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Peter Mansbridge: Canada’s Anchorman

Peter Mansbridge reflects on his career in the news biz & these very strange times
Reel People 0630
Peter Mansbridge anchors The National, weeknights and Sundays at 10pm on CBC Televsion.

 

It’s almost impossible to imagine Peter Mansbridge doing anything else but what he’s doing right now: anchoring the nightly newscast on CBC Television, putting tough questions to the powers-that-be on Mansbridge: One on One, and navigating viewers through breaking news events.

But there was a time when the British-born Mansbridge – now 67, and the longest-serving active anchor among the three big networks in Canada – was a high school dropout lugging around suitcases, fueling planes, and selling tickets for a small airline in Northern Manitoba.

“One day, I was announcing the flight on the PA system in the airport, and somebody heard me and offered me a job at the CBC Northern Service Station in Churchill,” Mansbridge tells Reel People, chuckling. “It’s 1968, and that’s how I started at the CBC. I’d never thought about broadcasting. It had never crossed my mind. Namely, they couldn’t find anybody to take the job. That was what it was like in broadcasting in those days, in the ‘60s. There was no line-up for jobs.”

On June 16, Mansbridge was in the 604 as part of CBC Vancouver’s Fall Season Preview event. For Mansbridge, it was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pit stop in a week that began in England, took him to Alberta and BC, and then back to Toronto to his post behind the anchor desk.

Since those early days on the air in Churchill, Mansbridge has risen through the ranks to essentially reign as the chief correspondent of CBC’s news division. He’s been a steadfast on-air guide for Canadians through numerous paradigm-shifting events, including the Gulf War, the September 11 attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2014 Parliament Hill shootings.

Despite his lack of formal media training, Mansbridge says he’d honed his nose for news growing up in Malaysia and listening to the BBC World Service with his family. He based his first newscast on “the principles I’d learned as a kid, which was if you’re interested in something, you ask questions, challenge assumptions, tell people what you’ve learned, and that’s still a core to what I do.”

Every year presents its crop of strange and exciting stories, and 2016 “has certainly been no exception,” says Mansbridge, who has served as lead anchor on The National since 1988. “We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before. We’ve never seen a race like this in the US. We tend to say that every once in a while, but this one really is different. It’s just bizarre, and who knows how it’s going to end up, and how many more twists and turns it’s going to take.”

Whatever happens down south, Mansbridge says his newscast will continue “to take a hard look at what’s going on and try to analyze it, try to fact-check things.”

Mansbridge admits the Trump candidacy took his newsroom by surprise. “At the beginning, we had the same attitude as most American journalists had, which was, ‘They’re talking about Trump here, he’s never going to win, he’s just a joke, and we’ll treat it like a joke,’ and a lot of people did, and this is what they got for doing that,” he says.

There are other challenges, says Mansbridge, facing the world in general and journalists in particular, including a “different kind of war than we all grew up, but a war nevertheless, whose impact reaches from the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria to the bizarre nature of what we saw in Orlando, and that troubles us all, challenges us as journalists, in terms of the way we tell those stories.”

And then there’s social media, the very concept of which didn’t exist when Mansbridge entered the news business in 1968. For Mansbridge, social media is both a helpful tool and a hindrance.

“Any opportunity you have to flood the zone with more information is good, unless that information is bad information. That’s the problem with social media,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that happen on it that give you a head start on a story. There’s a lot of things that set you back because it’s just not true, or it’s twisted so out of shape that it leads you down the wrong path.”

When the network cuts into regular programming with live coverage of a news event, viewers see the machinery of the newsroom in action, says Mansbridge.

“I’ve found over all my years is, if you’re up front with viewers, they’ll trust you,” says Mansbridge. “You tell them what you know with certainty, what you’re unsure about, even when it’s coming from official statements; they will reward you for that in the sense that they will trust you.”

 

The National airs weeknights and Sundays at 10pm on CBC Television.