Steve Paikin's guilty pleasure sits on his desk at TVOntario, a giant tub of peanut butter that the current affairs show anchor dips into “almost every day.”
A cardboard cutout of Polkaroo (that other TVO legend) sits squashed under a pile of brainy books when Mr. Paikin welcomes a reporter into his memento-festooned office.
After 14 years at the network, Mr. Paikin had asked for a window seat when his show The Agenda launched in 2006; he didn't get one. He's chipper as he points out that he did get a glass wall facing into the newsroom.
Is he for real?
It appears so. A keener to the core who is as comfortable chatting up a Chernobyl expert as he is discussing the finer points of neuromorality, the 50-year-old host of The Agenda is also unfailingly earnest.
“The reason I love the job so much is because the palette is so wide. One day I'm doing something out of Queen's Park and the next day it's national affairs and then international affairs and then it's a labour issue and then it's the economy and then it's the arts and then it's religion.”
Beyond being brainy, Mr. Paikin has a reputation for being exceptionally even-keeled.
“I like everybody,” he offers when asked about the Bush/Cheney campaign sign that hangs next to one for Clinton/Gore on his busy office wall.
That impartiality has served Mr. Paikin well as he has moderated three federal English-language election debates since 2006, the last in April. Even as complete political novices take their spots all over the nation, Mr. Paikin says he thinks that Canadians picked well.
“The people are always right,” he says, quoting Conservative Senator Hugh Segal.
“I certainly recall every federal election since 1968 and every Ontario election since 1971. ... I have learned to absolutely trust the wisdom of the Canadian and the Ontario people. They know what they're doing.”
Between the diametrically opposed campaign signs on his wall and the candidates he politely refereed last month, Mr. Paikin is the man in the middle – and that's where he's comfortable.
When is he running? “Never. I have an interest in politics but not a partisan interest,” is Mr. Paikin's confident reply.
“My demeanour toward politicians merely comes from having a respect for the job they do, and the institutions they respect. Plus I'd like to think my parents raised me well,” he continues.
It's clear where the Hamilton-raised Mr. Paikin got his diligence: At 77, his father works full-time buying, selling and renovating old railway cars. His mother, 75, only recently slowed down after a long career with agencies such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
At 19, Mr. Paikin caught the news bug, spending three summers chasing ambulances, crafting obituaries and working city hall for The Hamilton Spectator. Despite his enthusiasm, he was never offered a full-time job: “I must have sucked, I guess.”
Undeterred, he fast-tracked a master's degree in broadcast journalism at Boston University before landing a gig at the CBC. TVO has been his home for 18 years now, The Agenda his fifth show on the Ontario network.
Working alongside a dozen producers, Mr. Paikin, who is also senior editor of the program, spends most of his time researching for the show.
He spent a recent long weekend barrelling through five books, none of them light fare. (A sampling: A Memoir on the Sinking of the Zamzam, by survivor Peter Levitt; Keep True: A Life in Politics, by former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley and Why Catholics Are Right, by Michael Coren.)
The bulk of these Mr. Paikin read as his wife, health-care consultant Francesca Grosso, drove them to and from Sudbury, Ont., for a family visit.
Some weekend it was – at least for Mr. Paikin.
“I happen to be the most curious person I know,” he says with no trace of disingenuousness in his voice. “I want to know everything about everything.”
Though a touch exasperating, Mr. Paikin's zeal certainly helps to justify his salary – $279,259 last year. Since TVO is partly funded by the province, Mr. Paikin's six-figure salary must be publicly disclosed. When the Ontario Sunshine Law was passed in 1996, he was memorably singled out as the only journalist on the list. Back then, he was earning $132,500.
“I think I've revealed more personal information than any journalist in the country,” Mr. Paikin quips without skipping a beat.
Still, he suggests that Canada would benefit from a federal sunshine law. This would, of course, divulge the salaries of his colleagues at the CBC, a point not lost on the anchor.
And what about the oft-thrown jab that staid TVO garners only a handful of pruney viewers? While The Agenda may draw fewer than 100,000 viewers nightly, the demographics have changed drastically in the past two decades, Mr. Paikin contends.
At the beginning of his tenure, “the TVO demographic was definitely 65-plus, certainly overwhelmingly white and rural,” he says.
“Today, that Somali parking lot attendant, when I go give him my 20 bucks, talks about the show. And that Afghan cab driver talks about the show. I was on the elevator here on Thursday and two Sri Lankan guys were in the elevator, university students: ‘Oh, you're Mr. Agenda.' ”
Getting recognized is something that gets Mr. Paikin teased by his children – he lives in midtown Toronto with his wife, two teenage sons and a young daughter. Another son is studying at McGill University.
Endearingly, Mr. Paikin can take the joke, and makes some himself. When he visits university campuses and the students' hands shoot up excitedly, he ribs them: “What's wrong with you people?” he'll say.
“When I was in university – trust me – I was not watching current affairs,” assures Mr. Paikin, a rabid Boston Red Sox fan whose viewing habits were once entirely dominated by baseball, hockey and football.
But the anchor garnered a whole new and decidedly more badass fan base during last summer's G20 summit when he witnessed police punching and elbowing a journalist from The Guardian, and he tweeted about it. “I saw police brutality tonight. it was unnecessary,” Mr. Paikin wrote in a series of tweets before his BlackBerry conked out.
His Twitter following exploded from 2,000 to more than 11,000 in one night. As a testament to his solid reputation, the journalist got no blowback, but something rather different from police.
“I had Chief [William]Blair [of the Toronto Police]in for an interview a few weeks later and before we went on the air he said, ‘I just came from a meeting with Mayor [David]Miller and he had transcripts of all your tweets and we talked about them.' ”
Predictably, Mr. Paikin plays down the incident, chalking it up to his “old-fashioned nose as a reporter” and some new technology. “I wasn't doing anything different that I hadn't done at a thousand demonstrations I've covered in the past, other than the means by which I covered it. ... At least the feedback I got was that it was not over-the-top, opinionated drivel. It was straight news coverage.”
Does anything, or anyone, ruffle his feathers?
The answer is yes, but even there Mr. Paikin is uncontroversial, for the thorn was Warren Kinsella. In 2009, he tried to pressure the host to “unbook” one of his guests, conservative author Kathy Shaidle, or else he would blog about it. Mr. Paikin referred Mr. Kinsella to TVO's public relations team, a point not taken kindly by the provocateur.
“Once he goes nuclear and e-mails the [education]minister, e-mails the chairman, e-mails the CEO, suddenly now this becomes an example of a Liberal operative putting pressure on a public broadcaster to drop a guest. If we did, how the hell would that have looked – buckling to the request of somebody who basically works for [Ontario Premier]Dalton McGuinty.”
Writing on The Agenda's blog eight days later, Mr. Paikin shed light on the tussle: “If Warren's ultimate goal was to deprive Kathy of a ‘platform,' his approach failed spectacularly.”
It was an uncharacteristically feisty moment for the host, who has seen “Warren” once since, “shook hands with him and said, ‘Hi, how are you?' ”
Teflon-clad until the end, Mr. Paikin offers, “I am on speaking terms with everybody I know. Whether they're on speaking terms with me is another question.”
Zosia Bielski is a reporter for Globe Life.
Editor's Note: This profile of TVO broadcaster Steve Paikin refers to Warren Kinsella’s objection to TVO hosting a conservative writer. Mr. Kinsella says he objected as a private citizen and not as a “Liberal operative" as he was described in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version.