Peter Mansbridge should be charged with involuntary manslaughter of a newscast.
The fellow who told the Canadian Press he never wanted The National to be about him, while ensuring The National was a signature reflection of him, ended up, in effect, killing the program that was largely defined and shaped by him.
Instead of acknowledging this axiom, Mansbridge and his loyalists within CBC have, predictably, been engaging in a calculated orgy of historical revisionism with a batch of agreeable reporters who have recently penned saccharine-laced, valedictory pieces about Mr. Modesty’s impending and long-overdue departure. (Remember, beyond his teleprompter-reading duties, Mr. Modesty also hosted an interview show discreetly called Mansbridge: One on One.)
Of course, the Corp’s PR apparatchiks helped re-write history by lassoing a bevy of gushing young journalists to pay icky, verging on cult-like, homage to Mansbridge for his mentorship and support to blunt the fact that CBC should have been performing CPR on The National to resuscitate the broadcast from its precipitous descent into oblivion and irrelevance a long time ago.
Curiously, Mansbridge’s intrepid hagiographers at the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and CP were unable apparently to find a dissenting soul inside CBC’s cob-web-like labyrinth to make this blimp-sized point — even anonymously.
It’s unlikely the Star’s obsequious Vinay Menon searched for someone to utter an uncharitable syllable about Mansbridge since he once happily provided “the voice” with artillery cover after it emerged that CBC’s chief correspondent had pocketed lucrative speaking fees from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, among others – a practice CBC grudgingly, belatedly, but ultimately, agreed was a prima facie conflict of interest and subsequently outlawed it.
Not surprisingly, Mansbridge denied the Globe an exit interview. I suppose the paper’s acerbic TV and career Mansbridge curmudgeon, John Doyle, can take credit for this petty, petulant rebuff.
Perhaps the swift, Soviet-style banning (then unbanning) visited upon ex-fifth estate host, Linden MacIntyre, for publicly suggesting that, like other network stars, Mansbridge was a marquee manifestation of CBC’s coddled culture of celebrity, had an Antarctic-like chilling effect throughout the Corp’s notoriously catty corridors and halls, including, no doubt, the newly minted Mansbridge Hall. (This, after the lead to CP’s farewell story assured readers that: “Peter Mansbridge doesn't want to make a fuss about leaving the anchor's chair at CBC's The National." My goodness.)
Mansbridge and his acolytes can fiddle with The National’s dwindling viewership figures like an incestuous nest of figure-skating judges, but the math is inviolate; during his almost 30 years behind the anchorman’s anachronistic rostrum, Canadians have abandoned the supposed newscast of record faster than critics at a Nickelback concert. Meanwhile, CTV National News habitually reaches more than 1 million viewers.
Mansbridge’s apologists inside and outside CBC have recycled a litany of now familiar excuses to try to explain away the stubborn and embarrassing math: the introduction of commercials; the fiddling with the “flagship” program’s names and times; the “multi-channel” universe, and the ritual playoff hockey pre-emptions.
The one unavoidable constant throughout, however, has been Mansbridge. And yet, mysteriously, he has escaped any measure of fault or accountability for The National’s protracted and undeniable demise.
During Mansbridge’s Francisco Franco-like grip on power at CBC, The National morphed — through various iterations — into a hybrid newscast that combined the requisite daily digest of news followed by an interpretation of that digest of news.
At the centre of it all: Mansbridge.
The fatal problems with making Mansbridge the dominant, defining face of The National were manifest to anyone not blinded by their allegiance to him.
Like many of his brethren who populate TV news, Mansbridge understood that he was obliged to convey emotion while sharing the news with viewers. This meant adopting a veneer of seriousness, empathy and profundity when events demanded it, and a playful tone or outright amusement on other, less weighty, occasions. It’s a performance.
The intent is to engineer a visceral connection with the viewer to make the news a shared experience. Clearly, Mansbridge failed on the affinity score. The numbers don’t lie and they haven’t for ages.
Mansbridge was adept at conveying heft. But, again, it proved to be a studied, inconsequential façade. His interviewing was amateurish, bordering on inept. Indeed, Mansbridge routinely provided viewers with a master class on how not to conduct an interview.
For irrefutable evidence of this, you need only to endure his mortifying interview with the odious Ford brothers (an unforgettable abomination) or his cloying tête-à-tête with that unrepentant merchant of hate, Ann Coulter.
Still, Mansbridge’s most damning sin was – with the acquiescence of a complicit CBC – to convert a public institution into his private playpen, where The National’s choirmaster invited the same recurring chorus of predominately white, centrist-hugging political “insiders” and Pablum-spouting pundits in Toronto and Ottawa to drone gratingly on and on like a record that keeps skipping.
Absent were the faces, voices and perspectives of so many Canadians outside of Mansbridge’s tiny, comfortable orbit. That meant that much of Canada was absent for much of The National and no one, it seems, was willing, prepared or able to tell Mansbridge that this big country isn’t as small and monochromatic as his Rolodex.
Finally, I’d be doing this column a disservice if I didn’t point out that by offering a national platform to a wind-up contrarian-crank-for-hire like Rex Murphy, Mansbridge not only committed a crime against journalism, but good taste.
Paradoxically, in its corporation-wide determination to blow up The National, CBC has implicitly conceded that, despite all the gooey praise and accolades it will heap on Mansbridge, the telecast he was the principal architect of needed to be demolished, before it could be saved, thus prompting a simple, but admittedly rhetorical question: What took so long?