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Kudos for Knowlton Nash by Antonia Zerbisias

Jun 22, 2006

Source : Toronto Star

Former national news anchor for the CBC accepts lifetime achievement award

The man whose voice was known to the nation won't be using it tonight.

Instead, veteran journalist Knowlton Nash's wife Lorraine Thomson will read his speech when he accepts the Canadian Journalism Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Parkinson's disease has rendered Nash, 78, unsure of the voice that used to reassure us every night on CBC-TV's The National.

"Everybody has challenges and problems to face, and there are a lot more difficult ones than the ones I am facing," he says over the phone from his book-lined Rosedale flat. "I can argue that I can get a couple of extra strokes in my golf game, that's one important thing.

"But what it affects is basically my voice and a kind of seizing when talking in public."

That public - a crowd of business people and journalists - will be on its feet for Nash tonight.

"He is a national treasure," said CJF chair Thomas Kierans in announcing the honour.

His caps a career that took him from daily print journalism to the CBC's Washington bureau during the 1960s.

From there he jumped to the top of CBC-TV news management during the October Crisis and the election of the Parti Québécois government.

"I learned 'cool' from him in that kind of setting," says CTV's Lloyd Robertson, who was the anchor of The National when Nash was news chief. "He was always able to focus on what was important: protecting the integrity of the news department while trying to deal diplomatically with the political masters at the same time."

In 1978, Nash himself became the unlikely anchor of The National where, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, he was "Uncle Knowltie" to Canadians because of his calm and straightforward delivery.

In 1988, he famously ceded the chair to Peter Mansbridge, who had been offered a plum job south of the border.

"I literally owe my job to him and his advice to me over the years," says Mansbridge. "It is fair to say that while Knowlton has been away from the newsroom in tangible terms for decades, he's still very much there in influence. No one I've ever met in this business has the cool, the class and the smarts to deal with (all the) issues. He also has a sense of history and context that no one else has.

"It's a shame he never was the chair or the president."

Perhaps if he had been, CBC would not now be in such a state, scrambling for ratings and funding, locking out workers and messing up schedules.

Nash is the kind of journalist-manager who has forgotten more about CBC's workings than most of the current executives put together will probably ever learn. He's savvy about relations with Ottawa and understands the importance of public broadcasting.

You can be sure that, under his aegis, The National would not be bumped for a simulcast of an ABC reality show.

"That's a worrisome thing," says Nash. "I don't know if it's a sign of things to come, but it opens the door to the possibility.

"You want as big an audience as you can possibly get for the CBC - but always within the framework of the philosophy of public broadcasting."

Since 1988, Nash has kept busy writing bestsellers (The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC, Trivia Pursuit: How Showbiz Values are Corrupting the News), hosting CBC Newsworld programs, writing a regular column for the Osprey newspaper chain plus volunteering at the CJF, which he helped establish.

He never stops thinking about the state of journalism today.

"Knowlton has become a kind of ambassador of journalism, trying to explain what we do and why, as well as admonishing those of us in the mainstream to hold to our principles and not be lured into the tabloid bog where we would lose relevancy for serious news watchers," says Robertson. "He has continued to serve as a talisman for quality journalism, that's what he's always been about. He remains an optimist by nature, so it might be interesting to find out whether he is optimistic about the future of our craft."

As a matter of fact he is.

For one thing, he believes that Conservative Heritage Minister Bev Oda gets it.

"I still have a lot of time for her in the sense that she knows business, she knows private broadcasting, she knows public broadcasting," says Nash.

For another, he's not ready to write the obit for mainstream news media.

"I am not one of those who think, 'Oh, woe is me, the nightly newscast is gone,'" he says. "I think to the contrary: there has never been a more important time for a nightly newscast or a daily newspaper. Every democracy depends on a rational dialogue and an informed public. That's my job and your job, to inform the public."

What about this 24/7/365 world of text-web-cable news, where bloggers swarm the mainstream media for factual errors and alleged bias?

"Primarily they're opinion instead of journalism. Not all of them but most of them," he shrugs. "I really think that a journalist needs the discipline of fact-checking, responsibility and fairness. That doesn't adhere to many of the people who are doing the blogging."

But don't the bloggers serve to fact-check the fact providers?

"And that's a good thing, especially if you have somebody with an expertise in science or law or something," Nash concedes. "And it's a good thing that newspapers today are much more responsive to the public."

But, if he had to run CBC News in this era of CBCwatch.ca and right-wing bloggers who hate the public network?

"I'd be a lot sicker than I am now."

© Toronto Star