Ideas and Impressions: He got to the letter ‘M’

By Jason Moscovitz

On a recent visit to Great Britain, I realized Brexit machinations are having the same effect on the British as they’re having on Canadians. People get tired of stories that don’t go anywhere. The soup gets spoiled sitting on the back burner for too long.

Divorcing completely from the European Union may still happen in the absence of an agreement, but the consensus seems to be that the Brits just don’t want to hear about it anymore. It’s kind of like “Wake us up when it is over and we’ll deal with it.”

People’s attention spans are limited and you can blame the television remote for that.

In the mid-1970s, when it became possible to change channels from your couch, people got trigger happy and brain function has never been the same. Channel surfing and scrambled brains go hand in hand.

Today, of course, the remote is old technology. Now when we watch something that interests us on television, we sit down on the couch with a smartphone, or a tablet, and we are literally all over the place as we multitask.

In the television news business, a reporter knows he or she has seconds to grab the attention of the viewer or they will disappear into cyberspace. Sometimes you literally have to jolt the audience in the first 10 seconds to keep viewers watching.

For example, precious little detail of government policy or legislation make it onto most newscasts. It is easy to see why political shenanigans dominate rather than substantive policy discussions.

Politicians screaming at each other at breakneck speed is the result, with the prize going to the most theatrical soundbite of the day. The winner’s trophy is having their one-liner on national television.

In an attention seeking business, getting on television makes a politician’s day and they fight for all the airtime, or face-time, they can get. The irony is that serious thinkers don’t usually make it because ‘serious’ is too often equated with ‘boring.’

I remember years ago what happened to Ed Schreyer, a former NDP premier of Manitoba, who prime minister Pierre Trudeau appointed to be governor general in 1979. In the public domain he was classic boring. I am not sure I ever came across a more starved-for-spark political figure in my life. Yet, he was a political success serving as premier of Manitoba for eight years.

As governor general, he was asked, as all governors general are, to speak at the annual Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. The only mandate was to be funny. Poor Ed. He couldn’t be interesting let alone funny, and in their tuxedos and long gowns, reporters threw buns at him from all corners of the Parliamentary Dining Room.

Pierre Trudeau found the bun throwing at the governor general to be in such poor taste that he boycotted subsequent dinners. Without the prime minister, the dinner lost considerable cachet, but “the Trude,” as we used to call him, made his point.

A few years later, Schreyer’s term as governor general ended and the “state broadcaster,” the CBC, had to do a story on his leaving. I won the lottery that day (ha ha) and went to Rideau Hall to interview him.

Even my low expectations fell short. We started the interview with a blazing fire place behind him and 50 minutes later there were only embers – and I still didn’t have an interesting segment. Then I went fishing.

I recalled a reporter friend telling me that he once asked Schreyer privately what he did all day as governor general. The specific question was, “How did he keep himself busy every day at Rideau Hall?” Schreyer told him that he took to reading the Encyclopedia Britannica.

With the fireplace sucking for fire, with the governor general beginning to really sweat from the TV lights, and with me still looking for something – anything – of interest, I said, “I understand you spent some time during your mandate reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Is that correct?”

He gave me a look that suggested, “How do you know that?” But to his credit, he replied affirmatively. I asked, “What letter did you get to?” With some hesitation he said, “The letter M.” I laughed and then he laughed.

I got my story and years later I so remember the moment.