The lessons I learned at CBC
Saturday, September 23, 2006
The Guy Fournier affair shocked every student of the CBC's corporate culture, and not just because the words that got him fired were vulgar and thoughtless. It's true that his remarks about bowel movements and imaginary pro-bestiality laws in Lebanon were not in keeping with his position as chair of the CBC board. But what really astounded those who know the CBC was that someone in its upper echelons uttered opinions that, if not exactly fascinating, were at least unexpected.
At the CBC, which will be 70 years old on Nov. 2, this has rarely happened. As a corporate body it traditionally cultivates consistency of opinion. CBC people know that Canadians have freedom of speech, in theory, but no one wants to encourage too much of a good thing. There are limits, and soon everyone understands them. Those who step outside the limits look at best eccentric, at worst dangerous.
In their own quiet way, CBC people have become a remarkable cult, the proprietors of a vast reservoir of smugness they are incapable of recognizing as such. For generations, they have been constructing a body of impregnable, self-regenerating opinion. As employees they are pre-selected and their views are pre-recorded, like most of their programs. A single rule governs all personnel selection: Like hires like. That principle, followed for seven decades, produces seamless intellectual agreement in all corners of the staff. Occasionally a few oddballs somehow slip through the screening process. They are allowed to hold unofficial views, providing they have the good sense not to express them. Otherwise, the CBC encourages everyone to speak up.
CBC producers glory in what Wordsworth called “smooth and solemnized complacencies.” They believe in universal one-tier medicare, feminism, the Kyoto accord, employment equity and the United Nations. They consider Israel an embarrassing upstart state and remain unimpressed by its accomplishments. They hate the Bush administration but they are routinely anti-American even when someone more agreeable occupies the White House. They don't much like business. In their view the free market causes more trouble than it's worth, and globalization is another word for evil. They believe unions are usually on the right side (even if they think their own unions are led by idiots). They have learned that there is one side to every question.
Much of this will sound like caricature to those who are unfamiliar with life in the CBC. Surely it can't be that bad? But those who get close to it often come away with similar observations. Their prejudices naturally affect their programs, as many viewers and listeners notice. One of my readers wrote to me: “The CBC has conditioned me to expect an anti-business, anti-American view on just
about every conceivable issue.”
But citizens who complain to management receive CBC-justifying letters that inevitably explain that the CBC is consistently fair. These letters are so long and tedious that they fill with glue, perhaps fatally, the mind of anyone who reads them. I think of this process as Death by Ombud. Its purpose is to ensure that the citizen in question will never, ever write a letter of protest again.
A reader once complained to me about a CBC sportscaster who made some unnecessary and flagrantly anti-American remarks. Shouldn't he be chastised for going out of his way to express his hatred for the United States? I had to explain to her the horrible truth. Not only would a CBC sportscaster find it natural to say something like that, but just about everyone around him (producer, researcher, writer, fellow commentators, technicians, executive producer) would probably agree with him entirely and would find my reader's protest narrow-minded.
Many journalists find working for the CBC highly educational. Certainly it was for me. In the days when I first began broadcasting on the CBC, the term “politically correct” didn't exist. But no one at the CBC needed a term. They lived by it without knowing what to call it. As I listened to them I began to realize that they all read the same publications and thought the same thoughts. Many became friends of mine, but I developed an aversion to their eerie uniformity of views.
They embodied what an American critic once defined as “the herd of independent minds.” Listening to them filled me (though I barely sensed this at the time) with negative energy. The more I heard them speak, the more skeptical I grew. Eventually I realized that the opposite of whatever these people believed was at least worth serious and sympathetic investigation.