Mansbridge embarrasses with Ford interview

If you forgot to go on the Internet last week, then you missed a scrappy editorial by a Canada.com editor, calling out Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for having a tenuous relationship with the truth, and CBC Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge for being a patsy.

William Wolfe-Wylie, Canada.com’s home page editor, a Mount Allison alumnus, and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Argosy, made two key points in his editorial: Rob Ford is a liar who needs to stop lying; and, to a lesser extent, Peter Mansbridge embarrassed his profession by letting Rob Ford lie to him and his viewers on the CBC’s flagship news show.

To an extent, Wolfe-Wylie has it right: During the Nov. 18 interview on The National, Mansbridge did not ask a single question that the public either did not already have an answer to, or that which they could not have guessed based on the broken record that is the Fords’ public script. Instead, he and his bosses offered the Fords some twenty minutes of primetime television to promote their mythology.

Unfortunately, Wolfe-Wylie spent the article tearing apart the wrong part of the problem. Torontonians (and Canadians, and everybody else on the planet who knows someone with an Internet connection) already know that Ford can’t be trusted to tell you the colour of the tie he is wearing, let alone to recount past events with accuracy. And to Ford’s credit, the nature of the scandal centred around him is more of an embarrassment than anything that could be construed as a threat to democracy.

The real problem is that our news media is not doing its job of holding public figures to account. This concern was secondary in Wolfe-Wylie’s article.

The CBC’s mission, among other things, is “to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest”; its values are accuracy, fairness, balance, impartiality, and integrity. As far as ends and means are concerned, these are not out of line with those of private news organizations, including the Canadian Press.

Not only did Mansbridge fail to advance the goals of Canada’s public broadcaster, he failed to even observe its stated means.

While three minutes of The National on Nov. 19 were devoted to debunking the Fords’ sillier statements, the segment featured a junior reporter, and Mansbridge’s interview from the previous day was barely mentioned.

In a brief telephone interview, Wolfe-Wylie told me that since Mansbridge’s job is to read the news, and not to report, the CBC should have had its city hall beat reporter go over the footage and fact check.

Still, Wolfe-Wylie, who works in Toronto, said that many reporters are unwilling to challenge the Fords during interviews, because of the risk that the Fords might simply shut down a hostile interview then and there—and an exclusive interview with the Fords is a rare event.

That’s all well and good, but the fact remains: if journalists are unable or unwilling to ask the tough questions of those in power, then there is no journalism. And that this happened with a news organization as massive and powerful as the CBC adds salt to the wound.

But let’s not forget that Mansbridge has another job: he is chancellor of Mt. A.

The chancellor’s job is to be an ambassador—a respected public figure who inspires confidence in the university and its mission. The choice of chancellor tells the world something about who we are, and what we value.

When Mt. A announced Mansbridge as chancellor back in 2009, the press release called him “one of Canada’s most respected and recognized journalists.”

University President Robert Campbell said he was committed to cultivating critical thinkers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am certain that Mansbridge will continue to do a fine job of shaking hands at convocation, and reading the teleprompter on The National every night on CBC.

But this interview damaged Mansbridge’s reputation. And as the chancellor goes, so goes Mt. A.

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