When Paula Todd was a TVO talk-show host she was both a shoulder to cry on and a tough interrogator. On her new CTV legal program The Verdict, she emphasizes the latter, tossing her acerbic opinion into the mix just to watch the fur fly
Paula Todd sits at a table in a CTV studio room. She wears a smart black suit and pink blouse, with a string of pearls around her neck. Her blond hair frames her strong cheek bones. The tag line for the Wednesday, October 17 edition of The Verdict with Paula Todd reads: “Aggressive Panhandlers.” The show covers a heavyweight interview list of city councillors, lawyers, civil rights activists and shop owners from across Canada, and a few in New York. The guests are both for and against cracking down on panhandlers.
On the N ew York segment, author George Kelling talks about his theory that if you take care of the minor offences, a lot of the major offences will take care of themselves.
“Some people said that the … theory also criminalized homelessness. It pushed those people who were eyesores off the streets … and really made their life hell. Do you buy that?” Todd asks. There’s no need for a response — the author of a book about the theory wouldn’t be buying into any opposing theory.
Throughout the show, Todd switches smoothly from guest to guest, giving each a chance to fight his or her point. She is animated and sympathetic, delegating conversation and fuelling debate with confidence and ease. While she moves from one subject to the next, she’ll every so often drop in her own opinion — sometimes so obviously it’s hard to miss her bias. Perhaps she does so to ignite anger and controversy, and spark further debate. Regardless, Todd’s ploy, while going against traditional journalistic objectivity, captures the drama and controversy her show aims for.
The Verdict, which began broadcasting last March, is the first all-legal television show in Canada. The program has already reeled in some of the country’s biggest legal cases and prominent figures, such as Conrad Black and Robert Pickton, and has dealt with some of the nation’s most pressing legal and political issues, including bigotry, youth gangs and pedophilia. In the same way the U.S. crime program CSI leaves its viewers satisfied with a killer’s conviction or the solving of a mysterious crime, The Verdict specializes in hot-button topics likely to ignite strong responses from the audience.
Spurred on by the success of well-known American legal hit fodder such as CSI, Law and Order and Criminal Minds, CTV’s original intent, according to its mission statement, was to “give viewers an in-depth look at the hard-hitting legal and justice news making headlines from around the world.” The show combines news segments with in-studio interviews and debates, as well as out-of-studio interviews. Its focus is Canadian law and current affairs, but U.S. cases are often cited for reference. The show is primarily aimed at those who love the thrill of crime and punishment, with all its electrifying details, consequences and controversy. “Todd will draw on her own experience and expertise to give Canadians a unique perspective on the high-profile crime and legal issues of the day,” the show’s mission statement describes, tipping its hat to Todd’s bona fides.
And indeed, Todd has the bona fides — she holds a degree in law from York University. As for journalism, she began her career at the Toronto Star in 1983. At various times she worked as a Queen’s Park political correspondent, a feature writer and an editorialist. She has also written for several other publications, including The Globe and Mail and Canadian Living magazine, and found herself contributing to CBC radio and CBC Newsworld’s Face Off as a political analyst. She began to make her mark in broadcast journalism over a decade ago with the start of TVOntario’s Studio 2, which she co-hosted with Steve Paikin. A few years into her tenure, Studio 2 launched a new segment called Person 2 Person, which eventually spun off into its own show called Person 2 Person with Paula Todd (P2P). P2P explored extraordinary stories of citizens’ emotional, social and political struggles and successes. In 2004, she authored a book titled A Quiet Courage, which was inspired by her experiences at P2P.
Then, in June 2006, Studio 2 was no more. TVO abruptly cancelled the long-running program and invited one of its co-host to create a new one called The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Todd was left outside of the deal. She soldiered on with P2P, but it would be her last year at TVO. This past February she jumped ship to CTV.
Former colleagues have called Todd a pit bull when it comes to journalistic integrity and skill. She can win over viewers with heartwarming interviews. She has a knack for persuading subjects to open up. But what Todd really loves, former Studio 2 series producer and supervising producer of P2P Jane Jankovic recalls, is action. To get the story she wants, she can be aggressive and tenacious. She loves to put her subjects in the hot seat. (Todd declined to be interviewed for this story.)
While not all viewers were tolerant of Todd’s confrontational manner on Studio 2, she was undeniably good at asking tough questions and relentlessly pushing subjects. For The Verdict, the main objective is to allot debate time between subjects, ask the important questions and be informed. But if Wednesday night’s show is any indication, Todd’s subjective interjections make for a more heated viewing experience, even as they cross the line of objectivity.
In the New York segment of “Aggressive Panhandlers,” Todd asks one of the city’s anti-poverty activists, “Isn’t New York better off than it was before? It’s cleaner… it certainly seems safer?” Todd seems to be arguing for eradicating homeless people altogether.
Later in the segment Todd holds up posters that she thinks are “incredible campaigns” — public signs created to warn those helping the homeless and panhandlers. One sign she holds depicts a man shooting heroin into his arm. The line underneath reads: “Your generosity is killing me.”
“Look at this,” Todd says jokingly, “I’m not supposed to be doing this.” But she does.
In the U.S., Court TV presents American justice in an educational and entertaining way. The channel usually covers recent trials, verdicts and legal news headlines, but this year it has added significant chunks of dramatic programming. Shows such as RED (short for Real. Exciting. Dramatic.), Forensic Files, Most Shocking, Cops, Body of Evidence and Under Fire are designed to quench what the network believes is the audience’s thirst for an exhilarating drama series, with a reality twist.
CTV won’t be devoting its entire network to dramatic real-life criminal justice shows any time soon, but The Verdict offers viewers a glimpse of the format, exploring a wide range of Canadian perspectives. Todd’s segment on panhandlers, for example, covers people in Kelowna, B.C., Toronto and Calgary. The show remains largely a roundtable debate and does not focus as strongly on the drug busts and criminal chases of Court TV. Yet Todd’s intention to provoke heated conversations and arguments, along with her slanted personal perspective, add to the intensity. Word usage, questions and news clips accentuate the show’s excitement and create a dramatic atmosphere.
Todd smiles at the camera. “I get the last word,” she says. “When did it become a crime to want clean, safe streets?”
Todd goes on to say that, to her obvious surprise, those who want to get panhandlers off the streets and remove homeless people from urban centres are treated like “Darth Vader.”
Hayley Citron was the Online Editor for the Summer 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.