former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Speechgate roils Canadian journalism

In Blog on March 2, 2014 at 6:31 pm

It was my good fortune to graduate from the University of Toronto.  The U of T is Canada’s Harvard, only affordable and without the annoying presence of many young men and women of means who believe themselves to be infallible.

One of the joys of living in a sophisticated city with practically no crime and terrific cultural and intellectual venues was its journalism.  At the top of the journalism pyramid was Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Long before NPR, there was CBC News.  For many Americans, it was the source that told the truth about Vietnam long before U.S. news outlets caught on.  It’s been thoughtful, comprehensive and respected for decades – though like almost every news organization around the world, it’s suffered from budget cuts.

The jewel in the crown of CBC news programs is its nightly one-hour prime-time news program, The National.  Peter Mansbridge has been the face of The National for the past 25 years. Interestingly, Mansbridge elected not to join Canadian broadcasters like Morley Safer and the late Peter Jennings at U.S. network news, although he was asked in the 1980s.  He reportedly turned down a million-dollar deal because money was less important to him than staying in Canada and doing outstanding journalism in his own country. At the time, the decision made him a hero to Canadians.

But lately, that sober, middle-aged face has had quite a bit of egg on it.  Canadians were dismayed to learn that Mansbridge had given a paid speech to petroleum producers.  It happened in 2012, but only recently has come to light. Mansbridge defends himself by stating that he has never publicly taken a position on petroleum development.  But his speech raises a lot of questions about the propriety of a CBC policy that permits its journalists and commentators to accept paid gigs.

Mansbridge gives about ten paid speeches a year and often donates all or part of his fee to charity.  The requests are submitted in advance to CBC management for approval.

Mansbridge’s speech came to light after controversy over paid speaking gigs by CBC commentator Rex Murphy, an outspoken personality who would be at home on Fox News.  He not only took money to speak to oil industry executives, he also lavished them with praise for being job creators.

Mansbridge defended himself in his blog, writing that his speeches never express an opinion on controversial issues, and that he sticks to what he knows most about, journalism.  He’s been doing that since 1980, when the CBC first encouraged him to speak to groups. He also states that he’s entitled to a private life.

While some of his points may have some merit, they really don’t get to the heart of the problem.  Should Mansbridge take money for the talks? Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former broadcaster for CBC and former ombudsman for NPR who now teaches journalism, has contended that perception matters. The CBC’s image, he argued, was “sullied” by Murphy’s appearance and didn’t get any better when Mansbridge took a speaking fee from petroleum interests.

No one suspects that Mansbridge gave the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers a stem-winder promoting increased oil development.   But when you take a fee from a group, it gives the impression that it will engender good will.  Presumably, Mansbridge had a few conversations with people at the event.  So the fee bought energy leaders a bit more access.  It’s possible Mansbridge could have spoken to the group without being paid, by why would he, given its profitability? It’s one thing to offer your services to a worthy nonprofit, (though even that sometimes can raise questions) quite another to speak to a very profitable entity without expecting to be compensated.

What’s really galling is that the CBC has been so close-mouthed about its policy, even withholding comment from the venerable CBC radio news program As It Happens. Heck, neither CBC nor Mansbridge has disclosed the text of his speech.

Fortunately, Canada contains many solid journalism outlets, and they’ve been adding some perspective to the whole incident.  Mansbridge certainly is not the only North American journalist to be paid for speeches, reports Toronto’s Globe and MailIts story noted that many Canadian journalists are represented by agencies that book speeches.

However, other Canadian news outlets seem to be more careful than the CBC about outside speeches.  CBC’s largest private competitor, CTV, doesn’t allow its news personalities to accept fees, although they may be paid for their travel.  Another rival network, Global, won’t let its journalists accept speaking fees from for-profit entities.

At the venerable Globe and Mail, journalists can’t speak to groups which they may cover, but columnists have more leeway.

The public outcry over Mansbridge’s speaking gig demonstrates that Canadians still have some respect for the profession.  In this country, the standing of journalism is so low that there seem to be few qualms about the notion of journalists giving paid speeches. If you look at the roster of a major booking agent in town, it appears that everyone, including some anchors on PBS programs, are willing to be marketed.  U.S. audiences seem not to be paying attention.

You know that petroleum association event for which Mansbridge now is getting so much criticism?  New York Times columnist David Brooks was promoted as a keynote speaker for the same gig.  No one seems to have raised an eyebrow.

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