Good Night and Good Luck

I was 16 years old when I started watching Bill Cameron. And I never stopped...until he did

Mary Murtha
March , 2000 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

Bill Cameron changed my life. He was the broadcast personality who moved me through his print writing. He was the authoritative anchor who admitted to having a dreadful suspicion that as journalists, "we dip into the surface of events, paddle with our feet, exploit tragedies for the good of our careers and get the story wrong."

It happened in an article only 500 words long, in a book called The Newsmakers. Cameron wrote about covering the war in Mozambique for The Journal and about the thoughts that kept him awake at 3 a.m. in room 1427 of the Polana Hotel.

That this man could be so moved by the events he covered, that he cared about truth so much it kept him awake at night, made me see a nobility in the profession I had never before considered. I began watching the news because Cameron managed to overcome the inflated style of most anchors. His intelligence and wit made him stand out from other newsreaders. He had personality, and it came out in his writing.

When viewed that way, journalism to me suddenly seemed not only interesting, but worthwhile. Until I read Cameron's words the summer I was 16, I had planned to become a doctor. But as I thought about that piece, I continued to watch Cameron on CBLT, and my dreams of medicine took a backseat to my new dream of one day finding myself on assignment in Mozambique, staying in the Polana Hotel. Cameron was the spark that lit the fuse.

Last June, I was stunned to learn of Cameron's resignation from the CBC. I read the official statement that contract negotiations had fallen through and he had accepted a fabulous new job as vice president of communications for Digital Gem, but it didn't make sense. Seeing Cameron give up broadcasting was like seeing Gretzky hang up his skates. It shook my faith in the profession. So on Remembrance Day last fall, I took the subway to Cameron's new Eglinton Avenue office at the Internet e-commerce firm to find out what had so changed him since that night in the Polana Hotel.


Cameron enters wearing off-white pants and a multicoloured sweater over a blue-and-white-striped dress shirt. Except for the outfit, everything in his new world is grey. The walls, door and furniture of his small fifth-floor office all feature grey as their primary colour. Even the carpet's dark blue and brown patterns are on a grey background. The room itself is void of personal touches. It contains nothing but some newspapers and an autographed baseball on the windowsill. A visitor might get the impression that Cameron has not long occupied the space. But no, he explains, as he pulls his grey chair from behind his desk to sit closer for our interview - he moved in last July.

The events that caused the 57 year old to resign as host of CBC's Sunday Report had been set in motion months earlier. Cameron had received a final contract offer that cut his salary by 25 per cent and increased his workload. "I don't know of anyone who could have accepted it with any self-respect," Cameron says of the offer. He chose instead to leave not just the Mother Corp., his professional home for the previous 16 years, but the profession as well.

With typical Cameron wit, which I had noticed surfacing on-air less frequently in recent years, he downplays his decision as being of minor consequence to the world of broadcast journalism. "I think the country will survive," Cameron deadpans.

But in reality, his decision was a blow felt not just by CBC viewers like me, but by those who worked with Cameron throughout his career and saw the anchorman's departure as an unsettling example of journalism that is more about style than content.

Peter Kent, anchor for Global, says Cameron was "an intellectual. He thought about subtle complexities in any story that the fast-food journalism generation doesn't always like to consume. He was always a little smarter than most of us. He always thought a little harder."

When people in the business talk about Cameron, they invariably revert to the past tense, as if describing a fallen comrade. The level of praise they use is that normally reserved for eulogies.

"Cameron had all the right motives for being a journalist," says Stephen Hurlbut, CityTV's vice president of news programming and general manager. "He wasn't attracted to it because it was show business. He was attracted to it because of the craft involved and the importance of getting the information out."

Cameron decided to try his hand at journalism in the late 1960s, while still a struggling actor and writer. His first job as a freelance entertainment critic for CBC Radio led to positions at The Star Weekly and Maclean's, where his reputation as one of the best young writers in the business prompted Global to lure him into television writing in 1973.

He was soon on camera, hosting a weekend news program. Anchoring was "something I knew I could do because of my background in acting," Cameron remembers. It was a heady, creative period in Global's history, and the network's risk-taking, intellectual approach to journalism was well-suited to Cameron's idealism.

But Cameron was ambitious. CityTV offered him the anchor job on the nightly 10 o'clock newscast, and he jumped at the new challenge. But it was not a good match. Hurlbut, who was producing the show at the time, fondly remembers how Cameron's more formal style immediately stood out. "I don't think it's completely inappropriate to use the word stuffy. City is very much a free-form, wide-open, personality-driven, roll-up-our-shirt-sleeves approach to life, and Bill's tie was always done up."

In 1983, Cameron was unceremoniously fired while he was on vacation. Almost immediately he received a phone call asking him to do a sample piece for the CBC's The Journal, the country's most respected current affairs show, and he was hired as a reporter right away. He continued doing field reporting and eventually became one of the program's substitute anchors.

Cameron joined the show in its prime. Some of the finest documentaries in international broadcast journalism were being created there. Robin Christmas, former Journal producer, describes the program as "the golden era" of Canadian television. "The Journal had the best of everything," he explains. "It had a good budget and there was a real commitment to quality. Executive producer Mark Starowicz put together the best, the smartest people in the country."

Gordon Henderson, another former Journal producer, looks back on the era as a bright spot in the CBC's history. The Journal, he says, "was at the forefront of some of the most interesting television happening in the world. And you knew it was the world because you would be travelling the world and seeing that you were often the first crew there."

"It was wonderful," says Cameron. Weighing his words, he continues: "It was a program that had intelligence and wit, with the funding that gave the reporters and producers the opportunity to do the kind of pieces they were trained to do. It was TV that mattered."

When I ask Cameron if he has a favourite piece he did for The Journal, I smile when he says it was his coverage of the war in Mozambique. Until that time, the conflict had received little play in the Canadian media. "We did half an hour on Mozambique; it was as good a job as I could do," Cameron says. What he enjoyed most was the opportunity to shine a light on an underreported but significant story.

I confess to Cameron that while still in high school I read his piece on Mozambique in The Newsmakers and was greatly moved by it. "Really?" He smiles. I tell him I admired the fact that he addressed the possibility that a reporter who just drops into a conflict and remains a safe distance from the danger runs the risk of getting the story wrong. Cameron nods, saying that this possibility always exists for foreign correspondents, "But The Journal at least gave you a legitimate shot at getting it right," he says as he moves to answer the phone on his desk, which is ringing for the third time in half an hour.

Once Cameron transfers the caller to the company's receptionist, I ask him about the death of The Journal. He says the now-famous repositioning of The National and The Journal into PrimeTime News in 1992 came as "a stupendous surprise. It was just incomprehensible." No one could understand why one of the brightest lights in Canadian journalism was being extinguished.

The consensus among Journal staffers was that the decision had less to do with money and more to do with the perennial conflict between the news and current affairs departments. Christmas explains his take on the situation: "News people tend to look at documentary people as pampered and self-indulgent, and they seem to think of what they do as the real job." Christmas believes "people within the other CBC executive became a bit jealous of what Starowicz had created and they destroyed the program." Such an interpretation was borne out from the news side by Knowlton Nash in his book The Microphone Wars.

To Cameron, the demise of The Journal was "an act of vandalism." As direct as usual, he assesses the situation: "It showed a contempt for the audience." Tired from years on the road, and still numb from the death of his beloved Journal, he stepped down from the national stage and took a position anchoring at the CBC's local Toronto station, CBLT. He made the decision when the CBC executive "told me I would be happier at the local news," Cameron says dryly.

While I, like many others, truly enjoyed Cameron's work at the affiliate, he was anxious to get back to the national stage. Three years later that opportunity finally came. He moved to Newsworld in Halifax, as the anchor of CBC Morning, on the condition he would be allowed to travel and report for the show. These opportunities never materialized. When it became obvious Cameron didn't have a personality well-suited to the soft journalism of morning television, he moved back to Toronto with his wife and three children in 1998.

Cameron took over the national network's Sunday Report, and anchored the daily three o'clock Newsworld International for the cable network. "I felt comfortable at Sunday Report," Cameron says. "It was a tightly produced, first-class show." He also enjoyed Newsworld International, despite its smaller budget. "We did the show entirely from the studio. It was frustrating not to be able to travel yourself, but they were both showing signs of becoming serious shows."

Carolyn Jack, producer of Newsworld International, remembers how Cameron managed to pull off moments of great television, despite the show's chaotic atmosphere. "The day the Clinton tapes were being aired, Bill was on live, solid without a break for something like nine hours. It was unbelievable. And I mean he, basically speaking, did not leave that seat. I had to bring him coffee. We were just throwing people at him. We'd go in his ear, 'Okay Bill, now we've got a senator from Idaho. We're not sure, but his name might be Mike. Here you go.' And he'd have to do it. He was smooth as glass."

This professionalism earned Cameron the status of role model for many of the CBC's younger staffers. Reporter Simon Dingley says it was the prospect of working with Cameron that enticed him to leave Global for CBLT in 1994. Cameron appealed to Dingley because "Bill is a real journalist; he has integrity. And he's been around the world as a reporter. He wasn't just one of these guys who never left the bright lights of the studio." He describes Cameron as "the finest anchor I've ever worked with."

Many of Cameron's former producers have a similar admiration for his journalism. Henderson says, "He's a very good reporter and has a good sense of getting to the nub of the story, of figuring out what matters."

Henderson recalls one piece he and Cameron did together at The Journal, dealing with handguns in the U.S. "We cut together a really nice little bit, but it just wasn't working," Henderson explains. "It was visually good but we couldn't figure out what to say under it." Cameron solved the problem by writing just a couple of words to complete the scene.

"A lot of reporters would have looked at it and said, 'Oh no, my words are more important than the pictures,'" says Henderson. "But Bill recognized the value of the scene and worked to make sure that he could come up with the words to make it sing. And he did."

Cameron has a gift for conveying a powerful message with an economy of words. "What he's very good at is the haiku of television writing, being able to write a clear sound block which gets right to the point," Henderson adds. "That's where he shines. I don't know anybody better."

But despite earning the respectof such producers, Cameron's style and personality sometimes rankled those he worked for. Vince Carlin, a former head of Newsworld, says many producers refused to take on Cameron because he was perceived to be too arrogant. "Bill is smart, but some people felt he had a tendency to show people how smart he was. And there were those who privately criticized him as overly stylized." Still, Carlin was surprised at the way Cameron left the corporation. "I thought CBC and Newsworld were big enough to keep Bill properly employed."

However, the CBC of today is not the one Cameron joined in 1983. Between 1995 and 1998, cutbacks to the federal appropriations that primarily fund the network resulted in the elimination of 3,000 jobs, or one-quarter of the corporation's previous workforce. Those who were able to hang on to their jobs experienced a salary freeze. By 1998, the network's budget had also been reduced by about 25 per cent.

Even when the period of budget slashing at last seemed over, internal conflict made the corporation a difficult place at which to work. A six-week technicians' strike in the spring of 1999 preceded the cancellation of Newsworld International, just as Cameron was beginning the contentious process of negotiating a contract.

"Since the demise of The Journal," says Cameron, "I had slowly been coming to the realization that journalism just wasn't fun anymore." For seven years, Cameron had moved from job to job, hoping to find a program as worthwhile and fulfilling as The Journal. By 1999, he realized he wasn't going to find satisfaction at the CBC.

When the network approached him with a 25-per-cent salary reduction and a contract renewal offer that would see him doing field reporting for The National Magazine and anchoring Saturday Report in addition to his duties at Sunday Report, Cameron said he wasn't thrilled. Not only was the salary an insult, but he would be spending a significant amount of time away from his family. But he maintains that if he had received a salary offer similar to what he was making at the time, he would have stayed at the CBC. It was the prospect of working harder for less money that Cameron found unpalatable.

Kent, a onetime CBC anchor himself, believes it was "quite obvious that someone wanted to get rid of him and someone was able to get rid of him. There are still those who try to get even for perceived victories by rivals. All it takes is one enemy in management."

"They said, 'You're a sweet guy, we love you dearly,'" Cameron remembers, but his first reaction was that the network had made him an offer that was just too easy to refuse. Yet Tony Burman, head of Newsworld, maintains that wasn't the network's intention. "From the CBC's point of view, we regarded the offer made to Bill, both in terms of the assignment and in terms of the salary, quite generous. And it would have meant that he would be among the top-paid anchors in the CBC." Burman says the offer was tailor made for Cameron, to combine his love of anchoring and field reporting.

Cameron privately began to question whether his employers were "saying I'm 25 per cent less valuable to the CBC now than I was five years ago? And I thought to myself, well, yes. My kind of reporting is." Burman says the lower salary offer reflected the changes in Cameron's duties since his last contract was negotiated three years earlier. "When you move from position A to position B, the negotiations for position B are something that start afresh. You don't carry your premiums from one job to another." As far as Burman was concerned, "the salary was both generous and competitive."

When Cameron rejected the CBC's offer, Burman says he was surprised and mystified. "There was disappointment that he chose to leave journalism, but that was his decision and we wish him well." As for the network, Burman says Cameron's departure does make room for new blood. "I think Bill is a fine journalist, but we happen to be a network that is blessed with many fine journalists, including many that have joined us in recent years. So I think we've got to be somewhat philosophical about the fact that, if we're able to continue to attract first-rate journalists, that it's inevitable that some people will leave."

Fine journalists did leave. In early June, it was Bill Cameron.

Even before negotiations with the CBC had failed, Vic Alboini, president of Digital Gem (formerly known as American Gem Corp.), expressed an interest in hiring Cameron. Less than three weeks later, Cameron was vice president of communications. From Digital Gem's perspective at least, that decision has paid off.

When Cameron speaks of his new life at Digital Gem, he sounds as idealistic about Internet brokerage as he once did about journalism. "The company really intends to improve life for Canadians by taking on the big financial corporations." Digital Gem, which began its life as a sapphire marketer, will serve as an online brokerage firm for small companies in Canada, providing online services - including securities trading, private capital, initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions - that are often available only to larger businesses.

Getting Digital Gem up and running "is like the early days at Global," Cameron says. "We sit around and talk about what this company is for, who we're doing it for - we did that at The Journal. Just last night a group of us were sitting around and we had a conversation about the company's values - who do we serve, what societal purpose are we fulfilling - it was refreshing," Cameron says. These days, "they don't have that conversation very much at the CBC."

Cameron bristles when it is suggested that by taking this job, he has left journalism behind. He defends his most recent career choice by pointing out that he is still performing many of the tasks of a journalist. He spends his days answering questions from investors, making speeches and doing internal writing for the company. "I'm still trying to understand something arcane, break it down and make it understandable. It's just a different context."

Despite the fact that the last 20-odd years of his life were lived on camera, he says he doesn't miss the medium. "I never got a particularly huge bang out of being on television."

But he still is. He continues to write, and last fall he narrated an episode of CBC's Life and Times. "I still do a fair amount of the type of broadcasting I like the best. I just don't have to put on makeup in the middle of the day to do it."

And he has never relinquished his first love: writing. Currently in the works are "screenplays, novels and," he says with typical self-deprecating humour, "shopping lists." He hopes someday to devote himself to writing full-time. But when asked if he'll ever return to broadcast journalism, he says he just doesn't know. Cameron's not even sure if his future will include Digital Gem, but promises he'll stay with the company "until it stops being fun."

Yet I, like many of his friends and former colleagues, wonder how much fun Cameron is having. Seeing the tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in a sweater and cotton trousers fielding calls from investors, it does seem like a waste of talent. If ever there was an intelligence and a wit suited to journalism, surely both are the property of Bill Cameron.

From the distance of his Digital Gem office, Cameron says he still considers journalism a noble profession. Yet his face is so impassive that I am not quite convinced by his words. Looking for some glimmer of the man who once occupied room 1427 of the Polana Hotel, I ask what he would tell someone just starting out in the profession. Cameron thinks for a moment, before saying his only advice is to "have the courage to walk away from compromise." He doesn't mean to imply that he has done that in leaving the CBC. "The CBC made the decision."

Although Cameron says that since he left, he rarely watches the network's newscasts, he has the utmost respect for those former colleagues still in the trenches. "For all the CBC's compromises, it's still far and away the best journalistic institution in broadcasting. It's sad it's not even better. Canadians deserve the CBC as good as it can be - as good as it was - and that's not what they're getting."

I ask if perhaps this is just bitterness about the way his story ended. "Bitterness?" he ponders for a moment. "No. I'm sad. I'm sad at the way I left the CBC. It hurt my feelings. But I'm more sad at the way the CBC has left itself." The interview over, Cameron walks me back out to the lobby, and I can't help but feel guilty for projecting so many of my ideals about journalism onto one man. His job was to inform, not to inspire. Yet maybe that's the part that bothers me the most, because Cameron did inspire many young and future journalists, without even trying. His reporting always seemed effortless, his talent so profound, that many of us, perhaps unfairly, saw Cameron as a constant reminder of just what it is that makes this profession worthwhile. And as one of those who was inspired, I feel a personal sense of loss as I watch the former occupant of room 1427 of Mozambique's Polana Hotel disappear behind the grey walls of Digital Gem.

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