CBC's new news is scaaary

I abandoned all hope for CBC's news makeover Tuesday morning when host Anne-Marie Mediwake was on the phone with the dad who'd just lost his 13-year-old son to H1N1. He was losing control and sobbing but she wouldn't leave him any dignity or privacy. "I'm going to give you a chance to tell us how you want him remembered," she said, or something close. He dissolved further. Then a swift shift to cheery chat with a reporter about coffee.

Hm. Being shallow and exploitative isn't as easy as it looks at the U.S. cable networks on which CBC's new format is modelled. They'd have known to at least fake some sympathy, conceal the egomania ("I'm going to give you a chance") and break for an ad or somehow transition to the vacuous coffee item. If it isn't your game, you really shouldn't play it.

Wednesday's flagship The National with Peter Mansbridge puffed three scare stories off the top. H1N1 ("People are getting scared ..."). Another fright: Musician killed by coyotes. And, "hidden costs that may be lurking on your cellphone bill." They were all scare, no context. When a doctor said flu cases were mainly mild, the reporter intoned, "Mild illness." PAUSE. "Mostly." That's alarmism, not journalism. The cell story showed a reporter striding into a building to meet a rep for the phone firms and it was Bernard Lord, former N.B. premier and Conservative heavy. The item didn't mention it. Perhaps some well-paid consultants from the U.S. coaching the CBC, told them, "Skip it. Nobody cares. Focus on the phones. People relate to those."

This is all about talking down to dim, self-absorbed viewers, with weak attention spans who don't care about complex issues or, yuck, details. About "relating'" to them. "Connect," as Mark Kelley's new nightly segment is called. But (with apologies to the late Johnny Cochrane) you can't connect without respect. What you get is a parody of connection.

The CBC execs are beside themselves with the thrill of it. Their endless in-house memos rely heavily on triple exclamation marks as punctuation: "The energy in the building is palpable ... The torch has been passed ... We have moved from a Buick to a Ferrari ...!!!" (Oddly dated images, by the way, and insulting.)

It's as though it's all about them: their new sets and graphics, full-page ads, U.S. consultants. Watching CBC news now feels like living inside English-language boss Richard Stursberg's head, the man who endowed the CBC with a "factual entertainment" department. Yet, oddly it is still a public network, paid for by all of us. In ancient times, the founder of the National Film Board, John Grierson, used to remind employees daily that they were there to serve the people of Canada, not his own abundant ego. That simple thought out of Richard Stursberg's mouth is unimaginable. Instead, the people who pay are treated as bottom-feeders not worth a reference to a former premier or a translation from the Greek in yesterday's Olympic torch feed from Athens. (CTV had a translation.) Let them eat sets and graphics. Low-rent TVO's nightly hour, The Agenda, now outdoes anything on CBC.

I'm not pining here for the good old days of CBC news, even if the new news makes the old news look better than it was. CBC news was always a pain in the butt. It was pompous, clichéd and had a generous bias for those with power, in business or government. But it was a serious pain that took serious time for important topics, then distorted them. You could still find some of those stories this week -- Terry Milewski on the Harper prison agenda, an interview with the man who filmed the Dziekanski tasering -- but they were so brief. "You can find more on our website," barks Peter. Now here's another scary one. What will they do when Halloween is past?

CBC's best days as a public broadcaster were always ahead of it. Today, more than ever.

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