's budget announcement, this is exactly the right time for CBC News to adopt a new motto, taken from the last line of Tennyson's poem: "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."
And get its pride back.