Source : National Post
Tony Burman announced yesterday that he is leaving the CBC after nearly eight years as the public broadcaster's top news editor, capping off a 35-year journalism career that gave him a front seat to history.
From producing the late Barbara Frum's famous interview with Nelson Mandela the day after South Africa's future president was liberated from his Apartheid-era imprisonment to directing the corporation's coverage in the aftermath of 9/11, and championing the hotly debated decision not to air the Virginia Tech killer's video manifesto, Mr. Burman has had a behind-the-scenes role in shaping CBC news.
From implementing the shrinkage of local television newscasts to 30 minutes from one hour to the integration of television, radio and online content, he also helped define the corporation's strategic direction at a significant juncture in the media universe.
Love or hate the CBC, journalists and experts yesterday lauded Mr. Burman for offering strong leadership and providing a clear vision under challenging circumstances. Donna Logan, founding director of the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism, said Mr. Burman's tenure has coincided with a "most critical time" for the broadcast industry, with the arrival of 24-hour news networks, audience fragmentation in the 500-channel universe and the rise of the Internet.
"The job that he had as editor-in-chief of everything in English broadcasting is one of the most difficult at the best of times," she said. "But the last seven years cannot in any way be described as the best of times. It certainly has been exciting in that everything is morphing and transforming because of technological developments and his challenges were enormous, but he had to do it in the face of declining resources that made it all the more difficult."
Christopher Waddell, associate director of the School of Journalism at Carleton University, said the CBC News of today pales in comparison to its "glory days" in the 1980s but he credited Mr. Burman with recognizing the opportunities provided by the Internet early on, launching cbc.ca.
"They took a leading position and other news organizations are only now catching up, or trying to catch up," he said.
But Prof. Waddell characterized efforts to integrate television, radio and online news as a "mixed success" due to scant new funds and the nature of trying to get journalists steeped in one medium to broaden their scope.
Perhaps the most drastic change to the CBC's direction during his tenure was the decision to chop regional newscasts in half back in 2000 only to reverse the move late last year. Ian Morrison, a spokesman for the Canadian-content watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said the plan was conceived by CBC president Robert Rabinovitch.
"He had no control over that," Mr. Morrison said yesterday. "He just had to deal with all of that, in my view, incompetence at the top."
Peter Mansbridge, anchor of CBC's flagship newscast The National, said that in fact, CBC brass wanted to axe the regional newscasts altogether, but Mr. Burman vociferously opposed the move.
"As Tony has done many times, he laid his body in front of the roaring train," he said.
Mr. Mansbridge, who has known Mr. Burman for four decades, said his friend and colleague led with the weight of experience behind him, including a role in CBC triumphs. Mr. Burman produced Brian Stewart's ground-breaking 1985 reports that opened the world's eyes to the famine in Ethiopia.
But perhaps Mr. Burman's most defining achievement, Mr. Mansbridge mused, is his longevity in the top editorial job -- unparalleled by any other editor-in-chief in recent memory.
"I don't know how he's still standing," he quipped.
Mr. Burman himself said yesterday that after seven and a half years of striving to meet the high expectations of CBC's demanding audience has been rewarding but exhausting.
"It's a 24/7 job. It gets to you over time," he said. "There's a limit to how many years somebody should do this. Since I started this job about a week after George W. Bush was inaugurated [as President of the United States] it's time for him to leave the stage and I share that feeling."
Mr. Burman's resignation from the CBC takes effect July 13.
© National Post