The passing of Knowlton Nash on the weekend brought forth an outpouring of affection and admiration, both from the public and from inside the Canadian news media.
And deservedly so. Nash was a nice man, as gracious with pesky students as he was with CBC colleagues and powerful politicians. Years ago, when I was at university and involved in campus media, I directed a young woman, a first-year student, to go and interview Nash about his memoir, History on the Run. He was still the anchor of CBC Television’s The National at that point.
She returned from the assignment gushing about how charming, friendly and down to earth he was. He’d asked her many questions about her goals, her interest in news. “I can’t believe I was just chatting away with Knowlton Nash,” she said. I can still see her eyes glowing with excitement. She also liked the book, admiring Nash’s ability to tell a story with clarity and precision.
When Nash was anchor of The National and before that, for a decade, a CBC-TV executive running the news and current-affairs division, there was exceptional clarity and even precision to CBC-TV’s role in Canada. It had a mandate, it had the resources and it forged ahead, telling stories, reporting on scandals and personalities. People paid close attention. The Prime Minister’s Office paid attention. It mattered. Sure, I once heard Knowlton Nash joke that the firm lineup for The National was decided when the bulldog edition of The Globe and Mail appeared – the initial print edition that was sold on the street in Toronto in the early evening – and confirmed to CBC News the hierarchy of news stories. But CBC-TV news started and controlled the national conversation to a forceful degree.
Nash’s days at CBC, as The National anchor from 1978 to 1988, and just after, were extraordinary times. In Canada, the end of the Trudeau era and the arrival of the Mulroney government. Abroad, the emphatic Reagan-era, the rise of neo-conservatism and the end of the Cold War. On CBC, The National was followed by The Journal, and host Barbara Frum, like Nash, directed a national conversation. Glory days.
Nobody knew it them, but at the time of Nash’s departure, the dog days had just begun.
In a short period, CBC-TV News lost its leading role. It was partly self-inflicted diminishment and partly technology, along with a changing world. There was no persecution and no perfidious plot to undermine the CBC.
There were bizarre decisions after Nash retired, and his passing is an occasion to remember where a great deal went wrong at the CBC. The extraordinary decision to end The Journal following the death of Barbara Frum in 1992 was seismic, self-inflicted and suicidal. Next there was the bizarre, utterly demented decision to replace The National with Prime Time News, a 9 p.m. program with Peter Mansbridge and Pamela Wallin as co-hosts of a news package which relied less on news stories for priority coverage than on trends and eccentric decisions about what viewers needed to know. The time slot was, like a lot of CBC decisions at that time, lethal. Most people were watching hot U.S. network shows at that hour in prime time.
Then technology allowed cable and digital channels to flourish, the Internet to arrive and social media to influence everything about how we communicate. Knowlton Nash didn’t see it coming. Nobody did. In one of his books about the news business, Trivia Pursuit: How Showbiz Values Are Corrupting the News, published in 1998, Nash wrote, “A public that indulges primarily in tragedy, calamity, oddity, conflict and sex is a public unprepared for intelligent discourse on major issues and knowledgeable decision-making.” That’s a formidably prescient statement, given what has unfolded since then.
And, as for the CBC News tradition that Nash so ably represented, that too has declined horribly. In fact it is lamentable to note that CBC-TV’s own coverage of Nash’s death on Saturday was shabby, shoddy and so poorly done. On The National, anchor Kim Brunhuber struggled to suggest a narrative to Nash’s career as, onscreen, a repetitive batch of footage of Nash, on The National, reporting from Vietnam, Washington and Cuba, repeated endlessly; and all the while, chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge nattered away, affectionately but mindlessly, on the phone.
Perhaps CBC-TV News can do better in the coming days.
Nash certainly deserves better. He epitomized the best of it – a national institution he helped shape as reporter, anchor and executive.
His death is an occasion to honour him as the affable, hard-working, respected newsperson he was. Shrewd, concise and clever. It’s also an occasion to realize that when we laud him, we laud a CBC that is long gone, and much missed.