The Inside Man
Evan Solomon was an outsider with plans for a new kind of political television, but Ottawa’s toxic partisan culture changed his show—and him
Power & Politics with Evan Solomon premiered on the day of a much-hyped rebranding that saw CBC Newsworld transformed into CBC News Network. It was also the same day as Health Canada’s troubled launch of the H1N1 vaccination program. Solomon’s debut, on October 26, 2009, began with a decidedly non-traditional approach. Rather than opening with the Health Canada story, he invited on three unknown environmentalists who’d staged a disruptive protest in the House of Commons over the government delaying the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311), before security forcefully ejected them. “We will actually have some of those environmental activists coming up right after the break. One of them still has blood on his face!” announced Solomon, sounding perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the segment.
After a commercial break, he rose from his desk and strode over to a bright-red plastic bench installed at his behest. “This is our Front Bench,” he said with evident relish. “This is the place that we’ve reserved in our studio to talk to people who are affected directly by policies that are created in Ottawa.” Seating the environmentalists on the bench, Solomon vowed to put their concerns to the environment minister later in the show, declaring, “I think it’s really important we open up the dialogue.”
As he prepared for that debut, Solomon thought carefully about how to distinguish himself and his new show. “I didn’t just want people with suits and ties on. I wanted it to be accessible to everybody,” he says now. “I took a lot of crap for that—‘Oh, that was a stunt’—but I thought that was democracy. Young people concerned about an issue, bloody nose—sounds like television to me.”
After five years on Power & Politics, as well as stints at other CBC programs including his literary show Hot Type and technology show Futureworld, Solomon knows good television; it’s what helped win him this job. Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, chose him because she wanted a “different sensibility” for the flagship political affairs program. He didn’t come from political reporting, “which was sort of a plus and a negative at the beginning,” she says. To Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle, it was more of a negative, especially since Solomon was succeeding Don Newman, the well-regarded host of Politics, the network’s previous political affairs show. “As the whole country knows, Solomon is no Don Newman,” wrote Doyle in a critical review of CBC News Network’s launch.
McGuire knows such shows can alienate viewers. “What Power & Politics has done incredibly successfully is offer enough depth for the insider,” she enthuses, “but it is also entertaining enough that it brings in people who are more casual followers of politics.” Since 2009, the show has expanded its audience by roughly 65 percent—from 51,000 to 84,000 viewers, according to internal figures—while transitioning from inventive, egalitarian fare like the Front Bench to the more conventional: polls, punditry and panels.
The rise in viewership came during severe CBC cutbacks, thinning audiences for similar U.S. shows, and an increasingly toxic national political culture characterized by restricted access to newsmakers, enforced party message control and shameless displays of spin.
Although a 65 percent gain sounds impressive, the increase represents just 33,000 viewers, undermining McGuire’s assertion of incredible success. It’s positively anemic compared to the 800,000 listeners who tuned in to CBC Radio One on Saturday mornings this season for The House, a political affairs show also hosted by Solomon that features lengthier one-on-one interviews.
The assumption behind much of Power & Politics is that the core audience is politically informed, if not politically engaged. But to continue its ratings growth, the show will need to win more viewers outside its traditional constituency of Hill staffers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicos and assorted news junkies. As Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director of civic engagement non-profit Samara Canada told me, “Many political journalists are challenged with this question: how do you expand the audience for political news and political content beyond people who are already interested?”
Last October, I visited Solomon in his studio at CBC’s Ottawa bureau. A few blocks away on Parliament Hill, the Conservative caucus was debating renewed Canadian participation in the battle against the Islamic State. A morning meeting led by CBC Ottawa bureau chief Rob Russo lets out shortly after I arrive, and the parliamentary bureau team’s goal is clear: find out what was said behind the caucus’s closed doors.
As it happens, military operations, along with procurement, finance and intelligence, rank among Solomon’s topics of interest. He’s cultivated high-level sources in these difficult-to-penetrate circles and communicates with them off the grid. “You could call it an electronic black market,” says Solomon, scrolling through the BlackBerry he carries with him at all times, even on air. Often, watching the show in their Hill offices, his sources message him in real time: “Everybody is communicating with everybody,” he adds, “but nobody’s doing it officially.”
Taking cues from Russo, Solomon works his caucus sources, cajoling one chief of staff on the phone while firing off one-line inquiries over email. Solomon, Russo and the rest of the CBC team soon discover there’s broad agreement in the caucus for an expanded role in Iraq: MPs Rob Nicholson, then minister of defence, and John Baird, then minister of foreign affairs, both spoke in favour of a combat mission.
But neither Nicholson nor Baird will do an interview. In fact, Baird’s office pointedly refused requests for the former foreign affairs minister to appear on Power & Politics after a particularly combative interview with Solomon a few days earlier. “He’d better not do Don,” Solomon grumbles later, referring to rival Don Martin’s Power Play on CTV.
Executive producer Amy Castle’s goal is to open every episode with an exclusive or, failing that, a newsmaker interview that may advance a developing story. At the beginning of this morning’s pitch meeting, the team has neither. North America’s first case of Ebola has just been diagnosed and Solomon wonders aloud if Minister of Health Rona Ambrose could be their newsmaker. Again, the answer is no; the minister would not be made available.
“She’s unreal,” fumes Castle. Marker in hand, she considers the whiteboard where every episode is plotted out: it’s mostly blank, except for the “Power Panel,” a double-length segment featuring a rotating cast of talking heads. “It became quite clear to us that it was a destination panel,” says Castle. “So we’ve made that kind of a centrepiece in the middle of the program.” The whiteboard is divided into blocks. She writes a name into the mid-show block: Stephen Day.
Day, the former commanding officer of Canada’s national counter-terrorism and special operations unit Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), is due to arrive soon for a pre-taped interview. Solomon is clearly excited. “He’s seen a lot of bang-bang all over the world,” he explains. “Very, very rarely does anyone who was in JTF2 ever speak, ever go public about anything. We’re building a relationship with him.”
It’s similar to the relationship Solomon built with Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence at CSIS, who has since become CBC’s go-to security analyst, appearing frequently to discuss the spy agency’s opaque decision-making. Solomon hopes Day will become his “special ops” analyst (and in the months since, he has appeared regularly for that purpose). As the government inched toward approving a military engagement, Day—instead of cabinet ministers—would be explaining the combat mission to Canadians.
Like many of the politicians he interviews, Solomon tends to romanticize his upbringing. He recounts his family’s history in a long narrative that culminates in a celebration of the “Canadian dream.” His father, Carl, was a lawyer, the youngest of eight and the first to attend university; his mother, Virginia, worked as an urban planner. He’s quick to acknowledge his “fortunate upbringing,” but it seems a sensitive point. “I only say that because people say, ‘Your dad’s a lawyer.’” But Solomon’s grandfather never lived to see his son called to the bar, after suffering a heart attack in a downtown Toronto sweatshop near where his grandson would later establish his magazine, Shift. As a child, Solomon play-hosted radio shows. Educated at Toronto’s Crescent School, Solomon earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in English literature and religious studies, both from McGill University in Montreal.
At a party on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in his sophomore year, Solomon met Andrew Heintzman. It was 1992 and the job market was bleak. Both men had written for campus publications; Solomon had dabbled in playwriting. After graduating, they launched their own magazine, a literary quarterly titled Shift. It was, Heintzman admits, a “crazy idea”—but the fledgling publication turned heads before its first issue hit the stands. The two founders appeared on the front page of the Globe’s arts section and on CBC Radio’s Morningside. Their host, a 37-year-old Ralph Benmergui, was by then already too old to write for Shift, which had vowed to publish only work by those under 35. With an initial print run of 800, their magazine, declared its two founders, was here to “kick in the teeth of the literary establishment.”
Today, Solomon and Heintzman laugh about this posture of youthful aggression. “I think, inevitably, there’s a young person who would like to kick in my teeth,” muses Solomon. “I work at CBC, I host a two-hour show called Power & Politics, I traffic in people of great power. That’s my world. This is about as establishment in my field as it gets.”
Still, as promised on Morningside, Solomon penned many righteous screeds against the sins of legacy media during six years as editor of Shift: “Mainstream media is not interested in the story of a black man from an obscure ethnic group in Nigeria who was fighting a multinational company; it’s interested in stories about business mergers and oil prices, in sending people to work listening to dazzling pop songs and tips on how to maintain ‘lifestyle,’” wrote Solomon in January 1998. “Debt-free media don’t cover sensitive stories so much as sensational ones. The curve of a president’s penis gets more ink than the curve of the unemployment rate,” he vented in June of that year.
By the time Solomon left, Shift had become a journal of late-’90s digital culture. In his final issue in June 1998, Solomon’s letter from the editor discusses the debt a journalist owes his audience: it is, he argues, “a different kind of debt, one which dictates that the truth can’t be traded for marketability. This debt has to be repaid not only by bearing witness to events, but by then transforming them into shared experiences.” It was a telling preview of the kind of change he would try to take with him to Ottawa.
“It’s shit,” says Solomon, looking askance at Day’s thick brown tie. “You look like you’re going on a date later.” Solomon’s own six-foot-four frame is clad in a well-cut suit, complete with a bright tie, which, he advises, looks better on television. The host has adopted a different tone than he had in the morning pitch meeting: jocular and laced with profanity. It’s part of an effort to build rapport with Day, whom other shows also want to book; he’d already appeared once on CTV’s Question Period.
Solomon, Day and Castle return their attention to footage from a rehearsal interview. Solomon explains his job as a journalist to Day: “When you go out on a mission and you say, ‘What’s my goal?’ They say, ‘Go get the bad guy, gag him up or kill him.’ Mine is: ‘What did you bring that no one else knows?’”
The difficulty is that Day’s best lines in the rehearsal—the stuff no one else knows—are laden in dense military jargon. Midway through the interview, he delivers a savvy answer about “talk[ing] the talk with warriors” to get “the ground truth.” Solomon hits pause. “That was fucking aces!”
He encourages Day to drop the jargon and illustrate points by saying more about his tours in Afghanistan. “They see you in a suit. They don’t see you in dusty boots,” says Solomon. “The key is: you’re talking to civilians who are watching TV, and they’re political junkies, and they wanna like you. They wanna love you.
“You’re hitting home runs on the brain side. But now, you gotta hit on the heart side.” Solomon thumps the left side of his chest. “Figure out what you can talk about. I don’t know the line. But you could say, ‘I remember—but I can’t say when. . .’ The more you describe something, and hide the details, the better it is: Dance of the Seven Veils,” he concludes. “All good television.”
For nearly as long as television has existed, there have been programs about politics. The longest-running show in U.S. history is NBC’s Meet the Press, broadcast since 1947 and the object of much gossip and commentary. It’s the most venerable of several Sunday morning shows, including Face the Nation and This Week. All are deeply influential in elite D.C. circles. Lately, however, ratings have sagged as viewers lose interest in what The Washington Post called “Beltway blabfests.” Over the first quarter of 2014, Face the Nation, Meet the Press and This Week collectively drew 9.6 million viewers, about the same number that watched Meet the Press in a single week in 2005.
Panic is setting in among network executives. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported that NBC president Deborah Turness hired a psychologist to analyze why then-host David Gregory was failing to connect with viewers. (NBC denies this.)
Producers are under pressure to alter the show’s format to recover the lost audience. The late Meet the Press host Tim Russert, to whom Newman might be compared for his patrician manner, spent lengthy segments grilling a single lawmaker. Today the trend is toward faster pacing, shorter segments and a wider range of topics. Many of the Sunday morning shows now rely on elements similar to the “Power Panel” to explain the intricacies of contemporary politics to casual viewers.
“I’m so bored with Canadian political coverage. I can’t connect with it. I can watch a lot of American political coverage,” media critic Jesse Brown declared at a Ryerson University talk, complaining about the jargon on Power & Politics and The House. “It’s this insider stuff. You’ve got to be a wonk. It’s not even about the policy—it’s about, ‘What are the optics of this move?’”
Brown hopes to crowdfund a politics podcast in time for the next federal election. “I want to decode it, demystify it. . . and put it into human language,” he said. He is still searching for a host, perhaps someone like his friend, a coffee shop owner named David Ginsberg, who is upset with the state of political coverage. Ginsberg, who Brown calls “a smart guy and an angry guy,” sounds like he has a lot in common with Solomon circa Shift.
Following Newman’s retirement in 2009, CBC management’s choice for a successor privately puzzled many. Although Solomon had been co-hosting CBC Radio’s Sunday news show for eight years, he was still identified with Hot Type. “When Evan first arrived in Ottawa, he was the guy at the CBC who had the book show,” remembers Ian Capstick, former press secretary for Jack Layton and now a “Power Panel” regular. “There was a lot of apprehension around Ottawa because Don Newman was a known quantity. And when Evan came in, he shook up the show.”
The consensus among the Ottawa chattering classes was that the new host had at most one year to prove worthy of Newman’s chair. “Nobody thought I would be able to do it—least of all me,” says Solomon. “So I didn’t try. I didn’t try to be Don.” Instead, he set out to create an entirely new show: one that would not only “bear witness to events” but actually transform them into “shared experiences,” to borrow Solomon’s own phrases.
The plan for Power & Politics was ambitious: air live from 5 to 7 p.m. five nights a week. Filling such a lengthy program with quality content is still an enormous challenge, given that producers have fewer than six hours to put the show together every day. Peter Harris, former executive producer at Power & Politics, compares it to “feeding the beast,” standing on the edge of “a black hole” sucking up infinite energy and fighting in “a war zone”; or, as Castle puts it, like “Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain.”
At the start, Peter Mansbridge gave contacts to Solomon, who dutifully made the calls. He also read House of Commons Procedure and Practice, the 1,206-page tome that explains, in exhaustive detail, Parliament’s Byzantine workings. “That gives you an idea of how paranoid I was about making sure I knew what I was talking about,” he says. “I had a gap and so I started with the basics.”
Today, Solomon is the consummate Ottawa insider and an astute political observer, adept at moderating debate on the “Power Panel.” On the afternoon of my visit, producers have convened the regular Wednesday members: Capstick, Rob Silver and Tim Powers—all career politicos—and Canadian Press journalist Jennifer Ditchburn. They spend most of their time in a debate over an apparent disparity between two Conservative comments on the number of “military advisers” already deployed against ISIS. Was it 69 or 26? As usual, the government was not exactly forthcoming, leaving the press gallery to puzzle out such mysteries.
The panel typically follows the same “casting” formula: three insiders whose views and careers align with each of the main federal parties—and one journalist to temper the partisan bickering. Sometimes during commercial breaks, Solomon will discreetly offer up his own take. The panellists know to play on that idea once they’re live again. Unlike Day, the panel needs no coaching in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Some CBC staff hesitate to use the P-word as a catch-all term for commentators, but there are those who have no qualms: “I pundit on things. I’m a talking head, for fuck’s sake! What else do you want from me?” exclaims Capstick. “I make entertainment. I make news analysis entertaining. That’s my job.” (Ditchburn and other journalists tend to offer more factual, less animated commentary.)
“The way the New Democrats or the Liberals or the Tories did something is just as important as what they did,” Capstick continues. “I want to pull back the curtain: Here’s how this message is being pushed forward to you. Here’s why they use the certain words that they do.” Senior producer Leslie Stojsic, who previously produced The National’s “The Insiders” and “At Issue” panel segments, says a good panel is all about “making you feel like you’re a part of the conversation.” That definition is a long way from the citizen engagement Solomon emphasized in his debut, an ersatz version of “open dialogue” and “shared experiences.”
Inevitably, the “Power Panel” attracts critics. “Watching CBC’s Power & Politics can be hard on the synapses,” complains iPolitics writer Andrew Mitrovica in his column. He takes issue with the panellists, “who ooze a haughty, know-it-all attitude that treats anyone outside of the Ottawa bubble with thinly disguised contempt.” Nevertheless, the “Power Panel” is regularly the highest-rated portion of the broadcast. That may be because other segments, such as newsmaker interviews or MP panels, can be unenlightening or uninformative.
Take, for example, an infamous appearance by MP Paul Calandra in September 2014. In the House of Commons, Calandra, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, turned a straightforward question about Canada’s military involvement in Iraq into a cheap political point about the opposition’s purported anti-Israel bias. Then he went on Power & Politics. “Do you think it’s your responsibility, when you’re answering questions on behalf of the prime minister, to at least make an attempt to answer on the topic you’re asked, as opposed to completely changing the topic?” asked Solomon, openly incredulous. “Well, I disagree with you that the topic was changed,” replied Calandra, before segueing seamlessly into the same nonsensical talking points he’d delivered in question period. “Be reasonable!” exclaimed Solomon. Seated next to Calandra, NDP MP Paul Dewar buried his face in his hands and shook his head in disbelief, a moment captured in freeze-frame and widely retweeted. The incident crystallized public frustration over message control and spin.
In her bid farewell on The House, outgoing host Kathleen Petty admitted her policy against allowing politicians to “freely throw around talking points unchallenged” meant that MP panels had consequently become “few and far between.” But Power & Politics perseveres. “We know that, as frustrating as MP panels can be, it’s important to get those voices out there,” says Castle. The show’s mandate-—to hold decision-makers or their surrogates to account—sometimes means becoming a platform for PMO spin, despite Solomon’s vociferous attempts to elicit real answers.
By mid-afternoon, Castle has blocked out all slots on the whiteboard: the top stories are the mission in Iraq, Ebola preparations and the protests in Hong Kong. Day’s segment is prioritized and there are interviews with the chief public health officer and Canada’s former ambassador to China. The show ends with a moustachioed trapper arguing with an animal rights activist about the muskrat fur hats traditionally worn by RCMP officers. Castle and Solomon decide to use Day’s pre-tape footage instead of the second interview conducted after the review session. Castle prefers his initial explanation of the role of military advisers. “It’s a fantastic window on what could be happening on the ground,” she says to Day and Solomon. As an interviewer, Solomon had more success putting Day at ease in the studio and his critique may have undermined the expert’s confidence.
But making his guests feel comfortable has always been Solomon’s forte. His earliest television success came on Hot Type. Guest Tom Wolfe remembers Solomon as an “adept and provocative young host.” In his book of essays, Hooking Up, Wolfe recounts the time Solomon riled up John Irving: “His sexagenarian jowls shuddered. He began bleeping. It was all the show’s technicians could do to hit the bleep button fast enough,” recalls Wolfe. “Evan Solomon kept covering his face with his hand and smiling at the same time as if to say, ‘How can the old coot make such a spectacle of himself—but wow, it’s wonderful television!’”
Solomon has always known the recipe for good television. “Call it the Oswald Quotient,” he wrote in Shift in June 1996. “Watching Jack Ruby off Kennedy’s killer was television at its best, and everyone knew it.” Hence the bloodied protester on the debut episode—and the record-high ratings on October 22, the day of the Ottawa shootings. The capital was shut down and Solomon was on the air by 10:15 a.m. for a full day of coverage with Mansbridge. Later, he hosted a three-hour special edition of Power & Politics.
“The media are among the few storytellers left in our secular culture,” wrote Solomon in Shift in 1995. “If they chronicled less and imagined more, they might just find that people would become more interested in the world around them.” His challenge on Power & Politics has always been just that: make Canadians more interested in politics. Five years on, he seems to have given up on the high-minded ideals of “shared experiences” and “open dialogue.” Despite a commitment to original journalism, he chronicles less (frustrated by endless spin) and imagines more, shaping our national narrative through punditry with the help of the “Power Panel.” Its members, as Joan Didion says of the panel’s American counterparts, are part of “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
Though his show has changed, Solomon insists he hasn’t, despite evidence to the contrary: “My life can be divided into a series of segments,” he tells me. From Shift to Futureworld to Hot Type, and then to Ottawa: a tidy narrative that begins with his grandfather in a sweatshop and leads here. “I’m not that different,” he maintains. “I feel like a 20-year-old version of myself wouldn’t say that the 46-year-old version of myself is unknowable.”
Late in the evening, Russo and Solomon are still working their sources. Solomon kicks his feet up on his desk, revealing brightly coloured striped socks. Grinning widely, Russo pulls up his trouser leg: “Look at this, kid,” he says to me. “Socks are the only form of rebellion we have left.”
by Simon Bredin
Simon Bredin was the Spring 2015 chief copy editor of the RRJ.