My good friend Peter took the CBC to task for a story that it broadcast recently. His criticisms are valid and, I think, fair. They sparked other discussions, notably at Humblebub's, and a slew of comments, most of them echoing HB's sentiments. And then there was this from Matt Rainnie.
I'm not in the habit of making excuses for the CBC. I quit the Corp., embittered and angry, back in 1996 ... and I still hold grudges to this day (and, despite my best efforts to be a better person, I probably always will).
Having said that, I'm going to do what for me is a rare thing: defend the CBC.
The first thing you learn when you go to work for CBC is that air time is a very hungry goat. It needs to be fed, constantly and without fail. While the rest of the world goes about its business and might take a minute or two to stop and smell the roses, there's no such luxury in the world of news broadcasting. Even five seconds of dead air is uncomfortable; ten is an eternity. So there is enormous pressure on line staff to find new stories, explore existing issues as fully as those issues merit (or as fully as the audience's interest will dictate), and investigate those stories as assiduously as ever-more-limited resources allow.
The key limiting factors in how far a story is taken are audience interest (if only a tiny number of people care, why continue to flog a horse?) and those pesky resources.
I began working for CBC in the salad days of $1 billion plus parliamentary allocations. I worked for programs that bought everybody associated with the show $150 team jackets, for God's sake. Morning shows had three or four producers, not to mention researchers, writers, directors, and secretaries to file all the paperwork. Reporters were routinely detached to work on "special projects" for as long as it took to get the story. As the end of March neared and budgets remained unspent, everybody would get new computers, new desks, new chairs.
Then came the 90's. The CBC budget was slashed, and the cuts were managed by the people at the top. So while a slew of Vice-Presidents kept and expanded their Toronto offices and continued to hold management retreats at fine resorts around the country, the local news-gathering organizations found they were having to fill the same amount of air time with fewer and fewer people. CBC executives, seemingly unaware of some basic Laws of Physics, repeatedly exhorted the troops to "Do more with less!", as if that were somehow possible.
Well, it's just not. What you do with less is ... well, less.
And that meant less time to explore stories fully. Fewer people to give to a given investigative project. Less time for the few remaining people to spend finding the stories, doing the interviews, writing the stories up, checking the facts. And through it all, the goat was still ravenous, chewing at their arses not just from the moment they arrived in the morning but from the moment they woke up and looked in the mirror and thought "What does today hold for me?"
In an atmosphere like that - which still exists today - it's not hard to see why a seemingly innocuous story like "Charlottetown Ranked Second-Best City in G7 Countries to Set Up a Business" can go to air virtually as received. Nobody is getting slandered or seriously hurt. If the facts are arguable (and they clearly are), the argument is more about process and interpretation than about life-and-death matters.
In a place that is recovering from a battering by that bitch Mother Nature; at a time when people might question why the hell they are living here and not in Florida or BC or some other place where you don't need a snow-probe to find your car; at a time when you and the people around you are exhausted from working round-the-clock giving your audience vital survival information; grabbing a plausible-looking puff piece off the fax machine and throwing it on the air to add a positive note to a seven minute newscast doesn't seem like such a shameful act.
Could the story have been researched more assiduously? Sure, given some spare resources, which I'm guessing weren't available. Was anybody hurt by this story? Perhaps. But I would argue that any business that bases its decisions on a single CBC news report has a lower-than-average life expectancy anyway.
It is easy to sit back and criticize the work being done by CBC, and I do more than my share of it. But I quit CBC because the geniuses in charge took me out of a position I was suited for and hired to do, and threw me into the world of news reporting. I hated every moment of it and, while I admired the dedication and passion of my colleagues in News and Current Affairs, I could not wait to escape the relentless pressure of that hideous, often thankless job.
The people who work at CBC - unlike their bosses in Toronto - have a passion for reporting the news. They do it with a minimum of bias (and before the roars begin, may I point out a curious, but universally true fact: Conservatives always accuse CBC of having a left-wing bias; New Democrats always accuse CBC of having a right-wing bias; Liberals always accuse CBC of having an anti-Liberal bias. Always.) - certainly less bias than most of us bring to our own political discussions. They do a difficult job, day in, day out, and are always open to public scrutiny and criticism for every stray, imperfect word or thought. Thank God none of us have to endure that.
They do their jobs, and then, when a weather bomb hits, they step forward and do more - when the rest of us are huddled in the bosom of family, riding out a storm, they're sleeping on the couch in a studio in funky two day old clothes, catching brief snatches of conversation with their families on the phone while that hungry frigging goat paws at the door. These odd people feel a very real responsibility to you, and to me, and to thousands of people they've never met and never will.
They're not always heroes, and sometimes they screw up. But before you jump all over them ... maybe try walking a mile in their shoes.
Keep an eye open for that goat. It'll bite your arse if you slow down.
Because of his early lead and the resultant difficulty in raising funds, I have re-thought my initial idea of running for President of the Internet. I urge you to support Dan James, who has promised that in his initial term he will eliminate Spam, bring Microsoft to its knees, and appoint me Secretary of Homepage Security.
My friend Humblebub - who always seems to elicit spirited debate on his blog, poses a question of scruples today. It reminded me of a time when I was faced with a moral dilemma. I still don't know if I did the right thing.
I was in the CBC building in downtown Toronto, which is this cavernous office complex built to house all the really important parts of the CBC, which the corporation defines as "any part of the CBC which is in Toronto". I was standing near Reception, talking to a friend, when I glanced over at a woman and a man passing through the security gates. As they went through, something fluttered to the ground.
Well, when my friend and I parted about thirty seconds later, I walked over to the security gate and looked at what had fluttered down. Four crisp twenty-dollar bills. I picked them up, of course, and when the security guard opened the gate for me, I pushed through and jogged to the elevators. No sign of the people. Couldn't even tell which of the bank of elevators they had taken.
Now, my first thought was "WooHoo! Ill-gotten booty. Or ill-booten gottie. Whatever, it's free money!" I resisted the urge to do the Happy Dance right there on the spot. (I waited till I was in the elevator, on my way to see my producer.) When I got upstairs, I told her about my lucky find.
She frowned at me. "Well, you're not going to just pocket the money, are you? I mean, without trying to figure out who it belongs to? How could you do that? It might be that woman's last eighty dollars for the week."
When I thought about that, I realized how rotten I've felt in the past when I've reached into my pocket and some loose money I knew was supposed to be there had disappeared. It's a sickening feeling, one I wouldn't wish on anybody. So I agreed with my producer - a rarity, but it's been known to happen - that I should try to find the woman and give her the money back.
Well, how do you do that, in a building that has approximately nine thousand offices for Vice-Presidents alone? The first step, I suppose, would be to describe the woman. Fortunately, as a trained journalist, I have a keen eye for detail. I knew, for example, that she was ... a woman. And she may or may not have been wearing a coat, in either a light or dark green, blue, brown, or black. Not a lot for the police sketch artist to go on.
I guess I could have gone down to the security desk and turned the money in, but really, that's just taking my good fortune and signing it over to Bob the Security Guy. And as nice as Bob the Security Guy is, I don't know that he's that much more deserving than, say, Nils the Guy Who Found The Damn Money In The First Place. I contemplated posters, but what would they say? "Found, eighty bucks. If this is yours, please call me." Line forms to the left.
So, to my producer's dismay, I decided to keep the money. Here's my rationale: I have, in the past, lost eighty bucks. And I expect in the future I'll pat my pockets on any number of occasions and come up empty. This was just karma - the endless cycle of good and bad fortune. This woman hit a down day, I was on the upswing. Yay for me, sucks to be her, but what goes around comes around.
If the woman who lost that eighty bucks happens to be reading this, please take heart. I know it hurt, but one day you'll find money and it will feel so good it will help you forget the pain of this time.
But if you still want to get your money back, I understand that, and I'll hold it for you for a couple more weeks. Just call me.
Oh ... and have the serial numbers ready. You know, just to check.
Hey, if you listen to Mainstreet today just after 4:00 PM, you can hear this guy interview a brilliant young woman who I think just might have a bright future as a writer. Just a hunch.
If you can't listen to the radio, or aren't on this wonderful little Island, click here and scroll down on the right to listen live on the web at 4:10 AST (3:10 EST). And maybe - just maybe - the piece will show up in archives at some point. If they don't save it, they're nuts. This kid is a talent.