Television News: History on the Run
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Jun 1986, p. 1-14
Nash, Knowlton, Speaker
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Item Type
A joint meeting with The Royal Commonwealth Society (Toronto Branch) on the Dominion of Canada Day celebration. First remarks by The Hon. Lincoln M. Alexander. The address begins with three provocative statements: "I believe the media are the glue that holds together our democratic society"; "I believe television is by far the most important element in that glue"; "I believe we in journalism are doing a better job for the public today than ever before. But it's not good enough." Following is a closer examination of those statements, with a focus on the responsibility and limitations of television journalism. Many anecdotes and personal recollections are included as illustrative examples, and statistics that show how significant a role the television plays in our lives. How socially responsible journalism can bring all of us closer to the truth.
Date of Original
26 Jun 1986
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Knowlton Nash Television Journalist, CBC
Chairman: Nola Crewe, Vice-Chairman, The Royal Commonwealth Society (Toronto Branch)
The Hon Lincoln M. Alexander, P.C., Q.C., K.St.J., BA.

Mr. Alexander

Let me say how pleased I am, to have this opportunity to be with you as you celebrate a tradition that has been going on for some time. When The Royal Commonwealth Society and The Empire Club of Canada get together, it is always a meaningful celebration, but this even more so because July the First is almost upon us.

You know, when I think of this magnificent country that we live in, we're still blessed; we're blessed with human resources, we're blessed with strength in our diversity, we're blessed with freedoms, we're blessed with a landmass that has most of the precious metals in the world, we're blessed with technical excellence, expertise; we're blessed with so many things which makes us the envy of many countries and this is why so many people want to come to this beautiful land of ours, the land of hope, the land of opportunity.

I know, that, as a result of all these things that we possess, that we so nurture; that we stand tall, we stand high within the family of nations. I'm just so happy to have this opportunity to be with you, because I think in pursuing that which we have, we're learning to live with one another in trust, love, respect and understanding.

I'm delighted to see The Duke of Edinburgh Award Winners here, I am part of that, and I salute you and I commend you for the excellent job you are doing. You are certainly leaders of the future.

At this time, I'm so happy to stand here as Her Majesty's representative in and for the Province of Ontario to bring you sincere greetings and I can do that without any qualm. I couldn't do that before, because I hadn't met her in a very formal way, but I'm just returning from England and let me tell you, that that was one of the most interesting experiences of my life, when I had the opportunity of meeting Her Gracious Majesty. She is really warm, she is witty, she laughs, she smiles and I'm so pleased that I'm blessed with being part, if you will, of her, of that extended family. Sincerest congratulations for bringing this day together, Miss Macdonald, Mrs. Crewe, and with that I just want you to stand and raise your glasses while we drink a toast to our beautiful Canada.

Ladies and gentlemen: To Canada. Thank you very much, and may God continue to watch over and bless each and every one of you.


Nola Crewe

Our guest today has one of the best-known faces in Canada. While two hundred and fifty people are gathered here today to listen to him, this evening eight thousand times as many people will gather in front of their television sets to listen to him on The National. That is our most-watched program in Canada and it follows in a grand Canadian tradition of Lorne Greene, Earl Cameron, and now, Knowlton Nash. But the role of star anchorman is a relatively new one for our guest.

Forty years ago Knowlton Nash entered the news business with British United Press. Then, in 1956, he started reporting for the CBC from Washington. Television and news reporting have seen many changes, and Knowlton Nash has helped to make those changes happen. His career has spanned continents, uprisings and campaigns. He interviewed Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, as he covered their campaigns from one end of the United States to the other. And, in Canada, by bus, train, plane and boat and anything else that would take him, he covered our campaigns. If they had had a frequent-flyer program in those days, our guest would have had to take an early retirement to take advantage of all the trips he would have amassed. However, he didn't retire.

In 1969, he left our television screens and the world's trouble spots for an even more adventurous locale: he entered CBC management as the Director of Television News, Current Affairs, and later, Information Programming. And there, during a technicians' strike, he first read The National. When a new anchorman was needed, the news editors asked him to take it on. The anchor job had changed; it no longer was just reading the news that the editors had prepared. It now required someone who knew the news, who had been to all the strange trouble spots of the world and who could ask intelligent, probing questions off the cuff when it was required. For those of you who have read our guest's book, History on the Run, you know that he had those qualifications. For all of us who look to him to set our minds at rest each evening, we know this is the man who is, and always has been, there when it all happened.

Knowlton Nash

The English poet Matthew Arnold once wrote that "Journalism is literature in a hurry." I'm not at all sure about it being literature, but, these days, it's certainly accurate to say in a. paraphrase, that journalism is history on the run.

What I'd like to do is to make two or three flat, and probably provocative statements about the news business, about journalism, about our efforts to write "history on the run."

First, I believe the media are the glue that holds together our democratic society.

Second, I believe television is by far the most important element in that glue.

And third, I believe we in journalism are doing a better job for the public today than ever before. But it's not good enough.

There are all kinds of power centres in any democracy: the judiciary, the government mandarins, the elected representatives, the Establishment, the business community, the unions. But to my mind, what binds it all together, what provides the glue, is the media.

I think that for a number of reasons. The main reason is that, only through the media, can the governing communicate with the governed in any mass sense. There simply is no other way for those who govern us to send messages out to the mass of the people except through the media. And, too, there is simply no other way for the mass of the people to send messages back to Ottawa or Washington or London, other than through the media, except, of course, arelection time.

This critical "glue" role of the media is, incidentally, something that really has happened only in this century. It evolved out of the transfer of power three or so generations ago from the classes to the masses. It's been particularly so since the arrival of television 30-odd years ago.

A real, participatory democracy today simply can't survive without a free, independent and professional and socially responsible media.

We stake everything on a rational dialogue by an informed public.

It is precisely because the media provide the raw material for that dialogue that society's leaders try to manipulate the media.

It's why political leaders alternately woo and castigate the media. They want to shape our reporting to their objective. And their objective, of course, is to win support, not necessarily to be fair, or sometimes even accurate, in what they say.

Prime Ministers, Presidents, and all political leaders, view managing the media as a vital precondition to their domination of the legislature or the parliament, the public and the whole political process. The most vivid, current example of that is South Africa which has imposed censorship to try to force the media to report only its views on apartheid.

Whether it's done as blatantly as in South Africa, or more subtly, trying to manage the media inevitably puts the politician and the journalist smack into a tempestuous, neverending, delicate relationship. The politician's job is trying to sell something to the public, as indeed are business and labour leaders, or social activists of all kinds - even doctors - who seek to persuade the public to their point of view.

Our job in the media is different. We're, in effect, the informational marketplace where the politicians and others come to sell their ideas to the public. We report what they say, we provide some context, and we may occasionally note where some are economizing on the truth, as all too often happens these days.

So, in effect, we provide that marketplace for the sellers of ideas, and the buyers, the public in general. And, to my mind at least, our loyalty lies first of all with the buyers, with the public in general. I've always felt that the media are, in effect, an agent for the public in seeking out and providing information on what's happening, where, when and why.

Inevitably, though, the media and the politicians and others are in a love-hate relationship, which, I suspect, we both enjoy, although we can be pretty critical of each other at times. And sometimes surprised by each other, too. I was surprised the other day in passing by one politician friend's office where I noticed a somewhat cynical sign on his wall that read:

"Old age and treachery will triumph over youth and idealism every time."

I won't say what party he was with, but it was a revealing commentary on his thoughts.

One problem the media have with politicians is trying to decipher precisely what they mean in some of their statements. For instance, what on earth did Premier Brian Peckford really mean when he spoke a while back saying he would eliminate unemployment in Newfoundland by creating, to quote him directly, by creating "hundreds of jobs for thousands of Newfoundlanders."

Actually, it's a problem called Dontopedalogy or as the dictionary defines the word, "A noted propensity or talent for saying something indiscreet, foolish or embarrassing".

The best propensity or talent for that, that I've ever run across in all my years of journalism, was a Toronto mayor by the name of Allen Lamport. Many of you will remember him. Let me give you a couple of examples. When under attack, he once shouted angrily:

"I deny the allegations and I deny the alligators." Another time, defending his honour, he said: "Why, I even went so far as to be fair."

And once, denouncing a secret, backroom plot about the job he was doing as mayor, he said defiantly:

"If somebody's going to stab me in the back, then I want to be there."

Mayor Lamport was an astute politician, as well as one of the world's most accomplished "Dontopedalogists" But what he meant, I could not always decipher.

Mind you, politicians have their criticism of those of us in the media, too. They feel we have delusions of adequacy, that we often have high principles and low practices.

One of the most biting criticisms came from President Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, who said political journalists were "like those who watch the battle from afar, and, when it's all over, come down from the hills to shoot the wounded."

But most of us in journalism are not trying to "shoot the wounded." What we're trying to do is to sift through the rhetoric of political leaders and others, to try to find reality. Too often, though, our political leaders are not so much interested in reality as they are in perception. Senator Keith Davey spoke a while back to a meeting of political organizers in Montreal and told them:

"Perception has become the reality."

Now that, frankly, scares the dickens out of me because I fear, to a degree, it's true. And it re-emphasizes the importance of the media role to reflect reality as best we can. If we steer our lives and our country on perception only, then at some point we're going to have some very rude shocks when we come face to face with reality.

I was chatting about this at lunch not long ago with an old colleague of mine, Morley Safer, who is, as you know, a correspondent on the CBS program Sixty Minutes. Morley used to be a CBC correspondent, and, before he joined Sixty Minutes, he was in Vietnam for CBS. In fact, he probably was the best broadcast journalist in Vietnam, more vividly, more effectively reflecting the real issues of that war than anyone else.

So much so that President Lyndon Johnson tried to have him fired because, Johnson said, "He's a communist."

When repeatedly assured that Safer was a Canadian, not a communist, Johnson replied that well, anyway, he knew something was wrong with him.

The trouble, of course, was that President Johnson simply did not want to hear the reality of Vietnam because it profoundly differed from the perception he wanted the public to have about what was going on there. He didn't want the facts to wound his theories. But in the end, when reality caught up with perception, Johnson was driven from office.

And it's true for Presidents and Prime Ministers and all of us. We too often prefer the comfortable familiarity of our fantasies and illusions to facts and reality. But part of our journalist's job is to enlarge public understanding of uncomfortable problems.

It's a simple fact that those in authority, whether in the public or in the private sectors, whether it's Brian Mulroney, Ronald Reagan or Conrad Black, must be able to cope with an admittedly sometimes cantankerous media, a sometimes obstinate media, so the country as a whole can preserve the greater values of freedom of expression and the right of people to know.

There simply has to be room in our democratic society for things you may not like to hear; there has to be freedom for the thought you hate.

Now that is sometimes hard for political leaders to accept. Without mentioning any particular names, politicians usually have healthy, even over-developed, egos, and they want their self-image reflected by the media, and get upset when that doesn't happen.

The difficulty for some political leaders is that they want motherhood and virginity at the same time. They sit on a volcano of conflicting demands. And as we move through the 1980's, it's clear that issues and events are moving so quickly and become so complicated - things are so inter-related - that there, in fact, seem to be no clear-cut solutions to anything any more. There are just trade-offs. And our need to know what's being traded off for what gains and what losses, becomes more critical every day.

And that, in turn, increases the importance of journalism in a democracy as, in effect, an agent for the public, to provide a fair reflection of reality and not somebody's self-image.

That's our "glue" role between the governed and the governing. To inform, to explain, to background, to look to the future, to stimulate interest in public affairs, to reflect various points of view on issues, actions and events, to reflect social co-operation as well as social confrontation. What we are doing in news reporting is, as Walter Lippman said, to "provide the rivers of fact to feed the streams of opinion."

As I've mentioned, there are various ways of doing our job: the Gutenburg way of the printed page, and the electronic way of radio and television. Of all those vehicles of information - newspapers, magazines, radio and TV - clearly by far, television has the most impact and is the most important.

Every survey I've seen demonstrates that. The Kent Royal Commission on the media found through its own surveys that television news programming was regarded by those Canadians polled as the best to keep you up to date, to be the most fair and unbiased, the most influential, the most believable, and the most essential to Canada.

We in the CBC had our audience research people do a survey awhile back comparing public belief in The National and in local newspapers. By a margin of about five to one, The National was pronounced the most believable. Five to one.

Now that kind of thing alarms me. As good as I think The National is, I know it's not five times better, five times more reliable, than local newspapers. As good as I think our television news is, I know it has weaknesses.

And I know, too, that to be well informed, you have to read, read newspapers, magazines and books, and listen to the radio. -

Nevertheless, like it or not, most people do depend on television for their knowledge about what's happening, where, why and how.

You certainly can see that in the statistics. Canadians spend more than half their leisure time watching TV, an average of about 23 hours a week in front of that mesmerizing box of wires and tubes. Three and a half hours a day for every man, woman and child in the country.

The most recent Nielsen Survey I've seen shows women 55 years old and over watch the most of all, an average of 36 and a half hours a week. Men in the same age group watch 33 hours a week.

We spend so much time with TV that people are increasingly talking to their sets. A survey has shown that something like two-thirds of all Canadians watching TV actually talk out loud to their TV sets.

Interestingly, the highest incidence of that, for what reason 1 can't possible imagine, is in New Brunswick. Surveys show that in New Brunswick, 84% of the people talk out loud to their television sets.

A recent survey shows most people say their television set is the most important object in their home - more important than their bed, their refrigerator or their washing machine. They may be tired, hungry or dirty, but by God, they're not going to miss Dallas, or Front Page Challenge, or The National.

By the time our youngsters reach the age of twelve, they will have seem something like 12,000 hours of television. That's about twice as much time as they've spent in school.

So you can just imagine what kind of massive cultural conditioner that is, in giving young people their sense of self, their values, their role models and heros, their expectations and reference points, and their knowledge about what's happening in our world.

Those somewhat alarming figures underline the importance of television in today's society. To my mind, TV is the greatest instrument for mass education ever devised. And, while certainly much of television should be pure entertainment for the sheer joy of it, we have to be wary of the temptation to pervert its almost entire use to pandering to the lowest common denominator, to making TV an instrument for the numb and the dumb.

In Canada there are about 11 million television sets - 11 million electronic cannons, if you will, firing out information all day. I think it's fair to say that Canadians, and people in most democracies today, are better informed than ever before because of television. It has brought the news to people who simply didn't read the papers or books before. It's made understandable to millions of people the workings of democracy as they watch Parliament in debate, federal-provincial conferences. Television has taken us to the moon, and to war, made us aware of profound social changes in our country.

So we are, I think, better citizens because of television. But in my business of television news, that huge platform means we have the heaviest responsibility of all the media. The bigger the platform, the bigger the responsibility.

WH. Auden has said we live in an "age of anxiety." We in television news have a responsibility to lessen that anxiety, to make our news programs more than just chewing gum for the eyes, trivialized glances at important issues and events.

It was with that sense of using television to enrich, to broaden, our understanding of what's happening and lessen our anxieties, that led the CBC to take the plunge and switch The National from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. in partnership with The Journal.

The change to 10 p.m. was made not just as a schedule change, but as a profound, philosophical commitment to a more aware, a more enlightened society.

It was, however, a very real gamble.

The National had been at 11 p.m. for 30 years, going back through the years of Larry-Henderson, Earl Cameron, Stanley Burke, Lloyd Robertson and Peter Kent. At was a tradition, a habit, and you don't break that kind of 30-year tradition and habit lightly.

We also knew that 10 p.m. is the heart of prime time on television, and the competition at that time is simply ferocious.

The competition was not other news programs, but rather the mass appeal "shoot-'em-ups" and adult soap operas that flourish at 10 p.m. on CTV, Global and the American stations. We were warned we could be badly hurt in audience terms.

But we decided to take a calculated gamble, we decided to take a chance with something just a little more intellectually demanding than Knots Landing, Falcon Crest or Love Boat.

I'm relieved to report the gamble has paid off. The combination of The National and The Journal has made the 10-to-11 time period a popular electronic highway of information for Canadians.

When The National was at 11, our audience size averaged about 1.2 million. Now, with The National at 10 Monday through Friday, we've been averaging close to two million viewers every night. And often, we get two and a half, and sometimes three and a half million. The Journal is reaching audiences averaging around 1.8 million every night, and sometimes more than two million.

In fact, I just saw an audience report this morning on the whole 1985-86 television season, and it showed that of all the regular Canadian programs on the CBC - including Saturday night hockey - The National was the number one program in audience size.

My third point in these comments on journalism, on what I've characterized as history on the run, is that journalism today is better than it has ever been. With very few exceptions, you no longer see the sensationalized, yellow journalism of the first part of this century.

Taken as a whole, today we in the media are doing a more responsible, more accurate, more effective job than ever before.

But it's not good enough.

It's not good enough because, as I've sought to demonstrate, society today has become so dependent on the media that we in the media have to be better, have to be more reliable, be more accurate and fair. Journalists have to become more conscious of our social responsibilities, of our responsibilities as agents for the public, and being the glue of democracy.

To me, perhaps the most worrying problem for journalism today - especially for television journalism - is the idea that the news business is show business.

It certainly is not. In fact, I hate it when The National is called "a show." We all, I suppose, do from time to time refer to our news programs as "shows," but I cringe at that word because it communicates what I think is a fundamentally wrong sense of values.

For television, the temptations of slash-and-trash journalism can be attractive for those who value entertainment values over news values. And some people talk of "zapping the corneas," and getting more "jolts per minute." Too often today, some news organizations and reporters give priority to theatricality over substance.

There is also a great deal of talk about the need for objectivity in journalism today. I happen to think objectivity is impossible to achieve. We're all products of our background and environment with various points of view.

But, while objectivity itself is, I think, impossible to achieve, I think we must continually strive to achieve it, to try to come as close as we can. In other words, I suppose, simply to be fair. And I much prefer the word "fair" to "objective."

The media hold a mirror up to society, but we do so selectively. We have to accept that the very raising of that mirror will change the character of the event or issue by intensifying it, or glamourizing it, or denigrating it. So we must be as sure as we can that we are giving a fair reflection of reality and truth when we raise that mirror. We have to remember

Winston Churchill's comment that "a lie can be halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on."

We're not giving reality and truth a fair chance if we, in the media, take on the role of adversaries in our reportage, if we try to be the political opposition instead of the political parties, if we sensationalize, if we're lazy or careless or unscrupulous, if we're "Show Biz" or, too, if we're shallow, simplistically looking only for good guys and bad guys, and not looking hard enough for the significant nuances and subtleties of complex stories.

As reporters, we're not entertainers, we're journalists. We must be a fair witness to reality and recognize that the heart and soul of our business is our credibility.

Long before there was such a thing as a "mass media," Aristotle, a Greek philosopher said:

"Men by nature desire to know.:"

Men and women do desire to know and need to know. And it's our job in journalism to provide that knowledge.

We may be a nosy and cheeky bunch, but, in some ways, 1 think we're often not nosy or cheeky enough. Our job is to try to keep the record straight, to try to expose those who fiddle with the truth.

As the people who make the news become more sophisticated and skilled in presenting their self-image, we in the media have to become more sophisticated and skilled in trying to reflect reality. In our investigative reportage, in our political reporting, in all our reporting, we must do that with the highest degree of professionalism. As I've said, 1 think we're better than we've ever been, and we need to be even better if we are to be effective as the glue of democracy and as an agent for the public.

There used to be a saying that "No news is good news." Today, "no news" would be bad news, bad for each of us as individuals and bad for all of us as a society. Our job in the media is to provide that news, and to provide a searchlight probing through the self-serving manipulation of some of those who are selling themselves and selling their ideas to the public.

What we do may just be "history on the run" and rather less than perfect, but a socially responsible journalism can bring all of us as close to the truth as we'll get for a long time.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Nona Macdonald, President of The Empire Club of Canada:

One of The Empire Club's objectives is to bring the speaker to the people and the people to the speaker, and today, with the assistance of The Royal Commonwealth Society and Nola Crewe's invitation to our guest to be with us on Canada's birthday celebration, l think we have achieved that objective. We have CBC TV's Knowlton Nash off the screen and on our platform, and has he not taken us on a trip down the highway of communications in the most captivating and informative manner?

Mr. Nash, it is not surprising that a group of academics in Michigan voted you as the winner of the 1986 Eliza Doolittle Award for Excellence in Communications, because in addition to your consummate skill in interviewing and presenting, you tell a rollicking good tale and one with very thoughtful insights - and we'll take it away with us.

You are indeed "the knight of nightly television" and we don't want you to come "unstuck;' so it is my pleasure to present you with a memento of appreciation of both our organizations: an Empire club tie with the appropriate maple leaf insignia. We hope you'll wear it in good health and "on camera" as often as possible.

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Television News: History on the Run

A joint meeting with The Royal Commonwealth Society (Toronto Branch) on the Dominion of Canada Day celebration. First remarks by The Hon. Lincoln M. Alexander. The address begins with three provocative statements: "I believe the media are the glue that holds together our democratic society"; "I believe television is by far the most important element in that glue"; "I believe we in journalism are doing a better job for the public today than ever before. But it's not good enough." Following is a closer examination of those statements, with a focus on the responsibility and limitations of television journalism. Many anecdotes and personal recollections are included as illustrative examples, and statistics that show how significant a role the television plays in our lives. How socially responsible journalism can bring all of us closer to the truth.