Amanda Lang: Making it her business

When business reporter Amanda Lang jumped to the CBC last fall, ratings soared. She’s smart, ambitious—and yes, attractive. Just don’t call her “money honey.”

Amanda Lang and Kevin O’Leary banter like old friends or archrivals — it just depends on the night. The co-hosts of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, CBC News Network’s six-month-old business program, dissect business stories with a mixture of playful jibes, astute analysis and strong opinions. Within a five-minute period, the pair may opine on the airline industry, Greek debt, inflation numbers and fraud investigations. Regardless of the topic, though, the subtext is always the same. It works like this:

Lang: So, Kevin, this thing happened today…


Lang: To be fair, not everything you just said is factually accurate. And many analysts disagree with you.


Lang: Oh, Kevin. You’re a bit of a dweeb, you know that?

Admittedly, that’s a bit of a glib dramatization of the pair’s undeniable chemistry. O’Leary offers insight along with his bombast. Lang laces the discussion with her own opinions. The hosts often find themselves in complete agreement. But the duo do have clearly defined roles. O’Leary is the pundit; Lang is the journalist. O’Leary provides copious wind, but it is Lang who has her hand on the tiller.

“On-air chemistry is like real-life sexual chemistry. It’s mysterious, and you can’t take credit for it, you just have it,” says Lang, during a chat in an empty boardroom between story meetings. “We have it.”

When The Lang & O’Leary Exchange debuted in October, O’Leary was arguably the bigger star, thanks to reality-show appearances on Dragons’ Den in Canada and Shark Tank in the U.S. But Lang’s profile has skyrocketed since she moved to the CBC from the Business News Network last summer. As CBC News’s senior business correspondent, she makes regular appearances on The National and serves as a regular fill-in anchor for the flagship newscast. Her show with O’Leary was quickly deemed a hit by CBC management, drawing an unexpected audience of younger viewers and trouncing competing business programs in the ratings. Success was rewarded in March with a better time slot — 7 p.m. rather than 4:30 p.m. — and an extension from 30 minutes to an hour. Lang’s face is now plastered on a column in the atrium of the network’s Toronto headquarters, enshrining her in the CBC pantheon alongside Peter Mansbridge, Michael Enright and Anna Maria Tremonti. Perhaps the best litmus test of Lang’s growing popularity is her identical twin sister, Adrian, who says she now must disappoint far more of her sibling’s fans.

“I can be almost anywhere and people will think I’m her,” says Adrian, a partner and litigation specialist at a Toronto law firm. “When she was on BNN, it was almost exclusively a business crowd, but now it’s a much broader audience.”

Some question whether Lang deserves the attention. Critics of recent changes at the CBC dismiss Lang as another “money honey,” a good-looking woman hired to sex up the staid world of business news. (The criticism echoes a similar discussion, smacking of sexism, taking place in the U.S., where CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo was dubbed the original “Money Honey,” and the same network’s Erin Burnett is now called “the Street Sweetie.”) But Lang’s fans — and they are myriad — say she earned her place. She is now the most prominent business journalist on Canada’s airwaves. And she may be attractive, but she ain’t no money honey, honey. “Amanda did so much work before TV to establish her credibility,” says Michael Kearns, her executive producer. “She was a print reporter on Wall Street. That had nothing to do with her appearance so much as it did with dogged determination and her talent.”

Lang’s whole family is crammed with talent. Her father, Otto, became dean of the University of Saskatchewan’s law school at the age of the 30. Elected to Parliament in 1968, he was a fixture in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinets. Amanda and Adrian Lang, the youngest of seven siblings, were born in 1970, in the early days of their father’s stint in Ottawa. Their mother, Adrian, took a dollar-a-year job in her husband’s office. “The general atmosphere was you work hard, you get things done, you think and talk about interesting things or you don’t say anything,” Lang says. “Dinner table conversation was hardly ever banal.”

Lang is seated at a table worlds away from Trudeau’s Ottawa, in a CBC news boardroom. It’s Friday, but the day offers little slack. Lang will host The National as well as her own show. She also attended a parent-teacher conference at her five-year-old’s school; the show delayed a morning story meeting in deference to her parental obligations. She sits with her head cocked to one side, supported by an arm rested on the table. She is relaxed but indefatigable. If she anchors The National on a weekend, she can work three weeks without break. “This job is a lot more hours, a lot more responsibility,” she says, compared to her previous work. “But I love it. I’m energized by it. It’s not a double shift at Walmart.”

Journalism, for Lang, was a career that came from happenstance, not lifelong ambition. From when she was nine years old, Lang had wanted to be an architect. She enrolled at the University of Manitoba, but her childhood dream offered little satisfaction in reality. “She was very good at architecture, but she didn’t like it,” says Adrian. “I’d come home and find her painting our kitchen cabinets instead of studying.”

Lang graduated from university in 1991, the same year her eldest sister, Maria, died in a car crash. Despite her disenchantment with her chosen field, Lang had intended to complete a master’s in architecture. But following her sister’s death, she took time off to work, moving to Toronto and getting a job as a receptionist at The Globe and Mail. She confided to Stephen Petherbridge, a former Ryerson professor who was an editor at the paper, that she was thinking about a career in journalism. Petherbridge had just launched the paper’s classroom edition, aimed at high-school students, and put her to work as an assistant editor. From there, she freelanced for Report on Business magazine before landing a job at The Financial Post. Assigned to the technology beat, she scribbled down unfamiliar jargon at press conferences, hoping to decode it later.

In 1998, she moved to the paper’s New York bureau, stepping over more senior reporters who felt they deserved the plum posting. Lang was well-liked at the Post, considered ambitious and the subject of numerous newsroom crushes. But the paper’s editors were unimpressed when, after they had handed her the Big Apple and facilitated her move there, she bolted for television less than two years later. (To be fair, several of her predecessors at the bureau also defected to American outlets.)

She had been looking for change but unwilling to leave New York. It was Petherbridge who again provided the grease for her career. By this point, he was part of the startup team for Report on Business Television (now BNN) and one day called Lang to chat about the new venture.

“I said ‘You guys really need somebody in New York,'” Lang recalls. She auditioned for Jack Fleischmann, the channel’s general manager. “I have no idea why he hired me,” Lang says, noting she had zero experience.

“If they’re interesting people, by definition they’ll be interesting on TV,” says Fleischmann.

Lang’s leap to the small screen surprised some, including her twin sister. But she quickly learned that TV reporting offers a buzz that’s hard to find in print journalism. “I had a typical print journalist’s disdain for TV,” she says. “But the first time I was on TV, giving the audience information faster than anywhere else, it was such a rush. It still is one of the most fun things you can do.”

Lang follows business stories with the same enthusiasm as an old-school crime reporter chases sirens. To wit, on April 16, the day that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud, Lang was vacationing in the Bahamas. Despite being off-duty and more than 2,500 kilometres away, she appeared on her show that evening via a stuttering webcam feed from Nassau.

“I think they’re going to look back and say, ‘That was the day they lifted the curtain on the Wizard of Oz,'” Lang said, her white short-sleeve shirt and barely done hair suggesting she’d just stepped in from the beach, but her analysis suggesting she’d spent some time working the phones. (Predictably, O’Leary was far less impressed with the federal regulators. “While Amanda is eating bonbons in the Caribbean, I’m calling trading desks,” he said. “I don’t think Goldman Sachs is going to lose this.”)

Lang spent more than three years covering Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street heavyweights, first at ROBTv and later with CNN. The two networks shared facilities in New York. By coincidence, CNN’s president was watching internal feeds from the network’s studios in 2000 and caught Lang doing a hit. He clearly liked what he saw. She started doing fill-in work for CNN, which led to a full-time gig as the network’s New York exchange reporter.

Two years later, she was preparing to renew her contract when her former employers at ROBTv came calling with what Lang describes as “the convergence package.” In addition to a spot on her old channel, they offered the chance to build her profile through appearances in other media owned by CTVglobemedia. There would be a column in The Globe and Mail, they said, and guest hosting gigs on CTV’s Canada AM and documentaries on W5. The plan proved unrealistic. BNN, The Globe and CTV were all separate organizations with separate management. Promised multimedia stardom, Lang soon found herself stranded on a single platform — albeit one she loved.

Lang hosted a number of programs for ROBTv with scintillating titles like The Commodities Report. In 2003, she heard the channel was planning a new political program called SqueezePlay, built around O’Leary’s right-wing free market cheerleading and the left-leaning views of Brian Tobin, the former Newfoundland premier and Liberal cabinet minister. She immediately approached Fleischmann about becoming a part of the show, the impartial anchor to “be there to keep the TV train running.” After six months, Tobin left and the Lang and O’Leary partnership truly began to coalesce. “One person told me it’s like coming into our kitchen and watching a husband and wife fight every night,” says O’Leary.

Everyone associated with the pair has a simile for their dynamic. Both Adrian Lang and Jennifer McGuire, CBC News’s general manager, compare them to Hockey Night in Canada‘s Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. It is a parallel neither Lang nor O’Leary favours (which makes sense — people love Coach’s Corner, but few actually want to be Don Cherry; fewer dream of being Ron MacLean).

For Lang, the challenge is counterbalancing O’Leary’s occasionally Cherry-esque tirades without sacrificing journalistic objectivity. “Viewers of the show understand,” she says. “It may not be old-school, but I think there are some places I can venture without losing my journalistic credibility.”

Those who surround Lang say her journalistic standards are high. Some of this is a matter of character, but it also has to do with some odd intersections between her private and public lives. The same year that SqueezePlay launched, Lang married Vince Borg, the executive VP of corporate communications with Barrick Gold. For a business journalist, getting hitched to an executive with the world’s largest gold mining company posed its own challenges — Borg’s corporation should be prime story fodder for Lang. To avoid conflict of interest, Lang won’t cover Barrick and tries to avoid reporting on the gold industry in general. When she does, she lets viewers know about her predicament. “One time, I said, ‘I’m married to a fellow who works at Barrick,’ which got my husband teased because it made it sound like he worked in the mail room,” she says. “So the next time I said I was married to an executive at Barrick. That got me teased by viewers because it made it sound like I’m married to some hot shot. You can’t really win on that.”

Lang’s life is littered with potential conflicts of interest. She volunteers for countless charities as a master of ceremonies and sits on the board of the Writer’s Trust of Canada, but says she needs to be careful not to “sell stuff” to the people she covers. Two of her brothers, Andrew and Timothy, have run as federal Liberal candidates. Andrew ran against Jack Layton in the last election and will do so again, meaning Lang can no longer interview the NDP leader. And while some viewers — and her co-host — occasionally accuse Lang of having left-leaning sympathies, she says it has more to do with counterbalancing O’Leary’s conservatism than growing up in a Liberal household. “I was raised Liberal, you bet. The first time I went to the polls and voted, you don’t have to think twice about how I voted,” she says. “You couldn’t say the same thing about me today. When you force yourself to go through the process of becoming unbiased, you actually become unbiased. You get perspective on things.”

The Lang and O’Leary tango lasted six seasons on BNN, eventually becoming the channel’s top-rated program. But BNN is a niche product, catering to Bay Street and the rest of the business crowd. Eventually, Lang says she started craving a larger, broader audience. A friend mentioned in idle chitchat that the CBC brass were fans of her work. “Well, they’ve never offered me a job,” Lang responded.

Word soon reached the CBC that Lang was willing to talk. At the same time, the national broadcaster was looking for ways to expand its business coverage on The National while also beefing up its offerings on Newsworld, which is now the News Network. CBC already had a stable of established business reporters, mainstays like Fred Langan and Havard Gould, but management wanted a new personality to match its new direction.

“I wanted a fresh face and somebody with profile and obviously a good journalist,” says McGuire. “I knew about Amanda and her show on BNN, and I knew she had grown an audience. I knew she was journalistic, and her CNN background, and I took a look.”

O’Leary eventually followed Lang to the CBC, but initial discussions focused on her making the transition alone. O’Leary worried the switch would dilute the pair’s “franchise,” but says he understood the appeal for his partner. In the end, O’Leary decided their partnership was unique and not something he wanted to abandon. Lang joined the CBC last July; O’Leary’s announcement followed less than a month later.

The Lang & O’Leary Exchange is different from their old BNN show. SqueezePlay focused on the common ground between politics and the financial world while the CBC program is pure business. Kearns, the show’s executive producer, has a distinguished career at the CBC, working in its China bureau and covering the Iraq War. This is his first business program, making Lang’s expertise even more valuable. “When Amanda says this is the story we have to go hard on, I listen to her,” he says. “She’s put the time in to be able to make those calls.”

The show boasts a roster of veteran business producers (banker-looking types with reading glasses) and young journalists (grad school types with beards). Each morning, they gather to pick the stories for the day’s show. Kearns sits at the head, but Lang leads the room — questioning why they’ve booked a particular CEO, looking for a fresh angle on a story, making suggestions for visuals.

On this particular day, a report has surfaced alleging some SEC investigators spent up to eight hours each day during the financial crisis viewing pornography on the Internet. Jokes are made about “fiddling while Rome burned,” and there is a push to make the story one of “The Big 5” that lead the program each night. “This is not a Big 5,” Lang says. “There’s nothing serious to say. It’s just funny.” The story doesn’t get anywhere near the top of the program that night.

Response to The Lang & O’Leary Exchange has been shockingly positive, given the curmudgeonly nature of CBC viewers. Correspondents on The Tea Makers, a frequently catty gossip and news website dedicated to CBC ephemera, described the show as “the very best of all that News Network has to offer.” On the other hand, Chris Waddell, a Carlton University journalism professor, says the show does a “not bad” job of presenting business news, although, he points out, the show is heavy on talk and light on original reporting.”When all you’re doing is studio interviews, it might as well be radio.”

Lang joined the network during a larger makeover of CBC News. Among the high-profile changes was a decision to have Peter Mansbridge stand up while presenting The National, which was derided as a triumph of style over substance. Thomas Sattizahn, an American media consultant who has worked with CTV in the past, told a Sun Media reporter it was a “shame” that CBC had stooped to using clear glass desks that exposed Lang’s legs to public scrutiny.

Lang says she prefers the glass desk, arguing we all like to see the size and shape of the people we engage in conversation. And while it seems sadly plausible that some networks have hired attractive women to give some juice to their business coverage, O’Leary says his co-host is not one of those empty pretty faces. He has been on programs that employ “a couple of hot chicks and a crusty old guy,” but argues they lack relevance or staying power. “You need strength in every individual that occupies the air.”

Lang has avoided derisive labels, although she does have fans who are clearly not interested in quarterly earnings. (There are video tributes to Lang posted on the Internet with titles like “It’s Something About Amanda.”) She stumbles a bit while discussing the “money honey” phenomenon. “It’s hard for me to answer that without tacitly acknowledging that I think I’m attractive. So you’ve got me in a bit of a box,” she says. She presses on. “You can’t do the job that I do if you don’t understand the material and aren’t passionate about the material,” she says. “Could they get somebody hotter to do my job? Yes, they could. There are many more attractive women working on TV and off. It’s what you bring to the table that gives you longevity.”

She quickly retrenches. “Did I manage to say that without sounding like an egotist? I don’t want to sound like I think I’m so hot. I don’t think I’m so hot.”

Hot or not, Lang is a burgeoning star at the Mother Corp. The National recently featured a 17-minute report by Lang on private security firms in Afghanistan using NATO money to bribe insurgents, a topic with only the most tangential link to her beat. McGuire says Lang is welcome to stretch, but she’ll likely remain the quarterback of the CBC’s growing business team. “Our intention is to build her as a business brand,” she says.

Few associated with Lang expect she’ll remain O’Leary’s slightly more demure half forever. Adrian Lang expects her sister will one day write a book. There are whispers she’d make an excellent candidate if she ever wanted to enter politics. But Lang says she has little interest in the family business, calling federal and provincial elections a “nasty game.” For the moment, Lang is one of Canada’s top business journalists and one-half of the CBC’s most popular duo this side of those guys on Coach’s Corner. Viewers love both the substance and the schtick.

Not too long ago, O’Leary predicted that no matter what, the Bank of Canada would raise interest rates in the early summer, when “people switch to vodka and lemonade.”

“Who drinks vodka and lemonade?” Lang said. “That sounds disgusting.” Subtext: Oh, Kevin, you’re a bit of dweeb. You’re lucky to have me.