Why you shouldn't mess with Mesley
Wendy Mesley sits on a couch with Sarah Mulvihill in Brockville, Ontario in February 2005 to interview her for an episode of Marketplace. Mulvihill, 30, has blue eyes and chin-length, feathered blond hair. Six years earlier Mulvihill was one of the first Canadians to be prescribed Diane-35, a pill for severe acne. Mulvihill was told that the medication was a birth control pill, unaware that Health Canada has never sanctioned it for that use. Four years later doctors discovered a blood clot in Mulvihill’s brain, which she believes was caused by Diane-35.
Mesley unveils a list of women who have died while taking the same medication. Mulvihill is shocked. Health Canada records adverse reactions possibly linked to the drug:35 women suffered from blood clots or a stroke, and five perished. The information visibly upsets Mulvihill. Mesley wants to know what she thinks.
“I’m a good case,” says Mulvihill. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“What do you mean lucky?” asks Mesley.
“I function normal,” replies Mulvihill. Her mother is seated next to her on the couch and cuts in.“Other than these headaches, Sarah.” Mulvihill’s chin begins to quiver. Tears well up in her eyes. “People have died,” she affirms. “I’ll take a headache.” In May of 2005, makers Berlex posted a Health Canada release advising consumers of new warnings for Diane-35.
It’s the kind of real-life drama that Mesley delivers more consistently than any other Canadian journalist. “There’s an expression I use when I watch Wendy at work,” says Erica Johnson, Mesley’s Marketplace co-host. “They’ve been Wendy Mesleyed. Which is when someone doesn’t realize that they’re about to be hit with a ton of bricks because she’s been asking her questions in such a way that is so charming and yet it’s completely cutting.” Typically it’s corporate spokespeople who get Mesleyed for their duplicitous behaviour, but even in more intimate situations, like Mulvihill’s living room, the technique is the same: she uses pleasantry to strip away people’s self-deception and force a confrontation with stark reality.
Mesley cocks her head sympathetically to Mulvihill, and Marketplace viewers are treated to a close-up of her face. Something is not quite right. Mesley’s hair colour is a little off. There are bags under her eyes.She looks tired. Leaning against the arm rest of the sofa as if she needs the support, Mesley looks frail in her crisp white shirt and grey pants. There is a good reason for all of this: Mesley is in the midst of her own confrontation with reality.
Several months earlier, Mesley had been diagnosed with cancer. In January 2005, after having a lumpectomy, CBC publicly announced she would be undergoing chemotherapy treatment and cutting back her workload. But Mesley decided Mulvihill’s story was too important to let anything stop her from telling it. She is never afraid of asking tough questions.
What shefears most, shesays, iswhat would happen if she didn’t ask them. What she also fears is showing any sign of weakness, to her viewers, her CBC bosses or herself.
Things are more routine these days at Marketplace, some two years after Mesley’s chemo. It’s October 2007, and Mesley, now 50, is dressed casually, wearing jeans and a tight grey shirt that exposes an inch of toned midriff. She wears a jaunty scarf around her neck and a full face of makeup. Coffee cup in hand, she leads the way to the screening room, marshalling extra chairs to accommodate everyone in the tiny room. No filming today; two of her stories are in editing, including today’s screening, “Calorie Confidential,” an episode on how many calories are in meals at big chain restaurants such as Montana’s Cookhouse, Kelsey’s and Swiss Chalet.
Among the eight people crammed into the small space are Mesley, senior producer Michael Gruzuk and executive producer F. M. Morrison. After the episode is over, the group trundles out to the boardroom, passing the show’s mandate statement, which is printed on white paper and tacked to the bulletin board: “Marketplace exposes wrong-doing to consumers and holds those responsible to account so that viewers are motivated to make (informed) change.”
Marketplace has been a CBC stalwart since its launch in the 1970s. At one time, the show was able to command almost two million viewers, though the numbers, which fluctuate, have dropped significantly since then. John Doyle, The Globe and Mail’s television critic, sums up the old Marketplace as “a rather stodgy, slow-moving production.” Most of the old Marketplace was studio-based:hosts and experts would discuss a consumer problem at a desk. It was successful at the outset, but the style that consumer stories were being told in evolved extensively, while Marketplace did not. Andreas Wesley, an associate producer atMarketplace, first met Mesley in the summer of 1997. He told Mesley he was contemplating working forMarketplace.“ She said, ‘Don’t go to that show, it’s really boring,’” remembers Wesley. “‘Even the cameramen fall asleep. Come here to Undercurrents.’”
Today it’s Marketplace that is home to one of the most famous faces in Canadian journalism. Mesley’s arrival immediately raised the show’s profile. It also heralded a new, high-energy style of reporting. Instead of languishing in the studio, Mesley spends her time on the street, in the stores and in the face of anyone who may be misleading the public. On a good night, Marketplace can pull in nearly as many viewers as The National. The ratings are a vindication of her career choices, and more importantly, her beliefs about journalism. “ Ever since I worked at CFTO, people wanted me to be sort of an anchorette,” says Mesley derisively. “I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in the field as long as possible.” She eschews high-profile stories of crime and politics. Mesley prefers the murky, grey areas, where she can ask why things are the way they are, and do something the nightly news rarely does: pick some fights.
Wendy Mesley was still a baby when her mother, Joan, left her father, journalist Gordon Mesley. At a time when women were not encouraged to be more than a secretary or a nurse, Joan went ahead and got a degree in physiotherapy. When she decided to leave her husband, she bundled one-year-old Wendy into the car and left Montreal for Toronto where they lived above a hardware store.
As a child, the worst thing Mesley could do was lie. Joan instilled the values of trust and respect. Joan started her own home care practice, driving from client to client with baby Wendy seated in a plastic laundry hamper in the back seat of her Volkswagen. From an early age, Joan prepared Mesley to think independently and stand up for herself. A political and socially-minded woman, Joan brought her daughter along with her on protest marches. Mesley’s earliest memory of a demonstration was singing “We Shall Overcome” at age eight, as she and Joan marched to the United States consulate in Toronto in support of the Selma marches in Alabama. Joan raised Mesley to have an active concern for current events. They would listen to Barbara Frum host As It Happens on the radio each night at dinner and discuss the issues of the day.
In high school, Mesley worked in a hospital cafeteria and cleaned off trays. It was then that she heard that CHUM-FM was looking for girls to answer the phones. Perched in a little room, Mesley would fill in charts for listener requests. Between ticking off calls for Bay City Rollers songs, she would watch Mark Dailey come into her room to do one-minute newscasts: news, sports, weather. In those 60-second rushes, Mesley caught the broadcast bug. She used her connections at CHUM to score some paid work as a technician at CHIN radio, which led to a volunteer position as a host for a Canadian music segment. She admits she knew nothing about either job.
When she was 18, Mesley met her father, then working as a freelancer, for the first time. It was around then that Mesley decided to go to Ryerson to study journalism. “That’s why my mother was like, ‘You what?!’ when I was meeting my Dad,” recalls Mesley. “She thought there was some kind of weird influence.”
Globe justice reporter Kirk Makin, a Ryerson classmate, remembers Mesley’s poise setting her apart from the other students in the program. To him, Mesley was “like someone who should be in the workplace who happened to be with all of us scruffies running around the journalism building.” Mesley was determined to make it in broadcast and concentrated solely on those courses. Once paired up with Mesley for a politics assignment, Makin did the bulk of it alone. She always seemed to be in a hurry, holding down her radio jobs while going toclass.They were enough of a distraction that Mesley came up one credit short from graduation, failing Advanced Reporting. Eventually, Ryerson allowed her to pay a nominal fee to have the course reviewed. She finally earned her degree in 1990.
Mesley left Ryerson in 1979 with a job offer at a CTV affiliate in Montreal. When asked if she spoke French, she discovered she could indeed tell a lie—“I fudged the answer,” she says&mash;then tried to learn in record time. “I thought, how hard could it be?” She says, “Growing up in Trudeau-land I thought everyone was bilingual. Then I went there and of course it’s 90 per cent French. At the news conference you would just wait until the end and then you would ask your questions in English and then you would go, ‘Oh! That’s what they were talking about.’” In 1982, she moved to Quebec City. By that time she was dreaming in French.
Back in the screening room with “Calorie Confidential,” the Marketplace crew watches Glen, a middle-aged man who is minding his weight. “He was nice,” says Wendy to associate producer, Jasmin Tuffaha, who is sitting beside her on the tiny couch. Glen wants to know how many calories are actually in his restaurant meals, but is having a hard time finding the numbers. He decides to go into Kelsey’sand ask for the nutritional information. “Go, Glen, go!” Mesley cheers from the couch. Morrison looks over at her and smiles.
Mesley made her name at CBC when she moved to Ottawa in 1985 to be a parliamentary correspondent. She quickly stood out by virtue of not being one of the “ wheezing old middle-aged guys,” according to CBC News Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald. Ottawa then had the atmosphere of a men’s locker room. Women were sparse. Pictures of naked women were tacked to one of the walls of an editing suite. Mesley and her female counterparts coped by being tough. “We used to try to pretend that we were men,” remembers Mesley. “We would dress like men and we’d never let anyone know that we had boobs for God’s sake.”
Mesley was determined to prove herself, which meant behaving better than the rest of the mostly male press corps. “She had to be because she attracted so much attention,” Macdonald says. She also worked tirelessly and was an aggressive reporter with sharp elbows in press scrums. For five years she worked a minimum of six days a week, 12 hours a day. Mesley soon found herself in “the magic circle,” that privileged realm of reporters who have cabinet ministers call them instead of the other way around. She hoovered up every story in sight, passing along stories that she didn’t have time for.
Mesley took flak for her star status and her brief marriage to Peter Mansbridge, which lasted from 1989 to 1992. There was a lot of jealousy and whispering among other reporters on the Hill who believed her success was due to her influential husband. “On balance, it probably hurt her to be married to Mansbridge,” says Susan Delacourt, who was friends with Mesley while working in Ottawa. “It was the first thing everyone knew her as.It made people not look at Wendy and see how hard she was working.”
The suggestion that Mesley married her way up stings: “I don’t think that anyone who really knows my career could think that,” she says. “I was on a path before I met him.” Getting into the elevator on her way out after the interview, Mesley brings up the subject again. “I can’t believe people think that I got where I am because of him,” she fumes, indicating towards The National’s newsroom. “It’s unbelievable.”
After five years, she grew tired of the hectic Ottawa lifestyle and craved a new challenge. She longed to buy tickets for an event and then actually attend it. She also began to question the nature of her work. Mesley didn’t want to be a slave to her beeper anymore. Or spend hours on end waiting outside a room for someone to walk out and say, “No comment.” Newsworld had just started up and she jumped at the chance to move back to Toronto. While anchoring the late night news on Newsworld, she began to lobby for a new kind of show,one that would focus on the rapid change in technology, and how that technology was going to affect the media.
Undercurrents launched in 1994 to critical acclaim. But it was the show’s almost two-year-long start-up process that drove Mesley to consider taking an offer from ABC to do a current affairs show. She was flown to New York for an interview and put up in a swanky hotel overlooking Central Park. While waiting to be ushered in for an interview, Mesley noticed that the walls were covered in pictures of ABC news personalities. The faces of Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters beamed down on her.But there were also smaller pictures of less well-known personalities on the walls.
As she gazed at the walls, Mesley thought to herself, if these were CBC posters, she would be one of the tiny portraits stuck in a corner. She had already worked so hard to get where she was.A move down south would be like starting all over again. She would have to work the insane hours that she did at the beginning of her career and she wouldn’t be able to command the same influence.
When Undercurrents finally launched, Mesley decided not to continue the interview process at ABC. AlthoughUndercurrents garnered several Gemini awards, it was also cancelledÑtwice. When Undercurrents was canned for good, the network had already lined up a new show for its star host: Disclosure. According to Mesley, she learned about her new job the same day everybody else read CBC’s internal memo. Tony Burman, then the editor-in-chief of CBC News, gave her the news in his office. “I guess they thought they could keep a better leash on me by just telling me whereI was going to go. I don’t respond well to that kind of treatment.”
Mesley had no input into the creation of the show and didn’t like its direction. “They set it up to be like aDateline,” says Mesley. “One of those usual, big, sensational, we’re-going-to-expose-all-the-big-secrets kind of stories. I’m not a big secrets kind of person.I’m more like a little secrets kind of person.” Mesley describes a divide between the Disclosure people based in Winnipeg and the former Undercurrents staffers in Toronto. “We had this weird distinct society thing where we’d do our stories and they’d do their stories.” Things got worse the following year when Susan Teskey came in as producer, and the two clashed. Mesley finally wrote a note to Burman stating that she’d had enough. Mesley left the show and hid in an office near the editing suite for weeks before the opening at Marketplace came up.
The new-found success of Marketplace is not solely a product of Mesley’s star power. Part of it is due to a concentrated effort to attract a younger audience by revamping the old, stale format. Instead of a news magazine package with three stories per episode, there is usually just one long investigative feature. For the past two seasons, some kind of test has been worked into most episodes to create a new Marketplacesignature approach.
Many of these tests involve the use of a hidden camera. Mesley may not want a Dateline-style show, but she is not above copping one of its favourite tricks. The technique can sometimes have a lot of impact. In a notable episode of Marketplace, “Grey, Black and Blue,” the hosts investigated the incidences of violence in nursing homes and brought cameras in to document it all. More trivially, they used the same approach with the pain relief promises of Q-Ray bracelets by secretly filming store employees talking up the product. This isn’t exactly revelatory journalism.
Sales clerks were also the targets when Marketplace took a look at the pesticide ban in Halifax. Although the city outlawed the use of pesticides, it cannot forbid the products’ sale. Consumers can still buy chemical weed killers at their local big-box outlet. Marketplace brought its hidden cameras into four Halifax stores. The program showed one staff member offering the surreptitious advice: spray at night.
What was troublesome was that they showed the faces of store employees who stood to suffer the possible consequences of promoting the use of banned substances. “We had a long, long debate about the salespeople,” says Mesley, “because they’re just passing along the corporate line. We tried to stress that there was obviously some kind of corporate responsibility behind what they were saying.” Kent, an Atlantic chain, was the only company to do an on-air interview. In it, they say that the employee’s opinion was not representative of the company’s policies. “You can ask for an interview until you’re blue in the face,” says Mesley. “You can ask for access to their stores or their labs or their factories and in this day and age, that almost never happens.” Big companies don’t always feel the need to sit down and explain themselves. As a result, Marketplace has to find other ways to tell the story. Even if that means shooting the sales clerk. Catherine McKercher, a journalism professor at Carleton University who hasn’t seen the Marketplaceepisode, thinks that using a hidden camera is perfectly acceptable as a last resort. Still, she wonders, “If we appear to be lying to tell the story, what does that do to our status as truth tellers?” But at Marketplace, duplicity is all in the name of the greater good. “I’m not horrified by the hidden cameras,” says Mesley. “I’m more horrified by some of the things that people are able to pull over on the consumer. If we can show there is wrong being committed and that’s the only way that we have to show it, I’m okay with that.” That is theMarketplace bottom line: exposing the liars and cheats. For Mesley, the reaction to deception is simple and reflexive. “I get really, really mad.”
Anna Maria Tremonti, one of Mesley’s closest friends, was in Cuba when she found out that Mesley had cancer. She had gotten some frenzied messages from another close friend and a cryptic message from Mesley that she should get in touch with her. The two had a mutual friend, Jeannette Matthey, a CBC radio reporter who died of breast cancer in 1993. “When Wendy told me that she had breast cancer she went out of her way to assure me that it wasn’t going to be like Jeannette,” says Tremonti. “She was worried about how I would react to her having this. Not about herself.” Not that Mesley knew that she was going to be okay, but she planned to survive.
When the side effects of Mesley’s chemotherapy were less debilitating, she came in to work. She would occasionally anchor The National and wear a wig. The makeup people would draw on eyebrows for her. “People can think that’s kind of pathetic, and maybe it is,” says Mesley. “It was my way of saying that I’m still here, I’m alive.”
As soon as she heard about Diane-35’s new advertising campaign, she knew Mulvihill’s story was one that she wanted to tell. She was compelled to hold someone accountable.
It was Mesley’s obsession with corporate accountability that led to the 2006 Marketplace special, “Chasing the Cancer Answer.” After learning that cancer had just surpassed heart disease as the biggest killer of Americans under 85, she began to question her own case. And the answers she found disturbed her. Mesley led what she considered a healthy life, but the products that she was exposed to on an everyday basis could be blamed for caus-ing her cancer. Her conclusion was simple: “Why the hell, then, aren’t we doing more on prevention?”
Mesley marched the question straight to the head of the Canadian Cancer Society, and took the organization to task for only providing the most simplistic tips for cancer prevention. She took issue with the federal government for not labelling household products that contain carcinogens and interrogated big pharmaceutical companies that seemed more interested in selling cancer medication than preventing it. Mesley resisted the urging of her producers and made it clear that the “Cancer Answer” would not be her own personal story. Yet watching the program it is impossible to see Mesley as someone who doesn’t have a stake in the answers. For the first time, her personal and professional self meet onscreen and Mesley’s true nature comes through: someone who absolutely, at all costs, needs to know why.
Back in her office, Mesley is on the phone with her husband. They’re deciding who will go pick up their daughter from daycare. Mesley’s office is a scattered museum of mementoes. Each time she moves, she just packs every- thing up and brings it along with her. Her degree from Ryerson is framed but sitting on the floor behind the door. Her bulletin board is an explosion of notes, pictures and press passes from the 1980s.
Mesley is telling a story about a friend from Montreal that she saw this past summer. “We were talking about whether young women were as ambitious and as driven as we were. I said, ‘Do they still work those crazy hours?’ She said, ‘Some of them are still just as ambitious. The only difference is that they don’t have as much to prove,’” says Mesley. “Now you have women who feel free to say, ‘I’m going home at five because I have a family.’ Or they feel free to dress like sluts and still be taken seriously.” She laughs.
Carla Wintersgill was the Editor for the Spring 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.