After more than a decade of occasionally death-defying reporting in areas ranging from the Arctic to Afghanistan, the CBC newshound returns to his home turf as anchor of the network’s popular World Report—which means a weekday wakeup of 4 a.m., but at least he can be home for dinner. We caught up with Common during his first week behind the desk to talk twerking, Twitter, and whether he might be the next Peter Mansbridge.
You’re a newsman, so I assume you want to talk about twerking, right?
Twerking! We have actually talked about twerking already today.
On the air?
No, in the newsroom, with an older producer who—despite the cloud of coverage—was not aware of what twerking is. It’s been pretty unavoidable. Certainly in the last week.
CNN took a lot of flack for giving Miley Cyrus’s MTV antics billing over the situation in Syria. What did you make of it?
I guess I would say that CNN shouldn’t have been singled out. Everyone in cable news was covering that story. I know MSNBC did and I’d be surprised if Fox didn’t, along with so many others. And I bet their numbers went up. You’re not going to see [twerking as the lead story] at CBC. In our case, I think it would be damaging to the brand. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it, just that it’s not going to go ahead of the big stuff.
How do you balance the desire to be first with the desire to be right?
There is certainly a big push to be first, but I think it’s worth the slight delay to make sure that you’re right—or, if you can’t push it, you have to tell your listeners that you’re not sure yet. I was covering the bombings in Boston, and CBC is generally not going to be first there because of all the American networks with their long tentacles. They all started reporting that a suspect was in custody and that it was effectively a done deal when, in fact, there wasn’t anyone in custody. I remember being in a grocery store parking lot surrounded by SWAT team guys who still looked very, very busy. We didn’t report it, even though CNN was saying it was done, and Twitter was saying it was done.
How does a rumour like that spread?
I think with that one, it was a law-enforcement source who was either misunderstood or misinformed, and then it went out as gospel. Eventually, we had to acknowledge that we knew these reports were out there, but we waited. I think CBC has a pretty good reputation in terms [of credibility], so you don’t want to screw that up.
Is yours more of a “just the facts” style of journalism or is a certain amount of analysis part of the gig?
It’s a really fine line and it’s the biggest question journalists face. When I started my career, I did he said/she said journalism and it was boring as stink. I think if we can say with absolute certainty that someone is wrong then it is our job to call BS, rather than just repeat the story [that’s being presented]. In terms of what I do every day, I think the important word is context. I have travelled to a lot of places and experienced things that allow me to put the news into context for our listeners. So I’m not offering my opinion, I’m saying that, based on what’s happened in history, this is how we might expect things to turn out. I can also have personality and poke fun at things, but that’s not the same as opinion. Those who offer opinion are not journalists. That’s a line, and when you cross it, you can’t come back.
So if I listened to your broadcast every day for the next week, I wouldn’t, say, have any sense of whether or not you think the States should go into Syria?
No, you wouldn’t. And if anybody can answer that question…. Nobody has the right answer on this. That’s what’s clear to us.
You have worked in several combat zones. What’s the most frightened you’ve ever been?
That would be in a slum in the capital of Haiti. A guy who I believe was drugged-up came up to the car we were in. He pulled a revolver out and started firing rounds through the windshield.
What did you do?
I drove over him. You always keep the car in drive for that very reason. I ducked and drove. It was the only choice. There were innocent people all around us.
After experiences like that, are you worried that a desk job in Toronto is going to be a bit of a snooze?
I have an addiction to adrenaline—there’s no question about that. But I like my children, and I would like to see them more than I have. For 10 years, I’ve never been able to say, “I’ll be home for dinner.” There’s a thrill to [combat reporting], but it’s not sustainable for most people.
Can you see yourself moving from radio to TV?
Oh, yeah. Mansbridge’s job is totally mine. For sure-zies. Nobody else wants it, which is the strange thing.
So do you want it?
I don’t think so. Two years ago, I couldn’t have fathomed doing anything that was a desk job. This summer, I hosted The National for the first time. It was neat.
Mansbridge (I think I’m contractually obligated).
Favourite ethnic cuisine?
Favourite flavour of chips?
Don’t leave home without?
Something by Miles Davis.
Who would play you in a movie?
A younger Brad Pitt.