A short conversation with Knowlton Nash

O – So how long has it been now since you left the CBC?

N – Well I was doing things up until a couple years ago for the CBC on a freelance basis and I got retired about 1992.

O – So you’re not even doing the freelance anymore?

N – I’m doing a bit of writing, but not for the CBC. I’m doing a column for the Osprey papers of Ontario and a few other things, but not doing not any broadcasting.

O – Do you miss it?

N – As the years go by, you really miss the friendships and the colleagues more than anything else. Over a few decades you build up an awful lot of friends.

O – Are you watching still?

N – Oh yeah – Newsworld and the main channel of the CBC and I also watch PBS programming and CNN and a few others.

O – Have you seen The Hour?

N – Yes. It’s not my cup of tea because I want more subtlety and nuance and detail than that’s provided, but I’m not who they’re aiming at I don’t think. I think they’re aiming at a younger audience, and that’s terrific to do that.

O – Do you think news reporting has changed a lot since you were doing the National?

N – Technology has changed phenomenally, and that has an impact on the nature of the programs. They are, I think, because of the technology so preoccupied with immediacy and everything is so rush rush rush rush rush. There’s less time for reflective reportage, although you do get some of that in documentaries on TVO or CBC and places that have concern for the public.

O – Do you read blogs?

N – No I don’t. I haven’t done much creative exploration on blogs. But you must get a lot of hits on your website.

O – Well, during the lockout I had a lot. So many that I broke the thing tracking hits. But I was getting more than 10,000 a day.

N – Holy cats! It’s impressive to see that electronic media can be so powerful.

O – Yeah it was crazy. And I’m not an expert – I was just making it up as I went along.

N – Well, a lot of the best programming is done that way.

O – But every time I call you, you’re working on the computer!

N – (laughs) Actually, today I wasn’t. Basically I’m a computer ignoramus. It works for me as a typewriter, but it’s a great research engine – it’s wonderful for that. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I still like getting my fingers stained with the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and the Star, and the National Post and so on. Sometimes the Washington Post. I feel more comfortable doing that.

O – A lot of people are. Not everyone likes reading their day to day news on the computer.

N – Well, that’s true, but most people get their information from television more than any other source. People will decide who to vote for based on what they see on television and the debates coming up in January. Television plays a very critical role in determining the nature of Parliament.

O – This morning I was rereading what you wrote during the CBC lockout, and what the long-term effects would be. And you know the audiences seem to be slowly coming back, but the real lasting legacy seems to be internal animosity.

N – Yes, well, you’re getting perilously close to a crisis of morale in many areas – in the creative area, particularly, which is a continuing malaise and morale problem from the lockout. And I think that’s robbed us of a lot of zest and creative brilliance. You get a sense of talking to people that their heart isn’t as enthusiastically into this as it was before.

O – How do you fix that?

N – What you’ve got to have, essentially, is inspirational leadership from the very top. Leadership like, in the recent past, Al Johnson provided as president, or long before him, Davidson Dunton provided while he was head of the CBC. You need that inspirational leadership, that quality of caring and that almost missionary sense of the principles of public broadcasting.

O – You talk a lot about those guys in The Microphone Wars, and I always thought it would be good to have another president with a journalistic background, but maybe the job is too complex now for that to work.

N – Well the job has become complex, but they say you need the inspiration from your leadership. You don’t have to have someone who knows how to do it – you gotta have somebody who knows how to encourage other people to do it. Any president is essentially providing the tools, but he has to encourage that creativity.

O – Well, what about Rabinovitch, then? What do you think his historical legacy at the CBC will be?

N – There has been so much focus, at least in the short term, on the lockout, that he’s going to be associated with that for quite some time. He and Mr. Stursberg.

O – A lot of employees get the feeling that neither of them cares what anyone thinks about them or the lockout.

N – I think they should, and must, care, but I think that maybe there isn’t a recognition of the impact that some of the actions they’ve taken have had, on that sense of creativity and sense of purpose for public broadcasting.

O – But you know, if you look back in history, the CBC has always been on the verge of falling apart.

N – (laughs) There’s always been creative tensions between management and the creative side – that’s not unusual. There’s been This Hour Has Seven Days, and The Valour and the Horror – there was always that tension between management and the creative side. But this is a different kind of tension which in a way is much more like the Montreal producer’s strike way back in 1959 which didn’t deal with individual programs and creativity but with management style.

O – And Radio-Canada never really recovered from that.

N – I think it’s fair to say that it had a lasting impact on Radio-Canada and on relations between management and producers and creators.

O – Internally and externally, do you think the CBC is endangered any more now than it has been?

N – I think it’s in more danger now, which is ironic because it seems to me there is more of a need for a public broadcaster today than there ever has been, when you have an air filled with so many US programs, and with the internet being available to provide more US content. I think it’s in a lot more danger today than it’s ever been. On the other hand, so much depends on political willpower. We haven’t had a Prime Minister who was devoted to the cause of public broadcasting since, well, Mike Pearson, I guess.

O – And none of the guys running now seem so interested in it, either.

N – Well, I guess there’s no votes in it. (laughs) That may be the answer.

O – It doesn’t really seem like there’s any more money coming anytime soon.

N – There’s lots of rhetoric coming but there’s not so much that follows up on the rhetoric, and that’s one of the problems.

O – Well, do you think the mandate should be rewritten? Scaled back?

N – I think the mandate should be looked at. I don’t think it should be scaled back – it should be scaled forward. But parliament and politicians have to decide where the priorities are.

O – Have you ever thought about being CBC president?

N – Oh God, no! (laughs) No, you have to be a masochist to want to do that.

O – Yeah, it looks like a hard job.

N – Oh I think it’s a very hard job, and the people going into it, for the most part, are well-intentioned and have a sense of purpose but they get overwhelmed by the demands and the housekeeping problems, and the political shepherds offer rhetoric but not dollars. One of the problems that flows from the question of being underfunded and overmandated is that it focuses senior management’s attention more on housekeeping things and ways to make money rather than on the creative side. They all had good intentions when they started out on the presidency and they get diverted by the unhappy realities they faced.

CBC and public broadcasting is not a business like any other business – it’s a public trust. And you and I and a whole bunch of other people are in a way like missionaries catering to citizens rather than consumers. The bottom line is not to make money, the bottom line is public service. In a way, just like a university is the sum of its scholars, the CBC is the sum of its creative staff.

O – You know, there are still a surprising number of people who think the CBC’s reporting is biased.

N – Well, that’s inevitable no matter what, because people want it to reflect whatever their particular bias is. That’s a natural human reaction to want to have a newscast cast according to what your beliefs are. I think that happens all the time. That happens with the BBC and print and happens with the American networks as well.

O – Did you face a lot of criticism when you were doing it?

N – Oh sure. It’s inevitable. You really have to fight against it, because particularly on the news side, public broadcasting is a public trust and you have to earn the trust of the people and you have to drain yourself of as much bias as you possibly can. Every human being is biased in one way or another but what you have to do is consciously try to avoid and minimize those biases and make sure they don’t infiltrate into your programming.

O – It’s a constant struggle. It’s hard.

N – Oh yeah, it’s not easy. Public broadcasting isn’t easy – that’s why it has lots of adversaries (laughs).

O – Did you watch the Secret Mulroney Tapes?

N – Yes, I did.

O – What did you think?

N – Well, I was just a little uneasy with the approach on Peter’s questioning.

O – Oh yeah?

N – Well… yeah. If I had made the same arrangements and had the same communications and commitments I’m not sure I would have taken the same route as Peter did.

O – It seems to me to be such an obvious betrayal. I can’t figure out how he justified it. In the show he talked about a book deal, and that because Mulroney wrote his own book, the tapes were fair game.

N – Well, he did to some degree, but I think he put his journalism ahead of anything and everything. I’m sure he would say he didn’t make commitments, but it sounds like he made some form of commitment to Mulroney. But I guess it’s an issue of ethics as much as anything else.

O – It was still a fascinating show.

N – Well anybody who knows or had anything to do with the private Mulroney certainly knew that he had a monumental dictionary of swear words. (laughs) But then again lots of other people did too. When I was in Washington as a correspondent I spent a lot of time in press conferences and private meetings with Lyndon Johnson, when he was majority leader of the senate as well as president, and if anybody could outswear Mulroney it was Lyndon Johnson. But I never wrote about it. Well, a little bit in one of my books, but not that much.

O – Reading Cue the Elephant, it seems like everyone had a foul mouth back then.

N – (laughs) Well, in private conversation you tend to be more liberal in your words.

O – I think I even read a few words from Juliette.

N – Well, I doubt it was her – she was so careful with things like that.

O – So you were in Vietnam. How much time did you spend there?

N – Not that much. It was a month just before the Tet offensive. I had spent so much time listening to people in the boardrooms in the Pentagon that I wanted to see what it was like in the field and that gave me a chance to talk to the farm kid from Kansas instead of the bureaucrats in Washington.

O – Nowadays that’s the kind of reporting the Pentagon doesn’t want anymore.

N – Well it was interesting because in that time, in Vietnam, the Pentagon was very free with its censorship and you could pretty well do anything that you wanted to do. It was a very open arrangement with the media and you could just go to the airport and hitch a ride with one of the airplanes. So it was pretty easy to get around and there was not very much censorship at all, except obviously what would endanger somebody’s life through your reportage. But it was very much unlike the correspondence in WWII which was essentially cheerleading.

O – Have you ever thought of writing The Microphone Wars II?

N – (laughs) Actually, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s an interesting possibility, but then again I’m getting lazy in my age.

O – (laughs) I think it ends in ‘94.

N – Just when Perrin Beatty became CBC President.

O – Did the book sell well?

N – Yeah, it spent a good amount of time on the bestseller list. It was bigger than I intended, but that’s because the CBC was much bigger than I imagined. There are always tensions between the public broadcaster and the private broadcasters, and tensions between the government and the private broadcaster, and tension between management and the creative people at the CBC. Creative people meaning the technicians and even the bookkeeping, which can be pretty creative at times.

O – It surprises me sometimes how many people who don’t work at the CBC are interested in this stuff.

N – It’s something that’s in our living room every night and at one point it was the only thing there was. For a generation of Canadians the CBC was all there was on TV. Now it’s a crowded marketplace.


  1. billy idol
    Posted December 17, 2005 at 12:04 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    pardon the gushing . . . but excellent interview, O–what a coup for you! You scooped all the other Can. blogs. Ouimet for CBC prez!

    I liked it when Nash talked about public broadcasting catering to citizens, not consumers, and that the CBC’s mandate should be “scaled forward,” not backward.

    Anon.–don’t be so cryptic! What was Nash’s role at the CBC during the October Crisis? Educate us!

  2. Anonymous
    Posted December 17, 2005 at 11:17 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I always liked Knowlton Nash, until I found about his role at the CBC during the October Crisis.

    Now I just think he’s a fool.

  3. hugh
    Posted December 12, 2005 at 2:55 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    it,s so strange coming at this issue from the other end – as a listener of CBC and seeing what the inside of the debate looks like. What would be the point of privatizing the CBC?

    It’s so much worse than I thought as just a listener, so frustrating to see this strange approach inside CBC management. How did this come about – I guess from political mandates from the govt?

    We are in this unique age, where all of a sudden communication technologies have burst wide open for anyone to use/produce/listen/watch – which will lead to so much new creativity & documentarianism…and could completely revolutionize and energize what public broadcasters do. yet.

    i’ve said it 1000 times, but it’s so sad to see other public broadcasters worldwide embracing these changes so wholeheartedly, and CBC going the other direction.

    and so sad that people who care about public broadcasting, like NK, seem to be absent from CBC management.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2005 at 8:27 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Dude, the CBC is NOT planning to sell the archives to the BBC. Get your facts straight!

  5. Anonymous
    Posted December 11, 2005 at 4:19 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Should have asked him about current plan to sell the archives (starting with its sales division) to the BBC.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted December 9, 2005 at 4:40 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I remember Patrick Watson on TV talking about his time as Chair of the CBC (89-94). Everyone at the top was of a single mind – privatize the CBC, except him. He found he couldn’t make any changes, couldn’t make a difference because of the block he faced. He said if but one person in the upper management ranks or board could be reasoned with, he would have stayed and tried to make a difference. He left. And that was back then….it is still the same!

    We aren’t going to get a good leader for the CBC as long as it is like that. I was annoyed during the lockout when Patrick Watson said the CBC should be given the three finger salute (i.e. control-alt-del) and started over. (I’m majorly paraphrasing!) But I understand now why he said that. Maybe he is right.

    Maybe if Knowlton joins up, Patrick would have his “one person” who could be reasoned with, so he could get things done! Come on back, guys! We need you.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted December 9, 2005 at 7:27 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I think “crisis of morale” pretty much nails it.

  8. Anonymous
    Posted December 8, 2005 at 6:37 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Thanks O-I enjoyed reading that. It’s really too bad that all the best candidates for CBC Pres wouldn’t wish the job on their worst enemy. Really too bad. The Corporation, the people who work here and the Canadian public deserve better, and I just wish that the momentum that was so evident during Aug-Sept had grown into a positive change. But nothing has changed (for the better). Too bad,huh?

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