MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

KNOWLTON NASH

CBC’s news chief tells what you’ll see and hear in the new news

May 1 1969
MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

KNOWLTON NASH

CBC’s news chief tells what you’ll see and hear in the new news

May 1 1969

KNOWLTON NASH

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

CBC’s news chief tells what you’ll see and hear in the new news

Maclean’s: I think you'd agree that most television newsmen are somewhat egocentric. When you move into an administrative job, aren’t you going to miss the excitement and the celebrity?

Nash: I don't think anyone goes on the air unless he’s a bit of a ham or a lot of a ham. Lately, I’ve been too busy to think about it, but I would hope I’d be able to participate in some programming next season. I think I’m inevitably going to miss a lot of the fun I had as a working journalist. I'm naïve or corny enough to get a tremendous kick out of having known President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, for instance, and having spent an afternoon cutting sugarcane with Che Guevara.

Maclean’s: What sort of relationship did you have with the Kennedys?

Nash: I first saw John Kennedy in the early 1950s. He was sitting in the back row at the Senate, reading a newspaper, wearing a sport shirt, and his feet were kind of dangling over his desk. Just Joe College — it was written all over him. I got to know him and Bobby as a reporter covering the Senate Labor Rackets Committee. They were a very gregarious family and you’d go out to their house and go swimming or talk. After John Kennedy became President he was still a pretty accessible guy when he was away from Washington. Every president I've had anything to do with as a journalist has been much more approachable, a happier man away from the confines of that Oval Office at the White House. I had some personal contact with President Kennedy. I remember once, in about 1962, being over at Bobby Kennedy’s place. There were half a dozen of us there. The President had made some sort of bet with Bobby. President Kennedy never carried any money. He had to borrow money from Jackie when he was taking her out on dates, and in the Senate days he was constantly borrowing money, and the habit of not carrying any stayed with him. This particular time I just happened to be in his line of

vision. And he looked at me, and when the President of the United States asks for five dollars, you give it to him. Maclean’s: Did he pay you

back?

Nash: Well, no, he had one or two other things on his mind,

I guess. I put it down in my expense account under miscellaneous. I couldn’t imagine the CBC bookkeepers passing “Loan to the President of the United States — five dollars.” If you talked to President Kennedy you had enormous admiration for him as a political leader and as a person. Like so many other people, I felt some personal involvement when he was assassinated. During the funeral, when the body was taken from the White House to the Capitol, I suppose there were about 40 or 50 reporters who were allowed to walk behind the casket. I’ll never forget that. The tremendous — awful, awful — nothing but the drums going. I get shivers when I think about it now.

Maclean’s: How have you got along with his successors?

Nash: Johnson felt the press turned on him. He was pretty angry . . . terrible temper. Mac Kilduff, his assistant press secretary, told me once that Johnson came into his office one day and saw a great pile of stuff on Mac’s desk and screamed at him, “I hope your mind is not as cluttered as your desk, Kilduff.” And Mac scurried around and cleared everything off it. The next day Johnson came in again, looked at the desk and screamed, “I hope your head isn’t as empty as your desk, Kilduff,” and stomped out. Kilduff resigned shortly thereafter.

Maclean’s: Nixon?

Nash: Well, Nixon seems to have changed a good deal lately. Whether it’s permanent remains to be seen. He was fairly distant during his days as VicePresident. But during the last campaign he seemed to be striving to have a good relationship with reporters. Nothing like the Kennedys. They were merciless kidders of themselves and you could sit down and joke with them. John Kennedy used to refer to himself at one continued on page 107

“Our function is to let Canadians know what Canada is all about”

Putting a competent reporter in charge of the CBC’s News and Public Affairs programming is sound and obvious corporate strategy — and unprecedented at the public network, where baroque titles have tended to reward bustling bureaucrats rather than program people. When Knowlton Nash, the owlishly familiar Washington correspondent, became director of the CBC’s most important department on March 1, the move brought credit to the new regime of President George Davidson. Nash, 41, is a newspaper and wireservice veteran who has been reporting from the U.S. capital since 1954, initially for The Financial Post. Staff writer Jon Ruddy found him holed up in the Four Seasons Hotel across from CBC’s Toronto headquarters.

NASH from page 12

time as Sir Galahad because of all the feminine adulation. He was mocking himself. Nixon doesn’t have that quality. But he has been trying. 1 spent half an hour chatting with him on a plane between Oshkosh and Stevens Point in Wisconsin, and a very young, bearded guy from the Harvard Crimson joined the conversation and sat down. He was a New Left type. And he was explaining his point of view to Nixon. In the 1960 campaign Nixon would never have talked with anybody like that, but this time he spent a lot of time talking to him, trying to find out what this student felt about everything. This impressed me. Maclean’s: Will the perspective of this country and the U.S. you acquired in Washington influence you now as Director of News and Public Affairs?

Nash: I would like to see very much more Canadian emphasis at the CBC and much less dependence on the Americans. I think that our function is to let Canadians know what Canada is all about. I think Canada is very exciting now. I don’t think Canadians appreciate it. When you're away from your country and looking back at it, as I was for years in Washington, you see it in a different light. I want the CBC to bring more of Canadian affairs to the attention of Canadians. And I think we can build audiences with this sort of programming, instead of American soap operas and so on. Of course we’re concerned with the U.S., and why not? And we mustn’t expect the Americans to be very concerned with us. An American likes us, he likes to chat with us about Canada. It’s a kind of cloudy, pleasant feeling. Canadians are nice, but he doesn’t know much about us and doesn’t care. So we’ll never learn anything about ourselves through the U.S. or, for that matter, U.S. TV shows. Maclean’s: One of your first decisions was to cancel The Way It is. Isn’t there a lot to be said for letting Sunday-night public affairs develop over the course of several years, instead of dumping staff and changing titles every year or two? What’s the point of that?

Nash: Well, I think what you do is provide some very broad terms of reference for your executive producers and your senior people in charge of a program unit. This is broadly what we want, and anywhere within that box they can go. You have to follow a general line. CBC people were looking at The Way It Is and the whole 1969-70 season as long ago as December or even November. When I came into the picture we pursued it pretty intensively. We have been moving in the direction of having a different kind of programming. We want to change the whole range of information programming next season. I think we should involve more people and hear from Canadians more often than we have been able to do in the past. I don’t really think that Toronto is the be-all of Canadian creativity. We have to appeal to the whole country.

Maclean’s: But the same faces seem to turn up inevitably. I mean, Pat Watson doing his thing is the same no matter

what the name of the show is. And you’re not going to change his style, which isn’t a hard-news style, is it?

Nash: Well, Pat can be pretty hard. In some interviews with the Prime Minister he has really been hard. He’s one of the great performers and I think that anybody would be mad not seriously to consider Pat for a major involvement in any kind of television program.

Maclean’s: So it’s the substance of the show you want to change.

Nash: Yes, I think this is right. And to some degree the format. We want to get away from the segmented . . . the hard item on the Middle East crisis followed by a visit to a rock ’n’ roll joint down the street. Longer, harder pieces seem to be far more appreciated by an audience. Maclean’s: Meanwhile, two American

networks have copied the segmented format after studying our Sunday - night shows.

Nash: They have indeed. Sixty Minutes and First Tuesday are following the same lines that we have done. But they are very hard. They are not doing the combination of hard and soft material. Maclean’s: But they’re segmented.

Nash: Yes. It’s what’s in the segments that really counts.

Maclean’s: Do you think that Canada is a couple of years ahead of the U.S. in terms of television public affairs?

Nash: I think we have been a couple of years ahead and I’d like to maintain this lead in the whole area. I think that such CBC radio shows as The World At Six and As It Happens are very far in advance of any radio programming in the United States.

Maclean’s: Isn’t it true that the Sundaynight turnover has been the result of perhaps justified fears at head office of empire - building in Toronto? The old CBC star phobia, the personality - cult phobia? The inevitable friction between creative types and administrators . . . Nash: This isn’t inevitable. It depends on how you set it up. The people who produce the major information shows — whatever night they’re on — shouldn’t be empires utterly apart from CBC policy. I don’t think we’ll have an independent empire next season. There’s always friction, sure, and that’s how you put together a good show. But I don’t think anyone has quite the creative intelligence to be able to know exactly what’s right without any direction. You’re dealing with very emotional people, who are creative because they have that psychological makeup. Anyway, there is an increasing movement of network authority from Ottawa to Toronto. The vice-president of the network is here now, so he is the boss of what goes on the air. There are policy directions from Ottawa, but the responsibility is here in Toronto now. Maclean’s: Some producers have expressed satisfaction at the prospect of having, finally, their kind of guy in a pretty heady administrative job. As a newsman turned executive, are you going to try to bridge the gap we’ve been talking about — between the creative types and the bureaucrats?

Nash: Well, I hope so, and I think if I don’t I’ll have failed, because my whole

background has been newsand programoriented. I believe in as short a line as possible from my office to the people who are putting programs on the air. I think you must eliminate as many supervisory layers as you can. I want to eliminate the filters, because that’s my nature. I want to know, I want to be involved. You don’t set up an organization and say, “Okay, we’ve got this structure, these departments, now let’s put on programs.” You get your program ideas first, then build an organization to meet it. First you decide what you want to do in 1970, ’71, ’72 — where you’re heading. Then, I think, you have to eliminate a lot of overlapping that we’ve had.

Maclean’s: Between news and public

affairs?

Nash: Sure. That’s not to eliminate conflict and rivalry, but somebody, somewhere, has to say, “All right now, this unit is going to do that story.” We're not going to have six units going in there and talking to the Prime Minister about the same thing, or trying to get hold of the Minister of Finance.

Maclean’s: That problem reached a peak during the run of Seven Days.

Nash: Yes, there was this separate empire that was built up and competed not only with the News department but also other areas within Public Affairs. Maclean’s: Can you do anything about the union edict that stops Stanley Burke from gathering or writing any of the news he reads?

Nash: Stanley doesn't want to be a talking head, and I don’t blame him. He’s a journalist, not an announcer, and he’s frustrated. The situation has been bogged down for two years now by jurisdictional problems between the announcers’ union and the wire-service guild. I’d like to be able to do something about it. It’s a matter of goodwill on the part of everybody concerned to recognize what’s best for the service we provide the Canadian public.

Maclean’s: Is there anything that would prompt you to resign and go back to being a newsman?

Nash: I suppose if I failed to create the kind of information-programming area we’ve been talking about, because of my own failures or the failures of the system or whatever. I’m not particularly anxious to beat my head against a stone wall. It was a hard decision for me, leaving Washington. My financial position isn’t as attractive here as it was, because I could do other things on the side. Write and so on. But it was important to me because I think the CBC has a role to play that is very fundamental. I think the CBC is very much like the CPR was in the 19th century, linking the country together. I don’t want to sound corny, but I’ve wanted to make a contribution to Canada.

Maclean’s: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

Nash: Only in relation to the job I’m starting. I’ve never wanted to be the president of a bank, or anything. Maclean’s: President of the CBC?

Nash: I suspect we’ve got a good enough president now. No, I think of myself as a program man, not an administrator. □