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Watching the Watchdog: CBC's Going Down Without a Fight

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Watching the Watchdog: Save The National

Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs.

Program: The National, CBC

Date: Friday, March 16, 2012

Host: Kim Brunhuber

Once More With Feeling -- Leadnow, the newish Canadian youth-oriented group seeking change of the leftish variety sends me a message.

"We have learned that the Conservatives' proposed budget targets the CBC for severe cuts. The cuts, which could be the equivalent of most of the cost of producing CBC radio, will damage our news and culture, while cutting local coverage in the countless places where the CBC is the main media presence."

I've heard the same rumours. So I dutifully click the link "to send a message to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and key Conservative MPs that you want them to keep Canada connected, not make severe cuts to the CBC."

And go back to work on my book.

And watch CBC's flagship, The National.

And get angry at CBC.

All over again.

Once More With Anger -- The reason for this anger is that CBC -- represented in most of our minds by its flagship program, The National -- is fighting for its life.

Drastic budget cuts to the Mother Corp will automatically mean drastic budget cuts to what is by far its most important department -- News.

In the face of this threat, like any other organization struggling to survive, the CBC should be producing excellence.

Instead, it keeps pumping out notably mediocre entertainment. And The National, rather than getting better and better at informing and enlightening Canadians, which is what it's supposed to do, keeps screwing up.

Sometimes bureaucratic screw-ups: like that silly campaign to stop us knowing how much we pay Peter Mansbridge to read the teleprompter four evenings a week.

Sometimes journalistic screw-ups: like the anchoring and first two stories on last Friday's National.

Anchor Kim Brunhuber delivered his script as if reading to a slightly backward child. His labored, plodding, peculiar performance stressed the oddest and most inappropriate of words. Which seriously interfered with his job which is to deliver information -- and the meaning thereof -- in the most efficient and retainable manner possible.

Lead story was by Senior Political Correspondent Terry Milewski, normally a steady, reliable, rather one-note CBC journalist. He interviews two people who claim they got those robocalls -- and has them hold telephones to their ears and pretend to be listening to those callers. News, Milewski, isn't reality TV where everything is faked and fake is everything. In news, we fake nothing.

There's more. As you no doubt know, a news organization's claim to an "exclusive" story means it's discovered something of great import which the opposition -- to their considerable chagrin -- have missed. On Friday night, as second lead story, Sara Fraser had a nearly four-minute report trumpeted proudly as "exclusive" which was of no import at all. Unless you consider a story about a woman who survived a murder-suicide three months ago getting off a plane and being greeted by her family as important. Emotional, sentimental, even mawkish? Yes. Of import? No.

None of the above are mortal sins. I assume Brunhuber can be coached to behave like a normal person on air. Neither Milewski nor Fraser will likely burn in hell fire because of Friday night.
Even so, these things shouldn't happen in a professional TV newsroom. Particularly, when it's very survival is threatened.

CBC still has some of the best journalists in the country. Last Tuesday's National (which I didn't analyze at the time, now wish I had) was first-class. Crammed with excellent, well-told stories. Even Peter Mansbridge stopped pushing his voice out there to the far horizon and sounded like a real human being, speaking with feeling and involvement of things that mattered.

But it's CBC's screwups that, over time, make it seductively easy for Canadians to dismiss its programming, including its journalism, with the ultimate insult to any public service broadcaster: "It's just like the privates, so why should we pay for it?"

Which, in turn, encourages the Conservatives to believe, with some cause, that drastically cutting the CBC's budget will please enough Canadians to stir up votes. (Don't expect the CBC board of directors to protect the journalism budget -- not a single journalist sits on the board.)

Verdict -- CBC is the only national public service broadcaster we have. It's mandate, it's sole reason for existence, is to serve the people of Canada. To inform, enlighten and entertain. In that order.

All our other national broadcast networks are owned by telephone companies. And telephone companies, in case you haven't noticed, aren't in the business of public service.

Only profit.

I'm not suggesting the CBC should be spared when the knife slices. Certainly, it has its share of fat. Instead, cut its management ranks. Sell the grandiose CBC buildings in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Open storefront newsrooms. Become part of the people.

But save CBC's journalism.

It may not be perfect, but without CBC journalism setting at least some standards, the privates, in their drive to make more and more profit at less and less cost, will inevitably slash and burn their own newsrooms.

And we will all be the lesser.

In parting, I commend to you the motto of the Canadian Journalism Foundation: As Journalism Goes, So Goes Democracy.