The other night on CBC's The National, Wendy Mesley was breezily summing up the day on the election campaign. When she got to the Liberal campaign she began with: "Justin Trudeau was talking about youth, and not just his own."
I nearly spat out the Werthers Original in my mouth. That, it seemed to me, was inserting a Conservative talking point into the summary. I mean, seriously? The age issue? When this column sometimes refers to "Young Mr. Trudeau" it's a joke, obviously. Mesley wasn't joking. Her subtext was, "Just not ready." Everybody's forgotten that Joe Clark was sworn in as PM on the day before his 40th birthday. Trudeau is 43.
The election campaign, as it unfolds on TV, is a helluva thing. The coverage is often bizarre, comically pretentious, and sometimes just ugly. And here I'm taking a look at just CBC and CTV.
Take Pastor Mansbridge's peculiar interviews with the leaders. Done in a park or a field, no less. The grandiosity of it. Some CBC producer with pretensions to Merchant-Ivory production values went crazy with the outdoorsy look. Mansbridge, in casual attire, sat across from Harper and assumed the role of deferential apple polisher – so appropriate for the setting – and allowed Harper to offer snark as answers to questions. Among other lapses, he didn't challenge Harper's self-serving suggestion that in the tradition of Westminster parliaments, coalition government is a no-no.
Talking to Justin Trudeau in an Ottawa park, Mansbridge interrupted and queried with far more rigour. With Tom Mulcair he asked for a bunch of "yes" or "no" answers, while Harper had been given wide scope to equivocate and evade.
The theatre of these outdoors interviews was baroque. They dodged the dynamic of in-studio interviews in which the camera illuminates the character of a politician by highlighting the hesitations and body language. The outdoors setting was entirely an act of avoidance.
There's a notion going around that CBC is anti-Conservative. It's been trotted out by Conservatives so many times that, it seems, CBC has absorbed it and the intuitive, unconscious reaction is to cleave to a Conservative perspective.
The overall CBC angle is to view this election campaign not as a battle or a fight among parties, but as a winding narrative to be pondered daily. The number of panel discussions on The National and CBC News Network has reached saturation level. Pundits pondering or partisan spokespeople sniping at one another. The At Issue panel is a doze fest of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand. And if Andrew Coyne starts another commentary with either "We don't know yet …" or "I'm not sure about …", then I'm switching over to the Blue Jays analysis, which at least has some pith.
On CBC NN's Power and Politics, Rosemary Barton briefly made CBC coverage relevant with her steely and unyielding discussion with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on Canada's role in the refugee crisis issue. Mind you, within days, she was near-unhinged in her badgering of the NDP's Finn Donnelly.
Donnelly had told reporters that the family of Alan Kurdi had applied for refugee status in Canada last March, and that he hand-delivered a letter to Alexander. Barton suggested he had sown confusion about precisely which family members were requesting refugee status.
A clip of Donnelly's explanation of his actions was shown. It was quite clear what he'd said. Barton's treble-down badgering of Donnelly amounted to this: Splitting hairs on a dead child's head.
While CBC tends to ponder, and concentrate on insider-ish punditry when it isn't frolicking in the green fields and parks of Canada, CTV News coverage is far more provocative. It approaches the election campaign of all three leaders with traditional skepticism and seeks to ask pointed questions and make revelations.
CTV's coverage of the Duffy trial portion of this campaign was both highly entertaining and enlightening. As Robert Fife nailed down details and nailed some fringe players with questions, Kevin Newman – who was anchoring at the time – set up the twisting story on Twitter, with verve: "Last night @RobertFife ID'd 'Mr. Hoodie' from PMO. Tonight: why 'Mr.Tuxedo' had an interest in the #Duffy trail too." If there are underhand shenanigans, I'd rather be hearing about "Mr. Hoodie" than have the At Issue panel drone on about the many and varied possible interpretations of events.
And the Race to the Hill segments of the CTV News channel are spiky, dynamic reports on the campaign. The sight of CTV's Katie Simpson trying to barge backstage at a Conservative event to talk to Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson was excellent TV.
And there's the pivotal point. CBC's coverage is, too often, just terrible TV. CTV News grasps that it's in the TV racket and the medium itself must be served. It's perfectly possible to do serious campaign coverage while making compelling TV. That's shouldn't be news to CBC.
Airing Thursday evening: The Globe Leaders Debate (CPAC 8 p.m. and online at globeandmail.com); Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley grills the three main party leaders – those with party status in the House of Commons – on the economy.
That's what it is.