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Peter Mansbridge is a former chief correspondent for CBC News and anchor of The National, where he worked for 30 years. His latest book, Off the Record, is a collection of anecdotes and short essays that pull back the curtain on some of the most memorable moments of his legendary broadcasting career.
Mansbridge spoke with Kim Brunhuber, who was a reporter and anchor with the CBC for 11 years and is now an anchor with CNN in Atlanta. He’s the author of the novel Kameleon Man.
You once said that the word ‘memoir’ suggests the end of life. So why write a memoir now?
Yeah, I still don’t call it a memoir. I call it a collection of anecdotes. I wrote a very successful book last year about other people called Extraordinary Canadians that I did with Mark Bulgutch. And it was a number one bestseller. And the publisher – and some competing publishers – were pushing me as they have done for a few years to do some reflection on my career. And I’d always resisted that because I did feel it sounds like an end-of-life thing. I said to Simon & Schuster, I don’t want to do a conventional memoir but I will do a collection of anecdotes, I’ve got a lot of things over time that I end up talking about at dinner parties that were never on the air and people seem to enjoy listening to them.
I was surprised to read in your book that your interview with Barack Obama was the first private one-on-one with a sitting U.S. president for the CBC. But you didn’t get one with Donald Trump. What would have been your opening question?
I’m not sure what the opening question would be, but it would be an attempt to try and understand why he’s so fast and loose with the facts on any number of things. And I think he would have actually played on that issue and we might have had an interesting interview. What I would have wanted to achieve was something about the fact that he and untruths have a common bond.
In those early days at the radio station in Churchill, Man., you started a radio newscast and a show, which morphed into different formats. Reading about that, it struck me that you were creating a niche, you were finding a voice, you were experimenting in real time. It’s kind of reminiscent of what young people are doing now with social media. Do you see parallels between the two?
Well, when I started in ‘68 in the business of broadcasting and journalism, it still was not destination number one or two or three or four for most young people. And that was one of the reasons I was able to get into it with the total lack of experience I had, because there was nobody else to do the job; nobody else wanted the job. I mean I’d always been fascinated by the news, I’d never thought of it as a career, never once. But I saw the opportunity there and I was excited by it.
Now today’s young people through social media in some cases – whether they know it or not – are kind of journalists already because they’re telling stories and they’re challenging assumptions and they’re asking questions … But it’s a very different situation than back 50 years ago. I mean if with my background I’d been in today’s world, it never would have happened for me. The opportunity wouldn’t have existed because I just didn’t have the qualifications.
In the book you talk about that fateful decision you had to make between taking a job at CBS and staying with the CBC. So I’m thinking about that alternate timeline counterfactual Peter Mansbridge who went on to work here in the U.S. for CBS. Do you ever wonder how his memoir would have read?
[Laughs] No, not really, I don’t. Keep in mind it wasn’t a thing about country, it was more about I was this kid who started literally from nothing and been given an opportunity by the CBC and had always dreamed of some day having that top job; there it was in front of me and was I going to walk away from it for something very different? And that’s why I chose to stay. But in the first days or weeks after a big decision like that – and I’m sure you faced it as well – you wake up in the middle of the night and you go ‘geez, did I do the right thing there?’ Aside from those first couple of weeks, I’ve never regretted it. Ever.
If you ask any reporter working at the CBC today, they’ll tell you about the rivalries, the jealousies among reporters … many of them are more competitive with reporters within the network than from rival networks. From the stories you told it seemed very convivial but was it much more cutthroat in the background?
I’m not sure cutthroat was the right word to describe it … But as you move forward in the business – and you’ve seen this – the more you move up the ladder, the ones you pass along the way are not always too happy about that.
Did you feel it more as you neared retirement from the CBC when so many people were angling for your job?
Yeah I had a lot of visits – [laughs] – from different people who would have loved that position. Now it wasn’t for me to decide who was going to get that job, but I didn’t mind giving advice … But when that was going on in the last year, especially when I had made it clear I was leaving, there was a lot of jockeying going on.
You spent some time talking about diversity in the book and you say that CBC ‘has fallen short.’ Do you think there’s anything more, in your position of power at the CBC, that you could have done on that front?
You know I tried repeatedly, especially so in the last 10 years of my time there, maybe even 15 years, very hard. I was seeing a lot of people coming in who would be classified as diverse, but their progress forward wasn’t at a level in my view that it should have been. And I found the fault in management. When you’re looking at management, it’s not diverse, how surprised should you be that the people they picked to move forward look more like them than look like the Canada that exists outside the CBC?
In the book you have plenty of kind words to say about producers, cameramen, the newsroom colleagues you worked with, but your tone – at least to my reading – seems … less charitable when it comes to the CBC management. What more do you think that the leadership could have or could be doing better?
I’ll be blunt here. I haven’t always felt that way about management at the CBC, and I have no personal grievances against anyone. However, I do feel because of the nature of the public broadcaster and the fact that the top level positions are filled by government – whoever the government of the day is – that we’ve lost time and energy. And we’ve been caught out on where we are in terms of the broadcast business by the kind of people that have been appointed to president and then the president appointing executive vice-president, the board of the CBC, most of whom – if not all of whom – for years have had zero broadcast experience. So they come in, they spend the first couple of years trying to understand what the CBC is and how it operates and what a broadcaster is, and then the next couple of years they’re getting ready for wherever they’re moving on to, having fluffed up their resumes with top positions …
I want to underline that these aren’t personal attacks. I think this is a flaw in the system of the way the public broadcaster of Canada is run. I’m forever indebted to the CBC. But I’m passionate about it and I worry about it. I think the country absolutely needs the CBC. Do they need the CBC they’ve got right now? Probably not. They need it to be better.
You say in the book that the future of journalism is at risk. The media, the world, they’re becoming more partisan and polarized and you say that just focusing on facts and being transparent may not be enough: ‘It may have to be the consumer who finally demands more and demands better.’ I’m wondering what that means, because more and more – depending on where that consumer is on the political spectrum – they seem to be asking for completely different things.
On that front you’re right, they are. But what they are all generally asking is ‘why should I believe you? Show me, prove to me … be transparent about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.’ That’s where I think one of our number one challenges is right now: we’re not believed because we live in a world where there are so many lies being told, so they want to know why they should believe us. And to prove that to them we have to be more transparent about how we decide what’s news, what isn’t, how we decide where things should gain the most importance in terms of line-up, how we determine situations where we give certain sources anonymity … We’ve taken our audience for granted that we don’t need to explain our actions. Well this current audience in this current era, this current generation, they want more than that because they’ve been burned too many times.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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