ROBERT MACNEIL is an inspiration to every working journalist with an unfinished novel in the top drawer. After working as a broadcaster with the CBC in Ottawa, the Montreal-born, Halifaxraised MacNeil left Canada for Britain in 1955, with the intention of becoming a playwright. Instead, he embarked on a hugely successful 40-year career in journalism, first in print overseas and finishing as a broadcaster in the United States. In 1992, at age 61, MacNeil published his first novel, the widely acclaimed Burden of Desire, set in World War One Halifax. In 1995, MacNeil ended a 13-year stint as co-host of the Public Broadcasting Service’s influential current affairs show, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, to write fiction full-time (he has since published
two other novels). Recently, MacNeil, 71, travelled from his New York City home to attend the Banff Television Festival, where he delivered an impassioned keynote address on the virtues of public broadcasting. The following week, he was back in Canada, hosting a Montreal tribute to Mordecai Richler. While in Alberta, MacNeil spoke with Maclean’s Calgary Bureau Chief Brian Bergman. Excerpts:
You’re often very critical of how American private broadcasters do their job. Yet you say that, for a brief time after Sept. 11, they got it right. How so?
What happened is that events got very serious and suddenly everyone got their heads straight. Their best instincts came out. As one veteran TV producer put it:
‘We never practiced purer journalism.’ Suddenly, they didn’t have to worry about commercial breaks, the size of the audience, goosing this or making that more lively. They were freed of all the crap.
But, as you say, it didn’t last. How pessimistic are you about the future of broadcasting?
I’m quite pessimistic. On the other hand, the Internet is transforming things. I can pick up the news in five minutes on-line without having to rely on some dumb television show. It’s like having your own car rather than going on the guided bus tour where they are damned if they are going to let you go where you want. That’s what young people are finding—you don’t have to sit through someone else’s agenda. But there’s a very real downside to that. One of the great virtues of magazines like Maclean’s or programs like NewsHour is that they create a sense of community, and a sense of what matters to that community. When you are cherry-picking off the Internet, you lose all that.
Along with others, you were highly critical earlier this year when ABC toyed with dropping Ted Koppel’s Nightline if it could woo David Letterman to take over that spot. Why was that so significant to you?
It just seemed symbolic of the contempt that large corporate owners often have for their viewers. It’s a total market view of things from people at the very top of the broadcasting chain. Here’s this program, Nightline, which everyone respects, that five million people watch nightly, and that even makes money. It is one of the few serious news programs left. Why isn’t there a place for that?
But the argument goes that Letterman appeals to a younger demographic which, in turn, is appealing to potential advertisers.
What gets left behind in those sorts of calculations is a huge and increasingly important part of your audience. Viewers over 49 are a group that has a lot of purchasing power. So why aren’t they interesting to advertisers? And as we live longer, this group is only going to grow bigger and more influential. It’s crazy to be contemp-
tuous of them in regards to television programming. Or the other way to look at it is this: let the private broadcasters be contemptuous, but let there be at least one place that takes these viewers seriously, namely public broadcasting.
You’ve traced your belief in public broadcasting, and the way you practised journalism, to your roots at the CBC. Is there a distinct, Canadian way of looking at the role of a journalist?
There is an aesthetic of Canadian broadcasting that I absorbed, and which stuck with me. For all they laugh about it, Canadians are less violent, more law-abiding and somewhat more collectivist and sharing in spirit than Americans. And that expresses itself in the broadcasting ethic.
When you left PBS, you said you wanted to untie yourself from the day-to-day news. What did you mean by that?
I suddenly realized after 40 years of doing this that it would be very nice not to have to wake up every morning and fill my head up with that stuff. I wanted, before I fell over, to have some time to put in my head what I wanted to be there.
When you started to write fiction, you also started to write about Canada. You’ve said you discovered that the roots of your creativity were in this country. What do you mean by that?
When I was in my 20s, I headed to England to be a playwright. At the time, Canada did not have a very strong literary tradition. Most of our models came from Britain or America. I wrote plays, mostly about British people. Well, I didn’t know British people, so I was writing pretty derivative stuff. That didn’t change until much later when I wrote a memoir of my childhood in Halifax [1989’s Wordstruck], Suddenly, by going back to Halifax, I discovered the door into my unconscious. It opened things up for me.
When you left Canada, you said you felt everything interesting was happening elsewhere. Has your view changed?
Oh, yes. If I were a young Canadian with the same ambitions today, I would want to write about this country—as dozens of bright novelists are doing. I’d want to be Wayne Johnston or Ann-Marie MacDonald
writing about their own eastern Canadian experience in some very personal way.
Do you regret not abandoning journalism sooner for the life of a fiction writer?
Well, I have that debate with my daughter, who says I should have stuck to my guns when I wanted to be a playwright. She says I compromised and worried too much about making money. And I say, ‘If I had done as you suggest, you and your brother wouldn’t have eaten.’
You waited until 1997 to become an American citizen. Why then and why did it take you so long?
In a curious way, having my own summer place in Nova Scotia, which I acquired in 1989, made it easier to do. I knew I was anchored there. There was also the realization that, because of changes to both Canadian and American law, I could now, in a very real sense, be a citizen of both countries. That helped me make peace with myself.
Could you have done it otherwise?
I don’t know. I held out for many years. I went through waves of feeling more Canadian, but then I’d say, ‘Look, you’ve lived in the United States now for 35 years, your wife is American, that’s where most of your friends and associations are.’ The comforting idea was that I could use both passports, which I do.
You are working on a book called Looking For My Country. What’s that about?
I’ve been working on that on and off for about 10 years. What is my country? Is it the country I inhabit, or is it the country that inhabits me? In my case it’s kind of an amalgam. It’s really the hardest book I’ve ever tried to write. Fiction is so much easier to be truthful in than fact, especially when writing about yourself.
So have you found your country?
Yes. I’m happy where I live. For me, Canada is a sense of sentimental curiosity about what got me going in the first place. But Canada has outgrown me. The Canada I grew up in was white bread, dominated by Anglo-Scots and Quebec. Now Canada is a wondrously multi-coloured, multilingual country. It’s fascinating, but it’s not the Canada I grew up in. I?]
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