I met Knowlton Nash in 1980 when I was hired to be one of a small group of editors on the CBC’s flagship TV news program, The National.
Arriving from stints in television news in Montreal and Ottawa, I was suitably awed by the prospect of working on a nightly program that was the most-watched newscast in Canada.
But I was more nervous at the prospect of meeting and working with Knowlton Nash, the legendary voice and face of CBC News.
I imagined that he embodied certain values that I associated with the best of being Canadian: unflappable, measured, fair-minded with an open spirit of inquiry. And Knowlton was, in fact, precisely what I had surmised. He had a unique combination of kindness and professionalism. Newsrooms are highly competitive and occasionally sharp-elbowed places that are not known for tolerating those qualities, especially in a high-profile journalist. But Knowlton Nash had those two attributes in abundance.
When I first stepped into the old National newsroom on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, I was introduced to Knowlton by his boss and mine, Vince Carlin. Knowlton was quietly flattering, mentioning a couple of stories I had done as a Montreal journalist. He had done his homework, and immediately put me at ease in these new (if somewhat grubby) surroundings.
And when presenting the news, he was unflappable. When stories were late or failed to materialize at all, Knowlton never raised his voice, and I never, ever saw him play the prima donna. His job was to present the news, good or bad, and he conveyed it with that utter Canadian sense of cool reliability.
But lest we think of him now as an overly iconic figure, he did have his slight quirks.
He was, for some reason, unable to pronounce the word “hostages” properly. It always sounded like “hossages.” This was a problem when American hostages were being held in Tehran for a total of 444 days (from 1979 to 1981). It was a long-running story in which the dreaded word frequently and, of necessity, found its way into Knowlton’s scripts.
One night, one of our more puckish editors decided to slip a false “on camera” story into his scripts. It read: “In Tehran today, there were no sausages for the hostages.”
Knowlton always eyed the copy before the show. That night, he spotted the offending piece, uttered a quiet four letter word (the only time I ever heard him use an expletive), gave the editors a huge smile while crumpling the page, then walked in the studio to deliver The National for that night.
Jeffrey Dvorkin is director of the journalism program at University of Toronto Scarborough.