CLOSE-UP

The face of the news

JULIA BENNETT December 21 1987
CLOSE-UP

The face of the news

JULIA BENNETT December 21 1987

The face of the news

CLOSE-UP

KNOWLTON NASH

Knowlton Nash was gleeful as he recalled the visit two days earlier of grandsons Robert, 2, and Jesse, 5. “Robert sleeps in the cupboard in my room—he loves it in there,” recounted Nash, 60, lounging in his sixth-floor apartment overlooking Toronto’s downtown. Nash did not look like someone who just two weeks before had made news instead of merely announcing it. On Nov. 11 he told his loyal television audience that he would step down as anchor for CBC TV’s The National at the end of April to make room for CBC correspondent Peter Mansbridge, who had just turned down a lucrative offer from New York-based CBS. But having given up the job he has loved for nine years, Nash looked relaxed and carefree and happily imitated his grandson. “Sometimes little Robert talks in his sleep,” he said. “When I came in at, oh, maybe 2 in the morning from the office, he didn’t wake up, he just said, ‘Take dat, you rat!’ He’s wonderful!”

The image of Nash, the most familiar figure in Canadian television news, as a doting grandfather fits perfectly with the pleasant, benign aura he projects on air. But throughout a threedecade career with the CBC, Nash has also been an efficient and hard-hitting veteran of foreign news coverage, as well as a top power broker at the network. In History on the Run, published

in 1984, and this fall’s Prime Time at Ten, Nash has detailed his career. And although the books are upbeat and informative like his on-air image, they also reflect the other Nash—the career newsman who from his early days has shown determined ambition and who, even though family and friends now take top priority, remains fiercely committed to the CBC.

In person, Nash is energetic, a habitual jogger who has been running almost daily since 1961. But with his hornrimmed glasses and conservative silver hair, he has come to typify the Canadian news personality—the antithesis of the good-looking well-coiffed American anchorman. Indeed, colleagues agree that Nash is a quietly efficient power in the halls of the CBC. “He is single-minded and patient,” said Toronto publisher Peter Herrndorf, who worked with Nash on the CBC’s ill-fated 90 Minutes Live and the successful 10 p.m. National/Journal package. Added Herrndorf: “Knowlton has a very real instinct for what it takes to be effective in a large public organization.”

When it came time for Nash to turn The National over to Mansbridge, he did so in typical Nash style. It was Nash himself who told viewers of The National that Mansbridge would take his job instead of one with CBS’s morning show. “And Peter—thanks,” said Nash, as the camera zoomed to get a close-up.

“I know it all sounds terribly corny,” he later said, “but I mean it—I felt that Peter had to stay.” Nash added that since the announcement, two other CBC correspondents had refused American offers. But Nash admitted that the decision involved personal disappointments. “It’s kneading the dough of the news every night that I’m going to miss,” he explained.

Nash’s own career steadily advanced in the 29 years that he has worked for the CBC. Torontoborn Nash, who longed to be a reporter in his teens, began freelancing in Washington in 1958 for news organizations, including Maclean’s and the CBC. In 1961 he became a network correspondent and covered Latin America and the Vietnam War before reg turning to Toronto in 1969 as dije rector of news and current afË fairs. After nine years of behindthe-scenes management —he hired, among others, Herrndorf and onetime National anchor Lloyd Robertson (now with CTV)—Nash applied for and got the much-coveted job of National anchor himself in 1978. “The CBC is one of those organizations where you can go back and forth between a management role and a creative role,” said Nash.

But some colleagues who have worked with Nash over the years say that his easygoing nature is part of a canny and enduring ability to survive the political manoeuvring at Mother Corporation, as Nash calls the CBC in his most recent book. “Knowlton had the right executive sheen to advance the news cause,” recalled Bill Cunningham, a CBC veteran who is now a host of CTV’s W5. “He was politically shrewd. And his commitment to Canadian public broadcasting is absolutely without question.” Added Cunningham, who said he lobbied strongly for Nash to get the Toronto post in 1969 for those reasons: “We would fight like hell when we worked together—his argument would always be, T agree with what you want to achieve, but your way isn’t the best, most strategic way to achieve it.’ ”

Some critics say that Nash’s fierce loyalty to the CBC has, at times, been extreme. Veteran newsman Harry Boyle, who himself began at the CBC as farm broadcaster in 1942 and left 26 years later when he was program director, found himself in an adversarial role with Nash in 1977. While chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Boyle ran an inquiry into an alleged proseparatist bias of the CBC, ordered by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. “I expected Knowlton to understand, but he didn’t,” Boyle said. “I

was astonished that someone that close to things could have so little sense of what was going on. I had never seen anti-CBC feeling so bad—there was even talk of selling the network. The inquiry saved the CBC’s neck. But Knowlton took great umbrage.”

But Nash’s loyalty and commitment are highly respected by those who work with him. “The most amazing thing about Knowlton is his leaving [The National],” CBC Journal host Barbara Frum said. “I do not think there is anyone else who would have so graciously put his own interest second to the corporation’s.” Frum added that she has come to depend on the daily discussions she has with Nash before they go on the air. “If I have some question in my mind about a story, I like to chew it over with him,” said Frum. “He has a kind of everyman’s view—a visceral newsman’s approach—whereas I tend to be more theoretical.”

Although Nash will continue to do onair anchoring and host the weekly hourlong Saturday Report, he is also planning longer-range documentary projects. Those close to Nash agree, however, that he is no longer as driven in his career as he once was. “I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of my grandchildren, maybe because I didn’t share very much of that with my own daughter, Anne,” mused Nash, who has experienced three broken marriages. Part of the change, he says, can be attributed to his current marriage to CBC producer Lorraine Thomson. “Lorraine’s presence has been enormously rewarding—and given me a sense of priorities that I didn’t have,” said Nash. “I think I’ve got them straight now.”

Still, most CBC observers say that Nash’s considerable influence on the network will continue to be felt. His three-decade fight for more and better news was vindicated most recently on Nov. 30 when, in a long-awaited decision, the CRTC licensed the CBC to broadcast an all-news channel. “The CBC would not have got the licence,” declared Herrndorf following the CRTC announcement, “if it hadn’t been in part for Knowlton’s contribution.” Nash, who announced the decision on his nightly newscast, was clearly tickled by the prospect. But he said that his greatest surprise has been the flood of mail—200 letters in two weeks—from viewers congratulating him on his gesture to Mansbridge. “It has been so moving. Some people say, simply, ‘Thank you,’ but the basic theme is how proud this has made them of being Canadian.” For Nash, nothing could be more concrete proof of one of his most heartfelt beliefs: that Canadians care about their news.

JULIA BENNETT in Toronto