A Chat About News, Work, and Life With Peter Mansbridge

Paul Hiebert: According to legend, after a radio producer happened to hear you make some flight announcements over a PA system at an airport in Churchill, Manitoba, he liked your voice so much that he offered you a disc jockey job at the CBC. Prior to that, did you ever aspire to become a reporter?

Peter Mansbridge: No, I didn’t. I was 19 at the time, and hadn’t finished high school. I was bouncing around doing various jobs and ended up at this airline. I didn’t even regularly do announcements. I was doing everything from gassing planes to loading baggage to you name it. One day they just asked me to announce the flight cause the ticket agents were busy, and when I did some guy heard me.

What qualities make for a good interviewer?

Well, the main one is listening. It sounds so obvious, but it takes a while. You usually go into an interview — at least most people do, and I certainly did when I started — very focused on how to fill those five or 10 or 15 minutes. You write down a bunch of questions and get it in your mind what it is you want to do with them. But then you find yourself so focused on what your plan was that you’re not listening to the answers. It takes a while to condition yourself to make sure you listen.

Also, don’t try to cover everything. Focus on a couple subjects and make sure you explore them in a fashion that will inform people.

Is there any skill or talent you don’t have that you wish you did?

Lots of them. I wish I were a better writer and a better speaker. I wish I were totally multilingual and could speak our Native languages. There’s lots of things I wish I had that I regret not having. I wish I had a high school degree, a university degree. I have lots of honorary degrees, but that’s different.

The CBC is biased left. What do you generally say to that?

Show me. Show me where that happens. If you saw my mail, you’d see that the left-wingers call us biased right, the right-wingers call us biased left and the middle seems relatively happy. I usually find that those who are charging us with bias can’t make a case for it beyond just saying it. When I ask them for an example, they stumble around and come up with a half-story cause they usually don’t know what they’re talking about. Believe me, I’ve heard this for 45 years. When the Liberals are in power, the Conservatives say the Liberals own us. When the Conservatives are in power, the Liberals say the Conservatives own us. It’s just ridiculous, but none of them can point to anything specific.

I’ve heard you prefer interviewing regular people as opposed to celebrities. Can you elaborate?

Well, obviously I still enjoy talking to major figures, as those are always interesting. It’s just that I’ve found over time that the most interesting interviews are often those that are done with people who aren’t known, who aren’t celebrities or major political figures, but still have a story to tell because they were captured in some incredible moment. They’re ordinary people, but they have an extraordinary story to tell. When you get those kinds of people, the odds are that you’re hearing the real story. There’s no spin. It is what it is. When I look back on my career, those are some of the big moments.

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a famous person to say something interesting or revealing during an interview?

Well, I think you try to break down the spin. You try to, in a way, surprise them with the questions you ask, and ask them in a fashion that doesn’t provoke a “yes” or “no” answer. You want to see them thinking. You want to ask a question that forces them to think about how they’re going to answer. You can see that happen in an interview; you can see them actually thinking. So when you see that, you know you’re breaking down some of the preparation — which is what you want, or else it just becomes the same interview that everybody else has. There are going to be times when that’s all you end up with because you haven’t been able to break through, but when you do it’s very satisfying.

What subject do you wish Canadians cared more about?

Their own history.

In 1987, you were offered a lucrative contract to join CBS. Was that hard to turn down?

Well, like for a lot of people — not just in this business — opportunities come along, and if you allow the decision to be totally dictated by money then you may end up disappointed. I’m not complaining. I make a lot of money and am very well looked after here. In that particular case, there was a lot more money on the other side of the border, but it was the other side of the border. Plus, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t as good of a job as what the CBC ending up offering me here.

Do you ever struggle with choosing to cover sensational stories that you know people will read and watch and discuss instead of important, yet perhaps boring, events that Canadians need to know for democracy to function properly?

That’s the challenge everyday. You’re trying to determine what’s important versus what’s entertaining. Different news organizations make different choices, and that’s why front pages of newspapers and television newscasts are different. We’re all human. When I’m in our meetings with senior editors, most days I’m making the case for the stories that are important to know, as opposed to so-called watercooler stories — many of which have no impact on our lives whatsoever, but they’re fun for some people to talk about. You have these debates all the time in any good newsroom.

Since the CBC is backed in part by government funds, is there more of a mandate to pursue the important stories, even if that results in a smaller audience?

There’s always pressure. We like to say that we’re not governed by ratings, but obviously you want people to watch your program. Any good one-hour program for us is a mix of items. Putting the majority of your resources and time into the important stuff doesn’t mean you totally ignore some of the lighter material. Within that hour, you want to give a sense of the full body of a day. And it’s not like the world is going to end at the end of that hour. We are going to wake up the next day and carry on.

I’ve heard you grow a beard every summer when on vacation. Is that true?

Well, no. I mean, sometimes when I’m in the bush. We have a couple places we go in the summer that lend themselves to totally relaxing and not getting up early everyday to shave.

Is there anything about 24-hour news coverage that you find needlessly noisy or damaging?

Well, I think anytime you see sloppy journalism that comes as a result of trying to do things too fast, you recognize the weakness of 24-hour coverage. I often find in the world of 24-hour news, whether it’s on our 24-hour network or any other one, the focus is simply on getting to the place where the news is happening, as opposed to getting there and understanding the story and doing basic journalism. In other words, if your focus is only on getting a camera set up and having the person standing in front of it tell us what’s happening, even though they haven’t been anywhere near the real action, that’s not good. That’s not journalism; that’s show business. It’s unhelpful in understanding the bigger picture. Now, I’m not suggesting that’s what happens all the time, but there’s no doubt that it happens sometimes. And when it does, it hurts us all.

What’s your most prominent memory of being in the navy?

I just had a really good time, which was the reason I didn’t last.

If you were a friend of Peter Mansbridge, what would you say is the most annoying part of Peter Mansbridge?

Probably that he doesn’t know when to say “no.” I work really hard, and I’m proud of the fact that I do. I have to work hard to get as far as I’ve gotten, cause I didn’t have the education and experience that others had. So, there’s a point at which you have to say no to some of the requests you get. I do say no to some when they conflict with my family time, but I don’t say it often enough.

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Paul Hiebert is the Editor of Ballast.