Wendy Mesley is an award-winning broadcast journalist.
For almost 40 years, my name had a prefix: I was “the CBC’s Wendy Mesley.” And all that time I never wanted to be seen as an enemy of change. I’ve always tried to give voice to those who aren’t being heard; I’ve fought against the status quo my whole life. It’s why I got into journalism.
When I started out, there were few women in senior journalism roles. I was the first woman to cover the prime minister in CBC TV’s parliamentary bureau. Other women soon joined me. We fought for changes in coverage, and it happened because we saw things differently than men. It was the age of second-wave feminism, and we were told we could do anything. But women (and men) of colour did not receive the same openings, which meant many of their stories weren’t told and many of their insights weren’t considered. Today, change is happening, and I think much of it is good.
None of that matters now. I hurt people I never meant to. After a scandal last year, my prefix is now gone, the split with the CBC is official, and I have retired. The company gets a rebrand, and I go away.
But first, I’d like to do something I wish I’d been able to do long ago: Tell my side of the story, and finally talk about the two worst mistakes I made in my long and generally happy career.
After George Floyd’s murder last May, a Black CBC reporter tweeted that she had repeatedly been called the N-word. I was furious. I wanted to put her on the air to discuss that, and said so in a conference call with producers for The Weekly with Wendy Mesley.
During our discussion, I was so upset over what our colleague experienced that I stupidly filled in the N-word. Why? I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times, and I have no good answer. I was mad that she faced this kind of abuse. I can be very blunt. And I didn’t understand how any use of that word could hurt, regardless of its context. It was thoughtless and wrong.
One of the producers of the show was Black; another was of Asian descent. They went silent on the call. I was horrified I had hurt them and apologized, but the damage was done. I was told that bosses would be informed, and that there would be an investigation.
That would unearth an incident from months before while preparing another show on racism focusing on Quebec’s controversial Bill 21, which banned head coverings. After reflecting on the years I spent as a reporter in Montreal and Quebec City, I tried to make the point in an editorial meeting that many francophone Quebeckers feel like an endangered minority within Canada, and that they are victims of prejudice. I argued that this left less room for them to understand others, particularly people who weren’t like them. To make my point, I referenced the seminal 1968 book Nègres blancs d’Amérique, a Marxist analysis by the Francophone writer Pierre Vallières.
Again, I filled in the blank by saying the English title. To be honest, it didn’t occur to me to say “White N-words of America,” which is how the title appears in the translated English publication, except with the second word in the title fully explicit and uncensored.
All of this was leaked to the press. A storyteller became the story – even worse, I became a scandal.
The CBC suspended me. At one point, I thought I was going to be fired. Instead, I was punished and also ordered to take sensitivity training. The details of the investigation, I was told, were to be kept confidential. Eventually, I would be allowed to make a statement that would be vetted by my employers. It was made clear to me that the CBC would look after the story – and me.
Trusting them was my second big mistake.
The CBC did not offer me any public support. And I did not defend myself because I just wanted to return to work. In the midst of last year’s racial reckoning, I also felt it would have been wrong for me to play the victim card.
But my silence backfired as players on all sides used me as a cudgel to advance political interests. While some journalists offered public support, my most vocal defenders were free-speech warriors who wanted to make me a cautionary tale about the dangers of cancel culture. That distinction horrified me, because I’ve fought to cancel injustice my whole life. I resented being made a poster child of a movement I wasn’t part of.
I also believed my punishment would be proportionate, because people would come to understand there’s a difference between a reporter repeating a hateful remark with colleagues while in pursuit of a story, and a gleeful racist trying to draw blood.
I was wrong about that too.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and narratives can be filled in on blank slates. People assumed I’d been let go or retired in shame, and that because I had disappeared and not defended myself, the situation must have been even worse than it was.
And I believe the CBC had an agenda too: using me to distract or absolve themselves from their own underlying problems. A month after the murder of Mr. Floyd, as protests by Black Lives Matter activists swept across Canada, almost 500 current and former employees sent a letter to management “urging them to take action to dismantle systemic racism in the corporation.”
“The journalistic failures in the CBC’s coverage of this historic moment are the direct result of whose voices and experiences drive decision-making at the CBC,” the letter read. “The problem lies with white editors who dismiss pitches from non-white journalists as ‘biased’ or ‘unimportant’ because they might not appeal to a white audience.”
When the CBC’s licence came up for renewal at the CRTC that June, president Catherine Tait told the hearings: “We recognize that systemic racism exists in Canada and within many of its institutions, including its national public broadcaster. We are committed to combatting racism in all its forms.”
But I soon learned there had been at least three other cases at the network involving shows in which the N-word was allegedly used in meetings. While one was reported, the other cases seem to have disappeared internally – the broader questions of systemic racism swept under the rug – until I became a convenient device for cleaning up their brand. Even the corporation’s own ombudsperson concluded that it was “disappointing” that the network’s ensuing coverage of my actions “did not offer a wider variety of perspectives.”
After the cancellation of my show, I was offered another role that I saw as unreasonable. I asked whether we could find a mutually agreeable departure and was told that any such arrangement would require that I not discuss events of the last year. As a journalist who put a lot of people on the spot, and who hated being told “no comment,” that was never gonna happen.
I remain angry. I’m angry at myself for hurting people. I’m angry at the CBC for abandoning me because of two moments, instead of judging me by my whole career. I understand the mistake I made was serious and invited repercussions, but I also submit that using a particular situation to advance broader agendas is divisive and wrong.
I know it’s easier to say this as a white person, but I have long argued for journalistic objectivity, which is seen by some, reasonably, as reinforcing the status quo. But it doesn’t have to. Journalism should just be a search for the truth – all truths.
In 2005, when I had cancer, I saw a story I thought needed telling. I did a documentary about how I thought “big pharma” and cancer agencies weren’t doing enough to stop the spread of the disease. You could argue I was opinionated and not objective. I faced some criticism, but I was never accused of bias by my bosses. I think we need to listen to the accounts of Black and Indigenous journalists and other journalists of colour when they report being accused of bias for challenging the status quo.
I’m sad about how this has all played out. It’s certainly not how I’d hoped to bring down the curtain on my CBC career. But after a year of reflection and a whole range of emotions, I’m left feeling mostly disappointed, because this could have been handled so differently. It could have been a more productive process, in which the CBC used the moment to help foster greater dialogue about a difficult topic. Instead, it was all about blame, shame and regret. Had things gone differently, maybe my last story at the CBC could have been as meaningful as all the stories I’d told in the past 38 years.