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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Is the CBC More Toxic Than Other Media?

In one particular sense, yes. Jian Ghomeshi has left a stain on the public broadcaster that will not be erased so quickly. Even in the unlikely event that he is found not guilty of assault, the memory will remain.

Inside the CBC, morale has plummeted. I’m told, it's slowly recovering.

Outside the CBC, it has not. 

Recently a group of (mostly) female students asked me if it's safe for them to work at the CBC. I was taken aback by the question. But it means that CBC management has a lot of work to do to correct both the appearance and the reality of what it is like to work for the public broadcaster.

In the media, Ghomeshi has opened journalism’s irresistible tendency to schadenfreude.

Among them, Anne Kingston in Maclean's Magazine stands out. She accuses the CBC of abetting Ghomeshi. John Doyle in the Globe and Mail has been similarly tough.

CBC management missteps haven’t helped. Awkward interviews on The National and on 
the fifth estate, have reinforced the idea that management knew about this, but tried to avoid dealing with it.

Recent revelations of managerial backsliding over the issue of paid speeches by high profile CBC journalists have also contributed to the sense of a rudderless public broadcasting.

But how true are the allegations of toxicity?

Neil Macdonald is the CBC’s Senior Washington Correspondent. He is also a well-known contrarian about most issues.

On Facebook, he has taken the view that the CBC is no more and no less toxic than newsrooms in general:

CBC is a big place, and while I will stipulate that Ghomeshi's Q was by all accounts a nightmarish place to work, I repeat that have never seen any "toxicity" in the parts of CBC where I've worked.

I've had editors say sarcastic and even mean things to me over the years, including a senior CBC boss who called me an idiot more than once, and I'm still alive. I've always thought newsrooms are rough and tumble. I even expect them to be. I'd have gone into social work if I wanted something nurturing.

Neil is right - up to a point. In my experience, the newsroom can be a rough-and-tumble sort of place. And newbies can often be subjected to a certain amount of razzing. As a boss once described it, “it’s a place of sharp elbows.”

But Neil misses the point about the nature of newsrooms today. While Neil has been through more than a few newsroom dust-ups and survived, I sense that for entry level journalists, it’s a much tougher place than it once was.

I hear from my students who are lucky enough to land internships - usually unpaid. And they let me know how happy they are to finally land something that comes with a paycheque, even if it is only on a limited term contract with no benefits. 

But as media organizations thin out, the pressure on the newcomers is more than it was in my day - and I would suggest, when Neil Macdonald was starting out.

These young journalists are part of the new media “precariat.” They are unsure how long they might last. They need to be nice to everyone. They are often subjected to harassment by people who could control their futures.

Are newsrooms toxic? That may be overstating it. But CBC management seemed willing to tolerate a higher level when it involved certain “stars.” 

If news organizations are going to thrive in these economically insecure times, they will have to find way to lower the toxicity even if it can never be entirely eliminated. They need to do this if they want to nurture the next generation of journalists. 

Especially at the CBC.

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