Peter Mansbridge’s long goodbye is part Derek Jeter, part Alex Rodriguez.
Mansbridge — a rabid sports fan — shares a great deal in common with the now departed Yankees in ways that immediately spring to mind.
Like Jeter, Mansbridge announced he was going away ages before he went away. Jeter’s career was celebrated at ballparks during his long so-long tour and I suspect Mansbridge’s career will be celebrated by local CBC television stations during his own long goodbye tour, while more discerning journalists privately hold their nose.
And like Rodriguez, Mansbridge is leaving tarnished and bruised. Like Rodriguez, Mansbridge waited too long before bidding his teammates adieu. And like Rodriguez, Mansbridge’s celebrity and the fawning adulation of his admirers inside and outside the CBC clubhouse blinded him to the fact that he should have left “the chair” a lot earlier.
Others have written about how the role of the Voice of Walter Cronkite — or God, take your pick — atop a nightly newscast has become an anachronism. Still others have offered instant prescriptions for what the CBC should do to resurrect the floundering fortunes of the network’s “flagship” daily news program as it sinks deeper into stagnation and irrelevance.
I think they’re missing the larger, more instructive point — whether by design or omission — of how Mansbridge’s unrivalled dominance over CBC News ultimately damaged it as a public institution.
Overseeing a long decline
CBC News is supposed to reflect the interests of the whole public it serves. Instead, over time, it became a vehicle for the parochial interests and biases of its omnipotent anchorman-for-life.
First and perhaps foremost, Mansbridge shaped CBC TV News into a broadcast outlet for his mostly white, well-manicured, right-wing or self-described libertarian mates in suits and ties. Commentators were plucked from the incestuous world of pundits, pollsters, consultants and academics who inhabit the Toronto/Ottawa axis.
Today, they’re household names because Mansbridge invited them into your household ad nauseum because, despite all the impressive-sounding, bureaucratic layers at CBC News, one person effectively runs The National and that is, of course, Peter Mansbridge.
As this nation’s dauphin prime minister has reminded us, it’s 2016. But watching The National is akin to watching a repeat of Canada circa the 1950s every evening. The program’s stable of reporters, editors and anchors remains predominantly white, just like The National’s toothpaste-white stable of establishment “opinion-makers.”
Arguably, Mansbridge’s signature editorial legacy in this sorry regard was giving that climate-change denying “contrarian” crank, Rex Murphy, oodles of time on national TV to recycle his snide tripe about scientists, environmentalists, artists and Canadians who — unlike the St. John’s sophist — aren’t padding their bank accounts with handsome speaking fees from the petroleum industry.
Lining up at the speaking-fee trough
But, as we know, Mansbridge — the CBC’s “chief correspondent” — was, for years, happily leading all the other CBC celebrity journalists to the speaking-fee trough and back to the studio like the CBC News version of the Pied Piper.
It took a rabble of ‘pious, petty bloggers’ to force Mansbridge and his erstwhile CBC editors, to recognize grudgingly and belatedly that taking bushels of dough from powerful corporate interests that “chief correspondents” are often compelled to report on was a Mount Everest-sized ethical no-no.
Presumably, chief correspondents are also supposed to set an example for other, younger, impressionable reporters to follow. Mansbridge set an example alright, and it was how, in part, to leverage your privileged position on the public broadcaster to make lots of money on the lucrative cash-to-yak circuit. That is until the whole corrosive, cozy racket was exposed by journalists who, curiously, no longer appear on the CBC.
(Perish the thought that anyone, aside from former Fifth Estate host Linden MacIntyre, would be banned — temporarily or permanently — from the CBC for saying or writing anything uncharitable about the anchor-in-forever-residence).
In any event, the corollary to Mansbridge’s fetish for giving a forum on public TV to the usual reactionary suspects was the disappearance from The National of anyone even remotely to the left of Preston Manning.
Chantal Hebért, a Pablum-spouting centrist, hardly represents a dissenting “voice” from the “left.” She, and the other rotating cast of three amigos who populate the ubiquitous At Issue panel, are all culled from the same sliver of the smug, consensus-loving tribe that Mansbridge is so desperately fond of.
Not done, Mansbridge and company inflicted another band of mostly, insufferable, middle-aged white men on viewers with the so-called “Insiders” panel.
In his choreographed exchanges with these inside-the-ball-park political players, Mansbridge and his strutting guests reduced politics to who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, and who’s losing with a giddy enthusiasm that was lost on anyone unfamiliar with their self-satisfied, cloistered orbit.
More importantly, none of these party apparatchiks — some of whom work as pollsters or consultants — were ever, to my knowledge, obliged to disclose their clients while discussing public policy issues that may have constituted a real or perceived conflict of interest. We weren’t told since Mansbridge didn’t think it was important enough for us to know, even though we own the joint.
The smooth-talking spook is TV gold
Finally, like the American networks he reportedly once spurned to take the helm of The National and stay there for 30 years, Mansbridge bestowed the imprimatur of seriousness to wind-up-the-hysteria “security experts” like Ray Boisvert. (You guessed it: He’s white and middle-aged).
The former CSIS spook is Mansbridge’s go-to expert whenever terror strikes. The fact that Boisvert makes a cameo in a CSIS recruitment video (ah, those silly conflicts of interest) or that he has a habit of turning benign tunnels in Toronto into possible launching pads for “malicious” types apparently didn’t dissuade the CBC’s chief correspondent from routinely giving him a megaphone.
For Mansbridge, the smooth-talking spook is TV gold.
And there’s the rub. Mansbridge has transformed much of the valuable, publicly-financed time on The National into a showcase for the largely white, smooth-talkers he has privately taken a shine to, at the expense of a rainbow of other voices — politically, philosophically and ethnically.
It’s no coincidence that Mansbridge’s many mini-me’s throughout the CBC, including the cloying host of Power and Politics, Rosemary Barton, feature the same soundbite friendly band of agreeable, white-bred voices over and over again.
How else to account for Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson making 49 appearances on various CBC News programs during the past three years, to celebrated investigative reporter Michael Harris’s solitary CBC interview over the same period?
Canada is a big country. Somehow, Peter Mansbridge and his disciples have made it ever so small.