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Dumbing down news

A survey of CBC reporters confirms what we already knew: the Mother Corp is failing us.

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After decades of neo-liberal assault, our public institutions are in sad shape, none more so than CBC. A recently leaked survey of 24 CBC national radio reporters revealed that 95 percent felt morale was lower than it had ever been during their careers. Yes, 24 is a small sample for any survey, but this one reflects a deep crisis at Canada's largest journalistic institution. Believe me, I know, having toiled for two decades in the Mother Corp's trenches as a national reporter and producer overseeing major network radio programs such as The World at Six, World Report and The House. My ears and eyes tell me CBC journalism is getting steadily weaker. The leaked survey simply confirms it.

"We are dumbing down," said one reporter. "Things are more superficial."

"There's no time available to investigate or research," another complained. "Much of the work we've done in the past that won awards and acclaim would never get done today." These typical comments should worry everyone, even those who don't listen to or watch CBC news. Daily journalism is getting weaker everywhere. Here in Halifax, the once feeble Herald is feebler still after slashing a quarter of its news staff. Its only daily print competitor is an anemic freebie that calls itself "The world's largest global newspaper." It's not for a lack of good, talented journalists---they just aren't being given the time or freedom to do their jobs. News staffs at all of Halifax's broadcast outlets are laughably thin after more than a decade of cuts and hiring freezes.

CBC is no exception. Ten years ago, CBC Halifax cut its TV supper-hour news in half and gutted the staff. Ratings fell to near zero and advertisers fled. In a desperate attempt to revive the Mother Corpse, CBC managers came up with a 90-minute show based on the "action news" format touted by American consultants. If you want to gauge quality, tune in at 5pm and chug a beer for every crime, accident, fire or weather story; you'll be shit-faced by 5:15.

To fill the 90 minutes, CBC managers moved the radio news staff into the TV building. In theory, that makes sense. But in practice, it's been a disaster for radio. With reporters pressed into service to feed the TV monster, there's almost no time for original radio reporting. Now, radio newscasts crackle with TV's crime, accident, fire and weather stories, while the woefully under-budgeted radio current-affairs programs, which fill more than six-and-a-half hours of airtime each weekday, work in isolation, blocks away from their radio news colleagues. In the mornings, when CBC radio has its biggest local audience, there's almost no hard-hitting journalism and little to show that CBC is acting as a watchdog on behalf of the taxpayers who fund it.

It gets even worse. CBC bureaucrats chopped two-and-a-half minutes out of World Report, radio's national morning newscast. Jane Anido, a manager in Toronto, says CBC shortened WR to compete with commercial stations that run traffic and weather at 10 minutes past the hour. Judging by the leaked survey, reporters believe that cutting CBC Radio's most listened to newscast has weakened CBC journalism. "World Report as a whole is now more superficial, the journalism is less accurate, respect for language and creative writing is diminished and the format is formulaic," one radio reporter complained.

"WR used to be the place to go for significant, important, original stories. Now it feels like TV lite or TV without the pictures," said another. "At the end of a WR newscast, I often feel I don't have a clue what's going on in the world," said a third.

For all their faults, journalists are society's first line of defence against fraud, waste, incompetence and abuse in public institutions. That defence gets notably weaker when the relatively few journalists we have left are increasingly chasing superficial, daily stories. Budweiser anyone?

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