Amanda Lang in one of CBC's studios. Photograph by Shannon Ross

Amanda Lang in one of CBC’s studios.
Photograph by Shannon Ross

A lively mass of black blazers and BlackBerrys spills into the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall. It’s September 15, 2011, and the group of reporters, bankers, and PR representatives has convened for the Canadian Journalism Foundation‘s forum on the state of financial journalism. The conference falls on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers—the largest bankruptcy filing in American history; three years later to the day, smoke still lingers from the corporation’s implosion and the aftershock that led to a near-topple of the global economy. Earlier this afternoon, CNN reported that the U.S. unemployment rate was up to 9.1 percent and first-time unemployment claims had surged to 428,000 in the past week. There was a 33 percent spike in home foreclosures between July and August, the biggest one-month increase in four years. But most ominous were the updates on the spread of the debt crisis contagion through Europe.

The chatter fades as the forum’s three panelists take their seats. CBC News’s senior business correspondent, Amanda Lang, sits among them, looking as though she just tumbled out of a Holt Renfrew fall catalogue, in a navy blue blazer, form-fitting white dress, and beige patent heels. She’s moderating the discussion, and is no stranger to the role; as co-host of The Lang and O’Leary Exchange with acid-tongued multi-millionaire and Dragon’s Den judge Kevin O’Leary, she often plays arbitrator when he spits fire at a guest.

Robin Walsh of the Canadian Bankers Association takes the microphone, arguing that at the beginning of the economic crisis, stories about Canada’s banks were left underreported.

Lang pounces. “Robin, I think it’s funny if you’re complaining about how long it took for Canadian banks to be well treated, because this is the sort of golden era for Canadian banks. Enjoy it while it lasts, my friend. It will pass.”

“I’m not complaining,” Walsh counters.

“I’m surprised you don’t all have broken arms from patting yourselves on the back, that’s all,” says Lang, to laughter and applause from the audience.

Almost a decade of business banter with O’Leary—the pair also hosted six seasons ofSqueezePlay on Business News Network from 2003 to 2009—has made Lang a master of snuffing out self-indulgent tangents. She punctuates the evening with the same brand of ego-deflating comebacks that draw more than 700,000 viewers each week to the Exchange.

Lang was relatively obscure as a CNN reporter on the stock exchange prior to joining CBC News in 2009, but her current roles as the network’s senior business correspondent and O’Leary’s foil have made her one of Canada’s biggest names in financial reportage. In her smooth cadence, Lang opened the forum with the analogy of a nature video she saw at age 10, likening the role of the journalist to the cameraman who filmed a lion eating a gazelle—an invisible watchdog on the sidelines. But Lang’s own brand of journalism is neither invisible nor on the sidelines: it’s equal parts real business and show business.

 

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Raised first in Ottawa, then Winnipeg, Lang and her seven siblings soaked in political banter around the dinner table. Her father, Otto Lang, was a Rhodes scholar and famed Liberal politician, and her stepfather, Donald Macdonald, a former member of Trudeau’s cabinet. “It was definitely a fun but challenging environment to grow up in,” says Lang’s twin sister, Adrian, a partner of litigation at Stikeman Elliott in Toronto. Earning a university degree, or two, was a non-negotiable expectation. While two brothers traced their father’s political career path, Lang enrolled in architecture at the University of Manitoba.

But the future journalist quickly realized architecture wasn’t her passion. Adrian remembers coming home to find her sister painting the kitchen cabinets rather than studying. Instead of pursuing a master’s after graduation, as planned, Lang ventured to Toronto and landed an administrative assistant position at The Globe and Mail (she describes her role as the newsroom’s “girl Friday”). It wasn’t long before she became curious about journalism. Steve Petherbridge, then editor of the Globe‘s Classroom Edition, told her to skip schooling and dive in.

“The first time I stayed up late working on a story, a light bulb went off,” says Lang, now 41. “It felt so different than when I used to work hard on design projects at school. I thought, ‘This is how it feels to do something you’re good at.'”

 

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Lang was soon ensnared in the business beat by a 1995 Globe and Mail Report on Business magazine story about transportation manufacturer Bombardier. Although the mega-corporation specialized in flashy, state-of-the-art aircraft and trains, its margin of profitability was still highest in a little snowmobile division in Valcourt, Quebec. That detail prompted Lang to pitch her first business profile to ROB magazine. “It taught me that if you aren’t afraid of the numbers—because they aren’t nearly as complicated as they seem—they actually will lead you to stories,” she says.

Lang became an editorial associate at the Globe, then a freelancer for ROB magazine. After that, she transitioned to a job as junior reporter for the Financial Post, then a standalone paper. Tim Pritchard, former editorial director of the Post, interviewed Lang for the position and recalls that in his entire career as an editor, she was the only person to actually tell him in an interview, “I want your job.”

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By 1998, Lang had climbed to the paper’s New York bureau, but the Financial Post had thinned down to a section in Conrad Black’s new National Post. Lang heard journalist-turned-producer Jack Fleischmann was looking for a reporter for the new Report on Business TV in 1999. A few phone calls and one “atrocious” TelePrompTer screen test later, Fleischmann suggested Lang have a conversation about business with a colleague in front of the cameras. Smitten with Lang’s Wall Street-smarts, he made her the network’s New York correspondent.

Lang’s switch from print to TV prompted her launchpad, the Globe, to run headlines like “Babes in Businessland” and “Closing Belle: How Does TV Get Viewers to Stick with the Stocks-and-Bonds News? With Babes, the Oldest Trick in the Business” (a 29-year-old Lang is quoted in the former story as calling this take on her on-air role “parochial garbage”). She spent the next three years eschewing the money-honey label by covering the stock exchange for ROBTV before moving to its higher-profile American counterpart, CNN. The tight-knit CNN business team had their doubts: she was a rookie compared to most of their correspondents. “I was expecting to do some heavy lifting, but it was one of those ‘wow’ moments,” says Ali Velshi, CNN’s chief business correspondent, who is now a close friend of Lang’s. “She was a duck to water to TV. I was a smarter journalist when I worked with her.”

Two years later, Business News Network (formerly ROBTV) made Lang an offer that she snapped up. It’s a rule of the stock exchange that if a bond or stock is a hot commodity, it will quickly be overvalued. But a decade after she was traded, past co-workers still speak about her in superlatives: BNN anchor Howard Green? “It’s like she was born to it.” Petherbridge? “A first-class brain.” Dave Chilton, the Wealthy Barber and O’Leary’s stand-in on the Exchange? “Sharp as a tack.”

 

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On a rainy Friday morning one month after the  Canadian Journalism Foundation event, Lang weaves her way through the CBC business unit—rows of cubicles that could be home to a telemarketing company—and strides into a closet-sized meeting room. “Glamourous, isn’t it?” she jokes. O’Leary has just caused yet another on-air stink when he called Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges a “left-wing nutbar” in a segment about the Occupy movement. Lang shrugs off the incident—she’s used to her co-host’s antics, and believes he gave Hedges an ample amount of airtime to have his say.

With a playful grin, she introduces me to a producer. “This is Chelsey. She’s writing a story about left-wing nutbars.”

The producer shakes his head wearily before shaking my hand.

Lang has spent the past two days chasing a story on the unprecedented boom of Canada’s luxury retailers in the wake of the credit crisis. With household debt on the rise and U.S. consumer confidence at its lowest level since May 1980, Lang is investigating how high-end brands are managing to eclipse their more affordable counterparts. Cameras follow her bright red umbrella down one of the country’s most expensive streets, Toronto’s “Mink Mile” on Bloor Street West, where she stops into Holt Renfrew to talk numbers with president Mark Derbyshire. After experiencing one of the best-selling years in the history of the company in 2010, Holt has seen a 25 percent increase in handbag sales alone over the past year, and stores are struggling to keep pricey labels such as Tom Ford in stock.

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Derbyshire gestures to a purple fox fur jacket by the designer, telling Lang that it retails for $33,000.

“Thirty-three thousand dollars?”

“Yes, well, isn’t it spectacular, though? It’s absolutely spectacular.” He strokes the skinned Muppet.

“It would have to be,” says Lang, amused. “I paid less for my car.”

She may not flaunt her success like the entrepreneurial tycoon with whom she shares the screen, but Lang is no pauper. Twenty years in the business and a husband in the gold mining industry (Vince Borg, former VP of corporate communications for Barrick Gold) have earned her a spot in the upper class, and she blends in nicely—the Forest Hill home, the immaculate wardrobe, the Louis Vuitton wallet tossed casually onto the table beside her.

But those closest to her say she is anything but a diva. When she was nominated for a Gemini Award in 2010, her sister Adrian remembers Lang had to be all but dragged down to the gala, convinced she wouldn’t win. But she did, and accepted her award—composed and effortlessly eloquent. “I literally go on Twitter once a year, and I went on to tweet that she had won,” says Adrian. “It was a really special moment.”

 

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On a December evening in the CBC studios, Lang and O’Leary are bickering like an old married couple while taping a segment for the Exchange. Today’s debate is on Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol climate-change agreement. O’Leary argues that it would be more financially sound for Canada to wait for other countries to re-sign the agreement, but Lang isn’t buying his economy-over-environment tirade.

“I’m speaking for all Canadians when I say we’re not signing until everybody else signs the same deal,” says O’Leary.

“Okay, I guarantee you with 1,000 percent certainty that you don’t speak for all Canadians. I can think of one or two that you don’t speak for,” Lang counters. “Me, for instance.”

“Come behind me, join me in this chorus, because I’m right. We’re not signing anything until everybody signs the same deal.”

“That’s certainly the Canadian approach. Meanwhile, though, it sort of becomes a bit of a smokescreen for putting environmental concerns on the back burner. If you’re wrong, and we actually do need to be taking faster action on climate change, every day that we hesitate is a day that’s pretty meaningful.”

“I’m right, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“I don’t have to worry about climate change?”

“I’ve solved it for you. The key is to put another pipeline to the West Coast and sell more oil to China.”

Lang shoots him a mocking smirk. “You know, what I’d like is an apartment inside your brain. Because it must be so cozy in there.”

It’s hard to see any shred of the “classic introvert” Lang calls herself while she’s bulldozing the Merchant of Truth (O’Leary’s self-appointed nickname). Their glass island can become a boxing ring of business jargon. When he was developing the show in 2009, it was what former executive producer Michael Kearns wanted to preserve from their SqueezePlay days: the same chemistry with higher production values, faster pacing, and a wider scope.

“We needed a much bigger and more high-profile push toward business content,” says Kearns.

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The push came at the right time for the network and for Lang, who was enticed by the idea of a more business-centric CBC. Producers wanted to broaden the target audience, and created a template that would appeal equally to number-savvy investors and the less financially literate public. General manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News Jennifer McGuire homed in on Lang’s ability to dilute Wall Street vernacular into plainspeak, and Lang’s onscreen appeal was exactly what McGuire wanted for the “new CBC.”

Since then, the Lang brand has expanded. She cheers on the business beat in commercials forThe National, her face is splashed onto website banners, and her blown-up headshot, though dwarfed by a godlike, floor-to-ceiling Peter Mansbridge, beams down from the wall of the Front Street headquarters. She views this attention as a commitment to business coverage, which was the reason she saw a long-term home for herself in the network.

“I think people in general have an anti-business bent, which is surprising to me,” she says. “Everything is driven by business—all of our employers, all of our prospects, everything we have to be optimistic about is driven by somebody taking the trouble to create it for us. I have a great respect for the people that go out and make things and build things and create.”

 

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Back at the forum, the conversation has drifted to educating aspiring business journalists, and ideas bounce around the room, including mandatory business courses for journalism students and enrolling in the Canadian Securities Course.

“Or watch Amanda’s program on CBC,” offers panelist David Moorcroft.

“Oh, yes, watch my program on CBC!” she says, banging a fist on the desk like a mock gavel.

Everyone in the room knows exactly who Lang is, but Canadian Journalism Foundation chair Robert Lewis tacks a list of her achievements onto his thank-yous.

“We were going to have Kevin O’Leary here tonight, but he’d be far too politically correct,” says Lewis with a grin. “Thank God, Amanda, you’re here.”

Lang offers up a half-smile. She’s heard that one before.

Photograph of Amanda Lang by Shannon Ross. Photographs of Amanda Lang with Adrian Lang and Morgan Freeman courtesy of Amanda Lang.