Episode 43:

Regaining Truth and Trust in Media and Beyond – Peter Mansbridge

Erin Davis: Welcome to REAL TIME, the podcast for and about REALTORS®, brought to you by the Canadian Real Estate Association. I’m Erin Davis, proud to be your host, as today, we’re delving into information, disinformation, misinformation with a person who knows whereof he speaks. For more than five decades, Canadians have trusted Peter Mansbridge to guide them through the political, economic, and cultural events that have shaped our nation.

He’s one of Canada’s most respected and recognizable figures, having spent 30 years as CBC News chief correspondent and anchor of The National. On this episode of REAL TIME, Peter, through his unique journalistic lens, helps us understand why, how, and where we’ve deviated from trust and truth and how leaders can respond. Thank you so much for joining us, Peter. It is such a pleasure to have you on REAL TIME. Thank you for being here today.

Peter Mansbridge: Hey, Erin. It’s always good to talk to you, and it’s especially great to talk to you today.

Erin: We’re here to talk about trust and truth, and of course, you are someone who has earned the trust of Canadians for decades. When I told people that I was getting up to record this podcast with Peter Mansbridge to a person, they all said, “Say hi to him for me,” because you are someone who was in their living room, their bedrooms in their homes on the regular and you really do feel like a family member in so many ways.

Peter: It’s funny like that. You have the same experience over your time in broadcasting as well, but I can be in an airport or a hotel lobby or a shopping center, and somebody will come up, and they give you that look like they know you and they’ve known you a long time, and they don’t quite understand why you don’t recognize them, right?

Erin: Yes.

Peter: There’s a thing about our business that lends toward that kind of familiarity on the one hand and a degree of trust on the other hand.

Erin: It’s true because in so many cases, as I did in mornings when people were just waking up and you when people are ending their day, winding down whatever kind of day they’ve had, there is a trust. There is a bond that you form with people because you are there for them. As someone who’s earned the trust of Canadians for decades, how have you seen, Peter, the perception of these values change?

Peter: It’s a really good question, and the thing about it is, trust is a delicate quality and quantity in terms of how much there is out there. You have to earn it for one, and then you have to maintain that trust, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. There are times, and there certainly were times in my career when there was an issue about trust when people wondered about whether or not what you were telling them was accurate, was the truth or not, and you had to earn it.

You had to earn that faith that what you were delivering to them was the accurate sense of what had happened in a day or a week or what have you. I’ve monitored the trust factor for literally decades. For a long time, the journalism business was up there near the top, not at the top, the top is doctors and nurses, firefighters. The bottom was, you remember it used to be used car salespeople, right?

Erin: Yes.

Peter: They were the least trusted. It’s changed over time. The doctors and nurses, et cetera, are still at the top. Journalism, which had been near the top, has dropped down to– when you look in percentage terms, it is around 50% now. That’s a terrible number for journalism. Journalism is one of the pillars of democracy. You got to have it to believe that you have a democratic system, and to have it, you got to believe in journalism. When you start doubting it, then everything falls into some doubt.

That has taken place over the– I’d like to say, gee, it started the day after I retired, but it had already started before then. People were doubting what they read, what they heard, what they saw on newscasts, television, radio, digital, what have you. The more the business has exploded through social media, the more doubt has crept into it. To earn that back, journalists have to, first of all, be aware that it’s an issue and work at trying to bring it back, and bringing it back means ensuring that you’re telling the truth and that you’re transparent about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Erin: How much has the loss of the fairness doctrine back when Reagan scrubbed it in, I’m going to say the ’80s, and basically just allowed whatever anyone who called themselves a journalist to go on the air and say, “How much did that start to muddy the waters?” Because I’m guessing that that was where it maybe if not begun, then that was the blossoming, and then the internet just was the fertilizer.

Peter: You may have a point there. We tend to blame a lot of things on Reagan or especially so on Trump of late. Listen, part of the issue here, it’s not just the responsibility of journalists. It’s also the responsibility of the public. You’ve got to be prepared to challenge when you don’t believe something. Now, I’m out of the daily news business. I’ve been seven years out of the CBC, but I do a daily podcast and I get a tremendous amount of mail and reaction to it. In many cases, there’s the crazies out there, but not mainly on podcasts.

Podcasts seem to have a different kind of audience. They’re thoughtful, they’re constructive. When they challenge, they do so in a constructive way, not in a kind of ignorant way. That’s all good. That’s the way it should be. Journalists have to be prepared to answer them. A lot of the questions are around this issue of transparency. How do we do our job? How do we make a decision on what’s news and what isn’t news? What should be the top of a newscast? What doesn’t make it in a newscast?

All of that stuff is all part of the transparency issue, and we have to be more upfront about how we make decisions. Sure, it may well have started back in the ’80s, maybe even before then, but it has taken on a whole new dynamic in terms of trust, and journalists and their news organizations are not used in the way they used to be used. Decline in newspapers, the decline in network television, the move towards streaming, all of that stuff. Some of it is part of this issue. Not all of it, but some of it.

Erin: Whatever is out there, the idea that somewhere there is a Minister of Information who is sitting there overseeing everything that a news operation puts out so that it goes along with the government voice, which you and I know is insane. That there is a Trudeau or somebody sitting in the newsroom saying, “You are going to tell the story this way.” That’s just simply not true.

Where does the decision-making begin? The buck stops at your desk, but not everyone is a Peter Mansbridge. How does the decision to prioritize which stories, how they’re going to be covered, how is that done, Peter? Take it down to basics for us.

Peter: Sure. It is one of the misconceptions. You’re absolutely right that there is this hidden hand somewhere that directs journalism. Now, I can talk specifically about the CBC and the time that I was there. Once again, I left seven years ago, so I’m not sure how things are handled there now, but I assume and I certainly hope that they’re handled the same way as they were when I was there.

I can tell you that I was at the CBC for 50 years, five-oh, five decades, and only once in that whole period of time, and I was at a senior level in the news organization, the news structure, so I would’ve known, but there was only once in those 50 years where the government of the day ordered something up and said, “You got to do this.” The CBC folded like a cheap suit and did it. That was in 1970 during the October Crisis, 1970, so over 50 years ago, when they agreed to broadcast the manifesto of the FLQ.

It was part of the negotiating package that was going on behind the scenes. There was a great kerfuffle about that, understandably so, within the journalistic organization that that was a decision made by the government, not by journalists. I never saw anything remotely like that happen again. Now, do politicians no matter their stripe; liberal, conservative, do they cry out and say, “You’re biased. You’re this, you’re that. Why don’t you cover this? You should cover that”?

They all do that. That’s normal. That’s just part of the package that goes on in the background. Meanwhile, journalists do their job. You can argue about how well they do that and that’s a legitimate discussion to have, but move this stuff about political interference aside because it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at the journalism level. Maybe it happens at the bureaucratic level, but that’s different.

That doesn’t affect the journalism. The journalism, the decisions that are made in a newsroom, and I’m assuming most newsrooms are like this, but they certainly were at the CBC in all the newsrooms I worked in, including The National newsroom where I was the chief correspondent for 30 years, our decisions are made on a daily basis by a group of individuals who are very diverse in their backgrounds, both geographic, gender, culture, ideology. We have a mix. We deliberately have a mix and we move people around the country.

I started in Churchill, Manitoba then I went to Winnipeg, then I went to Regina, then I went to Ottawa, then I went to Toronto, overseas a couple of times. That is typical. Then you end up in this room where decisions are made on a daily basis about what’s going to make the program, what order things are going to go in, what we’re going to say, all of that stuff. Scripts are approved and debated by reporters as far away as the Middle East, covering stories. That all happens by this group of people.

Do we have arguments every day? Absolutely. I used to say, if you end up in a newsroom and there are no debates or discussions going on about what you’re doing, then you’re in a really bad newsroom. You want that kind of discussion, hopefully, on a daily basis about what you’re doing. That’s how decisions are made. They’re not made by some directive from above. That doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen where I worked.

Erin: Thank you for that clarification. Sometimes we need to hear that again.

Erin: The American author and futurist John Naisbitt said that we are drowning in information and starving for knowledge. Coming up with Peter Mansbridge, the common misconception about the way newsrooms are directed, plus the crucial difference between mis and disinformation. Hey, have you heard? The Canadian Real Estate Association, CREA, has launched a new national login experience. That new experience, REALTOR.ca Single Sign-On or SSO, offers you password security and self-serve management, personal data protection, and a mobile-first experience.

It’s up and ready for you to start using your new REALTOR.ca SSO username and password to access CREA’s products and services. Got questions? We are ready. Go to the FAQs at crea.ca/sso/ and away you go, and away we go back to Peter Mansbridge, our very special guest on REAL TIME. Misinformation, Peter, can lead to polarization, which seems to breed more misinformation.

We get into our camps, our tribes, and we decide, “No, no, I’ve got my fingers in my ears. I’m not going to listen to what you have to say because I’ve made up my mind.” What steps can we take to avoid falling into this cycle of misinformation, polarization, and more misinformation do you think?

Peter: Well, it is a bigger issue these days than it’s been for a long time, and I don’t want to dump on social media all the time, but that’s a lot of how it’s created in terms of misinformation. Disinformation is stuff that’s deliberately put out there to affect the news pool and the understanding of people. That’s a different manipulative way of doing stuff, but how do you challenge that twofold?

As journalists, you challenge it by demanding the truth, demanding the facts, checking the story. Too much ends up on the air, and especially in social media, without anybody checking anything. It just gets repeated, and at a certain point on the repetition factor, it scores its original purpose, which was to disinform, and it gets out there so much that people start to buy it.

The journalists have to check, but so do the people. There is an obligation on the public. When something doesn’t seem right to you, demand to know more, demand a better understanding of the story that’s being pushed on you. Whether it’s on social media or whether it’s on legacy media, it doesn’t matter. You can still make that demand. If you don’t hear back, then you know, well, it probably isn’t true. We all have obligations here to try and prevent this from happening, but we live in a world, and we’ve got to be realistic, we live in a world where there is so much information out there.

I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess on how much is real and how much is untrue, but let’s say it’s 50-50, which is possible. We live in this world where there is more information available at our fingertips than has ever existed before in the history of the planet. Our kids, they can get information to back up their essays or their exams at the touch of a finger. That wasn’t the case for us. It’s a challenge, and the monitoring of it is only going to get more challenging.

As we move into a world of artificial intelligence, I shudder to think the direction a lot of this is going in, what the world is going to look like, not 10 years from now, not 5 years from now, a year from now. Things are moving at such a rapid pace on the movement of information and the creation of information, but we got to put guardrails in. We have to be very careful or the polarized world will only get more polarized and more challenging and more difficult for us to maneuver in.

Erin: It’s almost as though critical thinking should be in the curriculum now for even elementary school, never mind high school and post-secondary, but being able to look at something– We’re with our nine-year-old grandson and he’ll be watching a video about the world’s oldest man and I’ll say, “Okay, Colin, you know this isn’t true, right? You know it can’t be true.” Because they’re saying he’s 160 or whatever. Well, why isn’t it? Just because someone has put something on YouTube. It has to start so young that you start going, “Is this real?”

It’s unfortunate because here we are needing to instill, not only in ourselves as adults, but as our children and grandchildren as well a healthy skepticism that didn’t have to be there before anymore. It was all Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and all those good things, but now it’s like, “Well, okay, wait a second, the Tooth Fairy does what now?” You know what I mean?

Peter: I do. I hear you. The other thing about critical thinking is it can be fun. Good for you that you’re teaching your grandkids that at a young age to be critical in their thinking, to be asking those questions. “Is that really true? Tell me more. Why should I believe that?” Looking for the facts. That can be fun. There’s nothing like leaving somebody stumped who is trying to force an idea on you that simply isn’t true and they can’t back it up. That idea should exist and parents should be able to answer it, which can be an even greater challenge.

Erin: Oh, yes, absolutely. It’s like when someone is having the argument with you about let’s say, I don’t know, I don’t want to say vaccines because that’s too hot a topic for whatever reason, but when someone will say, “Well, you know they want you to get this because they blah, blah, blah,” it’s just simply asking the question, “Well, who are they? Who’s this great cabal who is trying to do this to us all?” It does come down to critical thinking so that we may get back to your subject of trust and breaking the cycle and working together to change it.

Peter: It absolutely comes back to the trust issue because in those questions where somebody who’s critically thinking can’t get the answer from whoever’s foisting the idea on them, then they’ve got to go to somewhere they do trust. If it’s a health issue, they go to their doctor, or they go to a clinic, or they go to a nurse, or whoever they can go to, who they trust with their assessment of things, and that can lead them to a safer place on that issue.

My parents used to teach us as a young family. We’d sit around the dinner– We had the luxury of being able to have dinner together every night because of the hours my parents worked, but we’d have dinner every night and we’d usually have a topic of discussion that was borne out of the day’s news. It wasn’t a formal discussion or anything, we just ended up talking about something. Opinions would form and my dad would encourage us, “Okay, take the opposite view now. Let me hear you argue it from the other side.”

That was a really interesting exercise because it forced you to think more. It forced you to seek out other opinions on issues. It sets you up for a better way to handle issues of consequence that you may be suddenly confronted by. That was one of the ways we went about things when we were tired of just challenging for more facts to back up an assessment or an opinion. Information is everything. That’s how we move forward in life. It’s based on the information we gather.

If we reach a point where we’re all going, “I don’t trust any of this,” we’re in trouble, we’re in big trouble. We have to find the ways to be more confident about the facts we have and the facts we use to make decisions about whatever the issue may be each day.

Erin: Where do you get your facts, Peter? Where do you get your news from?

Peter: Oh, I just go on social media and say, “Hey, what about this?” No, you’ve got to read. We’re caught in the middle of a time bubble right now where the major issue, the international issue, is surrounding the Middle East. Well, you and I have been around long enough, Erin, to know that there are so many opinions and sides to the story that you can have a hard time trying to come up with what you believe to be the truth. How do you do that? You do it by checking out of social media, and you do it by reading through trusted sources and understanding the background.

Middle East is a complicated historic issue but so are many others. There’s a history to most of them, and you want to understand the history before you try to make decisions about the present on these issues because the old saying, “If you ignore history, you’re bound to repeat it in some fashion.” That’s not always a good thing. Reading and studying and understanding it is a good part of it.

In my job, I was not an expert in anything. I’m still not an expert in anything, but I’m a generalist, so I know a little about a lot which is, as my dad used to say, “Knowing a little about a lot is a dangerous place to be because you basically only know a little.” Right?

Erin: Yes. An inch deep and a mile wide, right?

Peter: Yes, exactly. What I found that I could do was get into a discussion about a subject and ask questions based on a reasonable degree of knowledge, limited but still reasonable to the point where I could ask questions which were probably similar to what a lot of people were asking at home. That’s where you want to be. As the questioner, you don’t want to be trying to be smarter than the guest. What’s the point?

Erin: Yes, you’re no longer the common man, and that’s who you’re supposed to be, but you’re also supposed to know what you’re talking about. You are in a very interesting foot-in-both-camps sort of position. Yes, please go on.

Peter: Yes. The audience can see that and they don’t like it if you’re trying to be more than you are. It’s like questions that go on forever and in fact, have an implied answer in the question. We all do that. I do it. I imagine you do it at times. It’s not where you want to be. You want to just get to the question, right?

Erin: Right.

Peter: That nobody cares exactly what your opinion is. They want to know what the opinion of the person you brought into the discussion because they’re an expert of some degree on whatever the issue is. That’s where I am on that.

Erin: When we return with Peter Mansbridge, applying the principles of trust and truth in your life and your work and leadership. We’ve been talking about social media today, and we know that Instagram has become such a huge part of our daily lives. Of course, that includes reaching out to your clients. Be sure and follow CREA, @crea_aci, on Instagram so you know when a new episode of REAL TIME is being released and for important updates from stats to our blog, CREA Café. Now, back to renowned journalist and broadcaster and our very special guest, Peter Mansbridge, on REAL TIME.

When we talk about trust and truth, many people, of course, think we’re talking about with the media or with the government, but how do these principles apply to, say, modern business leaders?

Peter: Well, exactly the same way.

Erin: I had more to that question, but I decided to cut it off because I didn’t want to ask more. No, I didn’t want to go on too long.

Peter: Correct. When I talked earlier about those trust listings, there was a whole list of professions in there-

Erin: Yes. Teachers.

Peter: -including bankers and real estate agents, you name it. They’re all in there, and they’ve all taken a hit as well, just like everybody else has taken a hit on trust. The same thing applies to them as well to ensure that what they’re dealing with when they’re talking, whether it’s to a client or a colleague, that what they’re saying is real, that it’s accurate, and that it can help others understand their business and the implications that they’re going to face in that business by being a part of it in some fashion, even just as a customer or a client.

Trust is just as important, and the truth is what trust is built on. You’ve got to have both of those no matter what your profession is.

Erin: What steps can businesses take to develop a culture of honesty, integrity, and transparency? We’ve seen companies that when they’ve screwed up, they’ve stepped up right away. Then we’ve seen other companies, an automaker comes to mind, that kept things on the down low about emissions for so long and lost so much trust as a result of that, and it’s taken a better part of a decade to build that back up. What steps can businesses take, Peter, to develop that culture?

Peter: Well, you’ve got to stay ahead of the story. What’s the term that most people use in terms of crisis management? What’s the best way to manage a crisis? Well, the best way to manage a crisis is to realize how it’s going to end and get there as quickly as possible. Don’t play it out. Don’t fudge. Don’t try to cover it up. If you know it’s going to end a certain way, get there. Get there right away.

It’s kind of the same just on a basic way of instilling that sense within a profession, is that, tell the truth, admit when you’re wrong, get there quickly, because every minute you take getting there is impacting your trust factor with your clients or your colleagues. We see so often a situation where a company or some business of some kind is caught in a problem, and you know that those early denials don’t seem to make a lot of sense. You know where this is going. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to get there, and the longer it takes to get there, the less trust you have in them.

If you’ve got a problem, deal with it. Deal with it right away. If you’re lucky, you can deal with it behind closed doors before it ever gets public. Clean up the issue you have within. The longer you leave it, the more likely it is that it’s going to go public. Somebody’s going to say something, or somebody’s going to find out something, and then you’re really dealing with a situation that’s damaged everything about your operation. That would be, to me, the basic thing. You’ve got a problem, deal with it. Deal with it right away.

Erin: That goes back to what you said at the beginning; your reputation, your trust. The trust that people have in you takes a lifetime to build and can be shattered overnight, and so you want to mitigate or get in front of that right away.

Peter: It’s so true. I’m talking from personal experience too. In my time at the CBC, there were times where bad things happened, stupid things. Stupid decisions were made, not crooked or anything, but just dumb decisions.

Erin: Human decisions.

Peter: Yes. You knew it was going to backfire. You knew your audience was going to say, “This is crazy, I’m not watching this.” There were times you had that, and you’re absolutely right, you can make a mistake. You can lose your audience or your customer base overnight and it takes a long time to earn it back if ever. Whether it’s journalism or selling widgets, these same kind of lessons apply. If you’ve got a problem, deal with it. Deal with it as soon as you can.

Erin: How can Canadians feel empowered to respond to the challenges that we’ve talked about today, Peter?

Peter: Well, in many ways, they hold a key to making a better world in this kind of world we’re talking about because if Canadians, generally, clients, customers, don’t buy in, that business is going to have a problem. The first thing Canadians have got to understand is they do have power. Consumer power is an amazing thing. It’s a wonderful thing. It can be a decision-maker on the way companies and professions end up on that trust factor scale. Don’t be shy. When you don’t like something and you feel empowered to say something, say it because they will listen. Eventually, they will listen.

Don’t be shy. They’re there to serve you. They’re there to make a profit, but they’re there to serve you. If you don’t feel served, make sure they know. Make sure they understand why you don’t feel that way. Whether you’re calling the local grocery store to say, “You sold me chicken, and you had it dated, but when I got it home, it was bad. That’s just not acceptable.”

No is an answer that, “Hey, listen, that’s the way it was dated. That’s the way it was dated” The only thing that’s acceptable at that point is, “Bring it back, we will replace it immediately,” or better still, “We’ll come to your house and replace it.” You’ve got some power. Don’t just dump the chicken or whatever it may be in the garbage and move on and say, “I learned my lesson, I won’t shop there anymore,” or, “I’ll look closer at the date or whatever.” Call them, tell them.

Erin: I appreciate that, we all do, and everything that you’ve shared with us here today as you have with your keynote in Ottawa at CREA. Thank you so much for your time and your wisdom and your expertise, and we’ll remember when we see you in the airport, “Hey, it’s that guy. It’s Peter Mansbridge.” Don’t you love when they say, “Should I know you?”

Peter: Yes, it’s crazy.

Erin: I’ve gotten that, but it’s like, “I don’t know, should you?”

Erin: Tell us the most bizarre thing someone has said when they’ve met you and not known what else to say because fans get gobsmacked, Peter?

Peter: Actually, I can tell you when that happened, and this has happened a few times. It was just a couple of weeks ago. I was flying back from somewhere, got in the car at the airport, a taxi or Uber or something, and we’re driving into Toronto. The guy was very talkative, and we were talking away about different things. He’d recognized me. We were talking about– it could have been sports or world events or something. Anyway, he was very, very talkative.

He kept looking at me in the rearview mirror. We had a great conversation. It was very enjoyable. I get to where we were going, I said, “That’s great. Thanks so much.” I get out of the car, and before I close the door, he says, “I just want you to know I really miss you, Mr Robertson. You were great all those years.”

Erin: I knew it.

Peter: It’s funny because Lloyd says the same thing has happened to him. He remembered picking up somebody at the side of the road during a rainstorm. Him and his wife picked this woman up, and she got in the back seat, and he said, “I couldn’t leave you standing there. I’m happy to take you to your home,” which was, it turned out it was right along the way. He takes her home, they have all those discussions, she gets out of the car, she says, “You’re great, Mr. Mansbridge. I just love the fact that I got this opportunity to meet you.” Those things happen, and it keeps you honest too, right?

Erin: Oh, don’t they, though?

Peter: Oh, yes. Just when you think everybody knows who you are, they don’t.

Erin: Exactly. If I had a dollar for every time it was, “Hey, it’s Marilyn Denis,” I’d be flying off with you somewhere. Peter, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom and your perspective. We so appreciate all of it, and it was great talking to you.

Peter: Thanks, Erin. It was great talking to you, as always.

Erin: Catch more Peter Mansbridge whenever you like, simply by downloading his podcast, The Bridge. Informative and entertaining, you’ll stay up to date on all the latest developments in the world around us from someone you can trust. We trust you are enjoying REAL TIME, and please do let all of your associates and friends know we’re here. Catch every episode, past and future, simply by subscribing wherever you download the best podcasts.

REAL TIME is produced by Alphabet® Creative, with sound magic by Rob Whitehead and Real Family Productions. I’m Erin Davis, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode just as much as we did bringing it to you. Thanks for being here, and we’ll talk to you again soon on REAL TIME.