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CBC Radio News Chief may Alter
Traditional Approaches to News

By Susan Little

 

Michael Enright leans back in his chair wearing one of those multi-coloured Pierre Berton-type bow ties hanging undone around the open neck of his red shirt. "If you can't have fun, there's no point," he says. Enright is in a position to follow his own advice. He is the new managing editor of CBC Radio National News. Few people would consider, however, that his new challenge is likely to register all that high on the fun scale. Improving staff morale is at the top of his agenda.

A couple of years ago, as former editor of the now defunct Quest magazine. Enright said the CBC was demoralized. He said, furthermore, the CBC was centralized and beaucratized by some of the dimmest chief executives of any corporation, public or private. He said it suffered from internal mismanagement of nightmarish proportions, particularly at the hands of lower-middle management people with no idea of what their jobs were. Now the critic gets his chance.

Enright spent more than ten years as a freelance writer-broadcaster with CBC. He got a lot out of it. Now he wants to put something back. His concern is that CBC Radio news has taken second place to television and, to some extent, radio current affairs broadcasting.

The new managing editor has always been explicitly concerned with the CBC's problems - whether originating within its own organization or with changing government mandates. In 1983 he wrote: "The corporation has had to survive a number of threats. It has weathered the yahoo fulminations of politicians who see communists or separatists behind every station break. It has undergone the trauma of sadistic budget cuts by bureaucrats who don't believe in public broadcasting. And it has had to deal with the unending incursion of U.S. programming." Not too long before that, recommendations made by the Applebaum-Hebert Commission represented a threat to the CBC's existence. One recommendation was that CBC become a franchise operation buying what other organizations produce. For as long as Enright can remember the CBC has been fighting to preserve the integrity of its original purpose.

"The CBC must be accepted as the main-stream of Canadian broadcasting, a network not like the others but a statement of National will. It can only survive in a climate of mutual understanding, confidence and support." Will and support. These will be keys to Enright's achieving success in his new post.

He has a lot of will. The degree of support he will receive remains to be seen. "It's simple. If the people I work with don't like how I operate I will just go away."

Seven hundred and fifty CBC employees went away. They were let go, as a result of government cutbacks. Comparatively speaking, the effect on radio news was minimal. But as far as Enright is concerned, the damage done by previous government cutbacks had already hurt the quality of the radio news service. "Everyone says CBC Radio news is terrific. It gets the pat on the head and is then ignored. Television is the problem child in the family so radio news has always just soldiered on with crappy resources, underfunding and yet always says 'ready aye ready'."

Enright likes to operate with no strings attached. He feels life is too short to ditz around with ploys and counter ploys. "I tend to be very open. I don't work from a hidden agenda. The amount of money I am given absolutely affects the quality of the news operation. I have to argue for the news service at every venue that I can get my hands on. We have to have better equipment or we might just as well hand it (CBC) over to the private sector."

Only two and a half weeks into his new job, he hadn't had a lot of time to sit in his new office. There were no books on the shelves, no favorite pictures on the wall and the filing cabinet had not yet been activated. There were many meetings to attend. One delighted assignment editor said it was the first time in the three years she had worked for CBC that the managing editor had attended one of their line-up caucus meetings. And there have been emergencies to deal with. First there was the death of Konstantin Chernenko and then the assault on the Turkish Embassy.

Enright pauses as he puts his feet up on his desk and looks out the window. "I took the job with the understanding that I would only do it for two or three years. I have no other designs on the corporation. I don't want to go to television. I don't want to read the national news or any of that crap. I will do what I can while here, then return to print journalism."

There is a sort of devilish look in his eye. As a kid he could not turn down a double dare. Enright got himself into the usual amount of trouble experimenting with sex and smoking. He put his arm through his mom's washer wringer. He urinated on fires started in a clubhouse he and his gang of friends had in an abandoned garage at the end of the lane where he lived. After dropping out of high school he worked for news-papers in Brampton, Kitchener and Toronto. While his career in journalism led him to increasingly important assignments with Maclean's, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Quest, he developed a second career as a host-interviewer on CBC Radio's, As It Happens, Sunday Morning, Cross Country Check-Up, Morningside and Montreal's Daybreak. His first major opportunity was as host of This Country In The Morning in 1974. The corporation ended up firing him for his not having, allegedly, an on-air personality that was "warm" enough. "I tearfully took my leave and for many years eked out a living as a freelance shepherd," he said some years after the fact. In 1979 he received a Southam Fellowship for Journalism. He studied Chinese history. The Quest editorship followed.

The staff of the new shepherd of CBC Radio News numbers six managers and 60 writers and editors in the Toronto newsroom who produce 39 news programs a day seven days a week. As well, there are 31 local newsrooms across the country and 14 national correspondents. He is accountable to the Radio Program Director.

Lack of money is a major obstacle. What can the new managing editor do with the resources available? Enright is aware that this is a new austere age and that he has to be imaginative in how he allocates the $10-million budget for the Toronto newsroom.

Two weeks into the job, Enright met with the national reporters who collectively represent 200 years of journalistic experience. "A lot of complaints came at me at once. They expect me to deliver and I intend to. They also understand that I am a protem manager . . . I'm not here to see things along into the next era. I will do what I can as long as I am here."

At the top of the reporters' list of complaints is outdated equipment. They want satellite links so they can file their reports as fast as television news does. As it stands, even on a major breaking story a radio reporter has to find a telephone over which to file his or her reports. Around noon on the day the Armenian terrorists invaded the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa, Enright stood in the middle of his newsroom floor, surrounded by senior editors, watching Mike Duffy on CBC television tell us the terrorists had given themselves up. Enright's tie wasn't the only thing hanging open; so was his mouth. National Radio News had been scooped. Brian Kelleher the radio reporter, had had to borrow the telephone from a lady in an apartment across the street.

Next on the complaint list is the lack of cars with mobile phones so they can keep in touch with the studio when out on assignment. And the reporters want more . . . more money to travel so they can cover more stories in more places, more reporters hired so they won't have to work double shifts and more air time to develop stories further than their regular 80-second news spots permit. The reporters have contributed their views and understandings to longer detailed stories on an hour-long program called Sunday Magazine. But it was to be cancelled this spring. "Everyone says (he wants) Sunday Magazine, but we're killing it?" In his second week on the job Enright said he would try to alter a previous management judgment to save the show.

The new managing editor says he looks forward to testing his news judgment. He admits he doesn't know much about radio news. His CBC background was in current affairs and variety, writing and performing. "If I use my common sense, don't lose heart and use my instincts then I am sure I can do a terrific job. Writing involves universal principles whether it is for the eye or the ear."

After 21 years in journalism Enright believes there are many ways to skin a cat and have fun at the same time. When the Rubik's Cube was a big fad, Enright had trouble conquering the block that his four year old son had given him. In the end he figured the cube was meant just for fun. He editorialized his discovery in Quest. "I hurried home and told my son we were going to have some fun. I grabbed Alexander our cat. and furiously began to paint him all different colours. Now we have a Rubik's cat. Now some evenings my son and I chase after the multi-coloured Alexander and twist his little body all kinds of ways until we get the colours to line up. I learned the meaning of fun.

"I'd like us to look at news in a different way. Is news simply answering the five stupid little w's (who. what, when, where and why) or is it what people are thinking and talking about and what has impact on their lives?"

Moving down the long hallways into the national newsroom. Michael Enright stands out. He's taller than everyone else at 6' 4". He's got longer legs and bigger hands. But mainly he stands out as representing a new breed of management. He's not a technocrat: he's a journalist. "People's ears are calibrated differently than they were 15 years ago. All surveys show that people read more now. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on our educa-tional system and then turn around and speak to people in the lowest common denominator. They're not dumb. As well as substance I think people expect style. We should give it to them. The trick is how. But that is what writing is all about. We should try to touch people more in the way we present the news . . . not dramatize it but give it impact, solidity, flair, verve; that's what I'm interested in."

About mid-afternoon, the newsroom is running at its peak, preparing for The World at Six. Men and women rewrite wire stories at their computers. Assignment editors keep in touch by phone with reporters across the country and around the world. Using head phones, editors listen to phone reports, then edit the tapes down to 70-second items.

The focus of Toronto's newsroom has been Ottawa. Enright says Ottawa's important but only as a sideshow to what is going on in the rest of the country. "Cover Ottawa, but then go talk to the people who are the target of government policy! We all are consumers of government as much as we are observers of government." It also follows that if we are all observers then there must be many opinions. But news is covered as "fact."

Enright's point is that because there can be many opinions about the facts we journalists need to cover the processes which give rise to these "facts." Reporters should cover how the government goes about its businesses and what effect that has on all of us. "I'd like to get at that. Take all the bilateral stuff being talked about now with the United States, such as defence sharing. What is the understanding of the ordinary person as to how this country is positioned vis-a-vis North American defence, the Americans and the Russians? What does it mean to upgrade the runways in the north? What is the response of the ordinary person . . .? What is the impact?"

Can the news be views, opinions? That's the grey area in news reporting. "We've got to put to rest the notion of objectivity." Objectivity means there are no grey areas, just "fact." No views, no opinions. It is a CBC tradition to just cover the "facts." Enright's code word for good reporting instead of being objective is being fair or informed. "What is wrong with asking a reporter like Brian Kelleher (who everyone says is really great) to tell it to us as he sees it and tell it in such a way that I will listen?"

So the new bowtied boss thinks the news coverage is a bit too cautious, that it can loosen up a bit and become more conversational. "We don't have police reporters who get their information off police blotters. These people are too bright to report just the facts. I think we should exploit them."

Some people around the CBC say if he can move his idea even one inch he will have succeeded. Others advocate, once a day, one in-depth report in the newscast instead of seven reporters contributing seven snippets.

Speaking before a class of 150 journalism students at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute last fall before assuming his new position, Enright heavily criticized political reporting in Canada. (He's been a political reporter himself, having covered the Queen's Park and Ottawa beats for The Toronto Star and Washington for The Globe and Mail.) The example he gave was of a plane full of reporters following the political leadership candidates around the country filing daily reports during the last federal election campaign. There were a lot of colour stories about bum patting and the like but very few articles dealing with the issues. "Most of what I read was nonsense, crud and ultimately it just turned into babble. Why not leave the reporter alone for a couple of days so he could write a well-thought-out piece?" He went on in the style of a true critic. "Reporters in this country don't have a historical perspective past last Tuesday. The level of questioning is so low. Most reporters don't think, don't relate their news gathering to some body of understanding that the listener or reader may not know. I blame the electronic medium because they get what they can from a 30 second scrum session by throwing out questions like a football or a big blub with no supplementary questioning."

To him, the men and women in the press gallery don't read enough, don't think clearly and don't write clearly. They are sloppier and lazier than their American counterparts. He does admit he as a reporter did the same. "It's part of the herd instinct."

In 1968 Enright covered the U.S. presidential election. "Sometimes you start to think you are pretty important, but you're not. You are just being used."

For the man who is used to going to work at 10 in the morning and having a leisurely lunch with writers discussing great themes, the new job means a drastic change. His time is not his own now; he's on call. "It cuts into my time with my children and I now read for information instead of for pleasure. But I do sneak in some Dickens; it's the only thing that keeps me sane. He was a great reporter you know!"

The kid who grew up playing on the streets three blocks away from CBC Radio's headquarters at 354 Jarvis Street thinks his success will depend on the suffrance of the people who hired him. "I know behind all the rhetoric I have to deliver." He intends to.

Susan Little is employed in CBC Radio's National Newsroom.

 

Published in Sources, Summer 1985



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