On the record with Wendy Mesley

The 'CBC News: Marketplace' co-host talks about reporting and why she thinks some journalism students should be slapped.

   Wendy Mesley (Supplied publicity photo, CBC)

Wendy Mesley and I meet at the front desk in the behemoth Toronto CBC headquarters. Mesley is the co-host of Marketplace, the venerable consumer issues show, that’s once again generating buzz thanks to her presence.

After a brief introduction, Mesley offers to give me a quick tour. There’s not much difference between the real-life Mesley and the one you see on camera. She is professional, but never bombastic—very approachable, but very guarded.

During the tour, she walks at a pace that I can barely keep up with. Fortuitously, we stop by a picture of her from the ’80s on the CBC walls.

“That’s me with a perm,” Mesley laughs, releasing a snort.

We also walk by an old picture of her ex-husband, Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the public broadcaster’s flagship news program The National.

“And that’s Peter with hair,” she adds.

“Ah, flashbacks.”

Mesley has come a long way since she joined the CBC over 20 years ago, starting as a reporter, anchor and then an established and recognizable newsmagazine host/reporter.

Nearing the end of the tour, we approach the makeup room. “This is where they take off fifteen years,” Mesley jokes.

At 47, Mesley hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm for reporting. Mesley becomes wide-eyed while talking about Marketplace and an investigative piece she’s working on. She’s very animated.

As the former host of Undercurrents, Mesley spent years reporting on journalism ethics and the uneasy symbiosis between media and public relations. However, she skirts questions about why she left the newsmagazine, Disclosure—it’s rumoured there were tensions between her and the show’s producer at the time, Susan Teskey.

So why does she love to expose the fat cat behind the friendly corporate image? And why has she always felt that she’s got something to prove? Read on.

How was being a reporter different when you started out?
When I was a local reporter, we had to file for 6 p.m. and there would be some reporters who would miss events and stop making phone calls at 3 p.m. They would go back and spend hours looking at the tape and figuring out amazing ways to shoot the stand ups, or they were just lazy and they didn’t do anything for an hour or two. I’d be out till the absolute last moment. I’ve suffered to live my life in panic mode—it will just wear you out after awhile—but I was always so curious to not miss anything and to make that last phone call. I thought, If I wait just 15 more minutes, maybe Mr. Big will walk out and confess. I’d race back and maybe I wouldn’t spend as much time as Shakespeare writing it, but it would always make sense, and there’d never be any grammatical errors, and the story would always hold. I’d always have a little bit more information and a little bit more colour. I was working to intense deadline. I still have recurring nightmares that I’ve missed a deadline.

Have you always been interested in politics?
My mother raised me by herself and I was an only kid, so I was the adult company when I was twelve. I was raised listening to Barbara Frum, and I realize, now that I’m an adult, I was the way of providing my mother with adulthood. We would talk about all these big issues of the day, internationally and locally, over dinner every day. I remember my mom took me to demonstrations.

What kind of demonstrations?
I remember one demonstration was to express solidarity with the civil rights movement. I was eight years old and I went down with my mom singing, (Mesley starts singing in a squeaky voice) “We shall overcome.” Not that I had a clue of what it was all about, but I grew up in an environment where my mom taught me to care about the world.

And you thought that you could better the world through journalism?
Well that sounds pretty dorky, but yeah. I was thinking the other day that a lot of reporters do stuff on crime and politics, and that’s good, but a lot of it is just the same old story happening over and over again with a new criminal or a new politician. I think why Undercurrents and Marketplace mean so much to me is because they actually enable people to change the way they see something, what they buy, how they think about something, in a practical way. So that may not be as great television as the takedown of a criminal or the exposé of petty corruption by a cabinet minister. It has more grassroots importance in a way, more of a practical application. I don’t want to really change the world, I just want the stories that I do to matter in a practical way, not just to get a reaction.

Why do you think it’s so hard to explore the grey issues in journalism?
They’re not easy sells. It’s reality programs that draw. You know, the easy laughs, the easy shock. Those shows are the best guarantee of a large audience—and even the CBC wants a large audience. I like to speak to an audience that I assume to be intelligent and that can deal with a subtle message. Grey is not as exciting to some, but I find it really the most compelling.

Do you run into more problems when you’re reporting on grey areas?
Well, for example, I did a story last fall and it got decent ratings, but not great ratings. It cost a lot of money and it was probably one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done, and certainly one of the hardest stories the researchers had ever done. It was a story about an agency that no one had ever heard of called IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer]. IARC is the biggest scientific research centre in the world on cancer. It tells you about the things that are carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic. Anyway, we found out that the guy who had run it was now quite upset about the way it’s being run. He told us that industry money was having way too much of an influence on the science. So we found out that this agency was looking into [whether] cell phones can cause cancer. We did an investigation into that study and found there was a lot of industry money paying for the science. So the old question comes up: Does industry money affect the science? We couldn’t prove anything, but we had lots of grey questions. The devil was definitely in the details but I’m not sure that I’d be pushing another story like that on the Marketplace‘s budget in the near future.

Because of what you get from it in the end?
Yeah. I’m very proud of the story, it’s one of the most important stories I’ve ever done, but because we didn’t have someone dying under their cell phone in front of our camera…

What problems have you come across when criticizing broadcast journalism in the same medium?
It was hard. I don’t think it made me too popular. I did [an Undercurrents report] on journalists on the speech circuit and there are people in this building that still will not talk to me because I said they were taking money for doing speeches. It was quite a lesson for me. When I was covering politics, politicians would always tell me how thin-skinned we are, but it wasn’t until I started covering journalists that I realized this was true. There isn’t anyone more thin-skinned than a journalist.

Why have you stayed at the CBC, then?
I’ve thought about leaving a few times. Before I started getting wrinkled, I used to get a lot of offers from the American networks. I was sort of intrigued, and I went down a few times, but I think it was happening at a point when I wanted to get my life together. I really enjoying living in Canada, and now I’m actually not working 70 hours a week, I’m working 50 or 60 hours a week. To start all over again, working these stupid hours seven days a week, for what? Maybe it would be worth it if they were any better at journalism, but they’re not. They just have more money and bigger audiences, but they don’t do it any better. I get nibbles every once in a while, but the only time I seriously looked into it was the first time they cancelled Undercurrents. I had so many people say, “This is so important and this is so great and if you ever want to take it somewhere else, we’ll sponsor you or we’ll run it.” Of course when they cancelled it, I went back to them they said, “Oh yes, we’ll run your show but we’d like you to come to all our events and do some product placements and start asking hard questions about technology. Be a little bit more “boosterous” about technology rather than asking questions as you tend to.” There are things that drive me crazy [about the CBC] every once in awhile, but other than that, it’s been a wonderful home.

What drives you crazy?
Oh just, you know, just the stuff that’s happened over the years, the understandable ups and downs about what they want versus what you want, nothing dastardly or out of the ordinary.

Like when you left Disclosure, was that one of these times?
Yeah, I think it was important to them that I stay there and in an ideal world I would have but it just wasn’t the right thing and it turned out to be wonderful. In spite of it not being perfect, I’m very happy here.

What advice do you have for young journalists?
I get really disappointed when journalism students come and say, (Mesley affects a ditzy voice) “I’d like your job where I could read the news and where I could be an anchor. Can you tell me how to do that please?” I feel like slapping them. If that’s what you want to do then don’t come to the CBC, don’t come to me. Go off and be an anchor at some place that has nothing to do with journalism. Most of the anchors have been reporters for decades and that’s why they know what they’re talking about when they’re in the chair. I would tell an aspiring journalist if you’re really interested in journalism to forget about being in the studio for at least 10, if not 20 years and get out there and enjoy the world. The most important thing, I think, is curiosity so that you’re open to things that happen around you, that you’re not coming in with preconceived ideas, that you will see a story that others won’t, that you will have a reaction to somebody telling you the story that will be somewhat like the audiences, like whoa! You know, so you won’t get caught up in your own thing, like here I am this big reporter person, I better start using five-syllable words and being full of myself and spending more time on my make-up. I think when you’re starting out it’s about passion for the craft and being straight with your audience. Just keep asking.

Just one last question. Do you feel like a celebrity? Do you have fans call your name down the street? Oh, my favourite was, “Hey! Hey! You’re what’s-her-name from the thing!” A lot of people approach me, but in a very Canadian way: “I like you’re work.” (Mesley whispers) No one ever says they don’t.

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