Nothing in Peter Mansbridge’s three-decade tenure as CBC news anchor so graphically illustrates the problem with television news as his manner of leaving.
Mansbridge announced Monday night that he’s “let the CBC know that I’d like to step down from The National next July 1st, shortly after anchoring our very special Canada Day coverage for 2017.”
The term and conditions of his departure were clearly his choice.
In the CBC’s official news release, Jennifer McGuire says: “Peter has been paramount to making CBC News the most trusted brand in news in this country. We can’t thank him enough for that.” As general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, McGuire is Mansbridge’s boss. Or so you’d think. But as with all network anchors, his reporting line reaches much higher up the corporate food chain. Nothing to do with Mansbridge—its just the way the business works.
McGuire’s use of the term “brand” gets to the root of the problem. It points to the fact that the anchor of a network television newscast is much more than just another employee, just another journalist. Since the days of Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor in the U.S. and Lloyd Robertson and Harvey Kirck in this country, the anchor has been much, much more. The anchor is the franchise.
As the individual who reads the flagship network newscast each night, the anchor inevitably becomes the familiar face of the news organization, and by extension, of the network. He (or, less frequently, she) becomes a crucial marketing vehicle, a combination of Aunt Jemima, the Maytag repairman, and Mr. Goodwrench for both the news organization and for the network as a whole.
The celebrity news anchor, in other words, fills no journalistic need, but is a marketing necessity, especially when quality comparisons are risky.
As marketing avatar, the network news anchor must epitomize integrity and wisdom, and with any luck, have a little sex appeal, at least for the target demographic. Image, whether deserved or not, is paramount. Which can be a problem when the person behind the image turns out to be human, as when CTV’s Harvey Kirck was busted for drunk driving or NBC’s Brian Williams was caught in a lie about his experience as a war correspondent. When the anchor’s reputation takes a hit, the entire news organization’s credibility suffers.
Mansbridge, to his enormous credit, has managed to keep his nose relatively clean through the decades—no small feat when you’re under the microscope of celebrity-watchers— although, for some in the news business, he has been too chummy with some of the politicians he covers, and his speeches to the oil industry have put him in an ethically ambiguous position.
As a former television news producer myself, it has long been my view that there’s an even bigger problem with the whole idea of the news anchor as avatar. And it is that their value as a marketing tool gives them too much authority in the television newsroom. Whatever intellectual, academic or journalistic chops they may or may not have, their political clout within the corporation as a whole gives them disproportionate influence over the ongoing process of deciding what constitutes news and how stories should be covered.
My other long-standing concern is that the news should not have a face, either fatherly or motherly. Despite the unfortunate use in the business of the word “story” as synonymous with “report”, news is not entertainment; it’s information. The anchor-as-chief-story-teller is a concession to entertainment values that confuses audiences, blurring the line between the two.
One of the functions of a good public broadcaster is to experiment, to be creative and take risks in ways commercial media can’t or won’t. Mansbridge’s departure is a golden opportunity for CBC to re-think its news operations and develop new formats more in line with public service less and less defined by the need to make a profit for shareholders.
So why not try something that addresses some of the pressing problems with the nation’s journalism? Why not, for example, produce a truly distinctive national newscast originating on alternate nights from the country’s various regions. Five regional presenters instead of one national anchor. Regions competing with one another on both quality and numbers.
Both private and public broadcasters have dramatically reduced regional coverage in recent decades, and the nation has suffered as a result. This is one way the CBC, at least, could funnel more resources of all kinds into regional production centres from Vancouver and Winnipeg to St. John’s and Halifax.
And who knows? Done this way The National might grow a bigger, more loyal audience.
So my advice to CBC brass is to not pick a replacement for Mansbridge just yet, but go back to the drawing board and see if they can design a new way to report the news that will address real journalistic concerns facing the nation, rather than simply reapplying lipstick to a format that needs to be retired along with its icon.