02/20/2013 05:24 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Watching the Watchdog: Does The National Need a Shake-Up?

Rick Salutin is a journalist, novelist, playwright and critic who's made a writer's living in and around Toronto for some 40 years. He recently wrote a column about Peter Mansbridge, anchor of CBC's flagship news program The National. It wasn't a flattering column.


Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Rick Salutin, is a journalist, novelist, playwright and critic who's made a writer's living in and around Toronto for some 40 years.

For roughly half that time, Salutin wrote an acerbic, lefty, intellectual outsider's-view column for the Globe and Mail. He did what journalists, novelists, playwrights and critics are supposed to do -- comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Then the Globe, presumably somewhat uncomfortable about those columns, fired him. So he recently turned up writing for the Toronto Star instead.

Wherein he wrote a column about Peter Mansbridge, anchor of CBC's flagship news program The National, headed:

"CBC's Peter Mansbridge coulda bin a contender. Veteran anchor has presided over the long, slow decline CBC news."

It wasn't a flattering column. Some excerpts:

[Mansbridge has] pretty much retired on-air ... 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.

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.

Mansbridge [has hosted] endless in-studio panels that replaced reporting and presumably saved money for the big screens and effects.

For Mansbridge, a moment of truth came and went in his career and he failed... to take a stand. He coulda bin a contender.

Chris Selley, swiftly picked up on Salutin's points in the National Post:

Rick Salutin, writing in the Star, says some rather nasty things about Peter Mansbridge ('he's pretty much retired on-air') and absolutely nails the current problem with CBC's television news: 'Why have a public broadcaster if it duplicates everybody else's obsessions?'

Jump forward to the letters-to-the-editor page in Sunday's Toronto Star and a reply to Salutin's column on Mansbridge. This from Kirstine Stewart, who's CBC's Executive Vice President, is a very important person and isn't impressed.

If Stewart's letter was written for her by her public relations flack, the flack should be fired.

If she wrote it herself, she needs to be a helluva lot more specific. Either way, she merely ignores Salutin's complaints and is curiously silent about any particular sparkling qualities Mansbridge might bring to CBC's journalism and The National.

Instead, a few bromides with no facts and no meaning.

He leads "an award-winning team and has been instrumental in establishing CBC News as a widely recognized, world-class news organization" is about as explicit as she gets.

Of course, CBC News was a great deal more "world-class" long before Mansbridge or Stewart arrived. It used to be compared favourably to the BBC, upon which it was modelled. No longer.

Stewart then writes rather oddly and without detail:

"[Mansbridge] sets a high standard in his field, is an award-winning leader and is CBC's 'franchise player.'"

OK. So he's the leader. The star around whom The National's team is built. Its most important player. It seems appropriate therefore, in the light of Salutin's column, to examine the program's latest edition and check out how Mansbridge is doing.

Tuesday's night's National was one of the best I've seen in a long time. Mansbridge was involved emotionally in most of the stories (which isn't the norm at all) and guided us through the hour with authority and skill.

Just for once, there was no concentration on Salutin's "crime stories, weather coverage, product launches, celebrities and awards gossip."

Nor did the reporters -- as so often happens -- repeat all the housekeeping details already told us by the anchor.

What did stand out was confirmation of Salutin's "Mansbridge [has hosted] endless in-studio panels that replaced reporting..."

Talk about endless. A Bottom Line panel discussed "The Bitumen Issue" about Canada's oil economy and took almost 17 minutes out of The National's news hole which is roughly 46 minutes. That's more than a third -- one out of every three -- of the precious minutes allotted to the whole hour.

What's worse, the damned panel (starring Mansbridge, Amanda Lang, Jim Stanford, Patricia Croft and Preet Banerjee) was incomprehensible.

Maybe it made sense to oil barons and the folk who buy and sell oil shares. Maybe it made sense to the panelists, although I doubt it. And I doubt too if ordinary viewers like me ended the 17 minutes knowing any more about Canada's oil economy than when it began.

Except, perhaps, that the whole oil sands issue is incredibly confusing.

According to Stewart, Mansbridge leads this National team. Which means, I guess, that he makes the decision on what goes into the hour. And he decided to allot that 17 minutes.

Maybe someone else should take over the leadership and leave a seemingly revitalized Mansbridge to get on with the anchoring.