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Watching the Watchdog: CBC Proves Broadcasters are Human

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Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular blog to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast news programs. Today he examines Sunday's The National on CBC.

Episode: CBC's The National

Date: Sunday, March 12

Anchor: Paul Hunter

The Way It Was -- Way back in the 70s, I was a producer/anchor on a national media review program, Behind the Lines, on PBS's New York station, WNET. In the next-door office lurked an extraordinary Canadian anchoring and producing an extraordinary news program called The 51st. State.

The Canadian's name was Patrick Watson, formerly producer and co-anchor of the CBC's splendid This Hour Has Seven Days which aired for just two years before furious politicians (often its targets) forced CBC to kill it.

I call Watson extraordinary because his show, 51st State, broke all known rules by ignoring news conferences and PR events and encouraging reporters to find their own stories out there on the mean streets. Even more unusual, it allowed interviewees to explain their point of view for longer than the conventional six seconds.

I call Watson extraordinary because he did something I'd never seen on TV news before and seldom since. He didn't just read his script like all the other anchors and reporters (including, I confess, me), he talked directly to the viewer, one human being to another, about things that mattered. No pushed, fast, loud, ballsy voice, no fake emphasis, no attempt to make everything seem desperately important.

Watson genuinely saw the scenes he was talking about, felt -- and showed -- appropriate emotional reactions to them.

His interviews were just as extraordinary: Polite, probing, dogged, contemptuous of bafflegab.

Watching Watson anchor the news was being privileged to be part of a fascinating conversation over a couple of beers with a really intelligent and informed savant. Because he thought aloud rather than read, I retained the information he broadcast, considered it, agreed or disagreed with its point of view, and left feeling I'd actually learned something important about the events of the day.

In fact, it was the first time -- and very close to the last -- I ever saw a newscaster interact with the viewer. Patrick Watson was years ahead of his time.


The Way It Could Be --
Which bring me to Sunday's The National.
I'd meant to write about something entirely different and was watching purely because I'm a newsman addicted to news. Sometime I learn things, but too often I just get mad about how the news is done so badly and so seldom brings me understanding of my world.

Anchor Paul Hunter is thankfully low key and unobtrusive, if a little distant from the information. But it's two reporters on the show who really surprise me.

Kimberly Gale used to live near the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant that part-melted down a year ago. Now, she goes back to check on the damage, reporting from a train while it trundles through the area. She doesn't say anything of any importance. No melodramatic recounting of the tragedy, no speculation -- informed or otherwise -- about its terrible impact on the people.

Instead, she just talks to the camera, sometimes her words covered with quake footage. No script. Just Gale. And somehow, because she's thinking aloud and not merely reading, her report captures a little of the human meaning of the tragedy, brings me some small understanding of it.

Even more impressive is a roughly 20-minute report from Nick Purdon in the manner of both The 51st State and Seven Days. His narration is low-key, thoughtful, and he's particularly good at using natural sound -- pausing narration and interviews to allow viewers to think and therefore absorb information.

His interview skills are first class.

Purdon meets up with vigilante group The American Border Patrol, which tries to keep desperate Mexicans from sneaking across the fenced border into the U.S. Last year, 250 illegal immigrants died in the Arizona desert.

First he interviews Glenn Spencer, leader of the group.

Spencer: "This (fence) represents the defense of western civilization."

Purdon: "Really, isn't this a little extreme?"

Spencer: "No. It isn't ... this is the barrier to destruction of western civilization and civilization on our planet."

Purdon: "The Anti-Defamation League says you're a racist."

Spencer: "The idea that I'm a racist is an attempt to shut me up and blackball me."

Purdon: "How long you gonna do this?"

Spencer: "I'm not gonna give up. I'm gonna get the border controlled or die trying."

Next, Purdon meets people from the Green Valley Samaritans who, instead of trying to stop Mexican immigrants, help them with food, water and medical supplies. When Purdon asks why they're doing it, the answer is simple: "to keep people from dying. Give them enough of what they need ... not to die in the desert."

Purdon's story gives me a new understanding of the seething anger in conservative America -- as well as the traditional generosity of so many Americans.

Verdict: Because reporters and producers, like everyone else, enjoy Sundays off, Sunday night news programs are normally a grab bag of whatever's lying around on the shelf and what little can be scraped together from the assignment editor's diary.

But this edition of The National showed welcome initiative, particularly in the choice of two such human segments.