Talk about awkward. On Monday night Omar Sachedina anchored the CTV National News for the first time since you-know-what happened. At the end of the newscast came the inevitable: “We typically cover the news, but lately, we have become the subject of it.” There followed a beyond-uneasy acknowledgment that Lisa LaFlamme controversially didn’t have her contract renewed for the job he was now doing.
“Half a century after my parents were expelled from Uganda and were welcomed by compassionate and generous Canadians from coast to coast to coast, starting this journey with you tonight means a great deal to me, and it validates the promise of possibility,” Sachedina said.
Well, you can spin it this way and that, but the fact is, many Canadians are neither compassionate nor generous to CTV News and Bell Media right now. Another fact is, CTV News is the object of international attention that often amounts to scorn. Its machinations and responses have been mentioned on CNN; a headline in the Los Angeles Times shouted, “The firestorm over the firing of a gray-haired female news anchor in Canada.”
There is no misperception or mystery clinging to the story. CTV News bosses revealed themselves to be inept and strangely small-minded. If they couldn’t see the controversy coming, they shouldn’t be in charge at a news outlet. CBC News bosses have also made horrendous errors and looked incompetent, and we’ll get to them in a minute.
At the core of the controversy was the term “business decision”, used to explain not renewing LaFlamme’s contract. Dozens of business decisions have been made by Bell Media in the past two years to get rid of staff at radio and TV stations. The LaFlamme decision was just routine, the bosses were thinking. But it wasn’t and that’s what happens when you prioritize the balance sheet – you don’t see the looming rage about ageism and sexism.
At both CTV and CBC News in recent years, the plot has been lost. The ceaseless juggling of formats for The National tells us that more attention is paid to kooky plans to reinvent news presentation than to integrity and reliability. Sure, there’s something old-fashioned about the audience’s trust in news anchors who have authority and reporting experience. But that trust exists and will be one of the last pillars of conventional TV to wither away, if it ever does.
One of the most illuminating comments about LaFlamme’s departure came from Wendy Mesley, the former CBC News mainstay. In a newsletter that accompanies her podcast The Women of Ill Repute, Mesley wrote this: “I remember being shocked when I mentioned to the new CBC boss Barb Williams that there was a long history of news anchors who had toiled in the fields, paid their dues, won respect as reporters. I argued that it mattered. But her response was that you just need someone who can read the copy, that’s the main part of the job, suggesting the real decisions could be made by others.”
Barb “you just need someone who can read the copy” Williams is the CBC’s executive vice-president of English services, including CBC News and CBC Newsworld. She came to CBC after a long career that started in “lifestyle programming” and continued in commercial Canadian TV, where the main job is buying U.S. programming and selling ads.
Also on Monday, no coincidence, Adrienne Arsenault began her term as sole anchor of The National on CBC. Standing on a box on a street in Regina, she attempted to deliver the latest on the horrific mass stabbing incident in Saskatchewan. It wasn’t the easiest start to her term on The National. Local reporters and police came and went from Arsenault’s spot on the street, sometimes their voices drowned out by passing helicopters. And there was, as usual, The National’s adherence to the template of telling the audience, “coming up later” and “a little later this hour”, a way of delivering the news agenda that can be bewildering to follow.
Arsenault is no “read the copy” anchor. She’s a deeply experienced reporter and broadcaster, but the headwind she faces is CBC’s recent history of turning The National into a confusing mishmash with multiple anchors and cockamamie presentation. It’s a long, long way back to the top of the ratings in Canada.
You could feel for Arsenault, trying to do her job on that Regina street. You might even feel for Omar Sachedina in his awkwardness and his “this great country Canada” spin, but this great country has copped on to the ineptitude at the top in Canadian TV news. If there’s one good thing that emerges from the aftermath of the LaFlamme affair, it’s that. Everyone at the top is on notice and should be feeling very awkward.
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