The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait
Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

CBC Online leaves impression on Conestoga students

When I asked my new media students in class today about the things that were most memorable or surprising about last week’s field trip to CBC Online in Toronto, they responded nearly unanimously: It was the buzz, the electricity and enthusiasm they felt among the staff working on the fourth floor of the CBC Broadcasting Centre. Amid the rapid changes that have seized the journalistic enterprise over the past three years, here was a group of eager and committed professionals who avidly embraced the changes that have left so many experienced journalists dour and shell-shocked. For the visiting students, the palpable sense of energy among CBC journalists was at once refreshing and reassuring.

Credit where credit is due: The visit was largely arranged by Waterloo Region Record reporter Jeff Outhit, who teaches computer-assisted reporting in Conestoga’s postgraduate New Media: Convergence program. Outhit contacted one of his former Record colleagues, Lianne Elliott (@cbclianne on Twitter), now a producer at; she met our group and arranged a discussion on the future of online media with Kim Fox (@kimfox), CBC News’s senior producer for community and social media.

Amber Hildebrandt

Following that session, online reporter and producer Amber Hildebrandt (@cbcamber) spent some time describing her use of new media in various reporting assignments, including the trial of serial murder Russell Williams last year. (Read Hildebrandt’s reflections on that experience here.) The morning wrapped up with demonstrations by Elliott of the software and other tools uses in its online reporting, as live coverage of the final landing of the space shuttle Discovery was underway. It included an interview with former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who had flown on Discovery, on a set nearby.

Along the way, there was also a quick introduction to CBC Radio weekend news anchor Martina Fitzgerald, another of Outhit’s former reporting colleagues, this time at the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Hats off to CBC Online’s staff, who went above and beyond the call of duty in challenging and inspiring our students. The trip was a stimulating and potent reminder of the power of a well-organized field trip to leave an indelible impression.

Can Sun TV provide a ‘third way’ in Canadian TV journalism?

As was widely expected, Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau has announced plans to launch Sun TV News Channel across Canada beginning Jan. 1, 2011. Speculation that Quebecor would bid to become a national news broadcaster has soared in recent weeks with the appointment of Kory Teneycke, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as vice-president development of Quebecor Media and seasoned multimedia journalist David Akin as Sun Media national bureau chief. Veteran Astral Media radio broadcaster Brian Lilley was named a senior correspondent.

The first few moments of the June 15 press conference, featuring Péladeau and Teneycke, follow below.

Media watchers have already dubbed the Quebecor venture “Fox News North,” given its declared intention to be decidedly colourful and provocative in its news coverage, along with a political orientation that will sit to the right of centre. As if to fire a shot across the bows of news channels operated by the CBC and CTV, Teneycke said he’s leave the “boring” and “condescending” approaches to news to his competitors.

Quebecor faces some difficult challenges in getting its proposed venture off the ground. The first is regulatory: The Category 1 licence required from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to compel cable operators across the country to carry the Sun TV signal on at least one of its tiers is by no means a lock. The second lies in the way of infrastructure: Although Quebecor runs newspapers and cable systems across the country through divisions such as Osprey and Sun Media, it has no video newsgathering apparatus with which to feed a beast as voracious for moving visuals as a specialty news channel. Finally, the experience of the National Post — at its inception, a national newspaper dedicated to serving readers with a conservative, right-of-centre orientation — has been less than a runaway success. Some media experts have speculated about the wisdom of building a TV news channel on the same down-market sensibilities on which much of Canadian talk radio depends.

And what of the Fox-News-North moniker? Here I find the Canadian media establishment just a little condescending. Yes, Quebecor publishes newspapers in which Sunshine Girls make daily appearances and in which reporters, columnists and editorial writers sometimes seem slavishly committed to the political right, no matter what the issues or the nuances within them. And yes, U.S.-based Fox News often seems to revel as much in its ability to provoke anger and controversy as in its ability to unearth and cover a great story with balance and integrity.

But let’s concede two things. First, another national news organization determined to aggressively compete with existing TV news franchises can be a very good thing, both for citizens and journalism. Second, let’s not pretend existing news channels don’t have their own political biases. The test of good journalism and public service should be on the quality of the stories they deliver: in their accurancy, balance and impact. Let’s not deny that the CBC sits slightly left of the political centre, and that CTVglobemedia tries to cover the great yawning middle ground, so long dominated in the political sphere by the federal Liberals. And that’s to say nothing of the Toronto Star, where the Atkinson principles and a left-of-centre sensibility still guide the newsroom — and produce some truly great journalism.

We should not allow political orientation to prejudge the issue of whether or not a new enterprise could make a significant contribution to Canadian journalism. Let the test be its performance.

Ontario Morning visits London

Ontario Morning host Wei Chen interviews a guest during the show's visit to London.
Ontario Morning host Wei Chen interviews a guest during the show's visit to London.

CBC Radio’s regional morning show Ontario Morning made a rare field trip to London this morning, escaping the confines of the studios at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to get out among its listeners. The occasion: this year’s Doors Open London, a weekend of opportunity for those interested in seeing behind the doors and walls of some of the city’s most interesting edifices.

I’ve been a stalwart Ontario Morning listener for many years, because I believe the program does what more media organizations should be doing: journalling the distinctive cultural and political landscape that is Ontario, beyond the shortsighted vistas of Greater Toronto.

I had this discussion several times (to no avail) with editor-in-chief Ed Greenspon when I was a page editor on the night news desk at The Globe and Mail. The Globe, which possesses the capacity to produce up to 10 distinct editions across the country each day, is content to distribute its GTA edition, printed in Mississauga and containing the early Toronto pages, to subscribers from Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo, through to London and on to Windsor. As a result, readers in those cities get basically the same content, usually consisting of two pages midway through the paper’s A section, as do readers in the GTA — columns and stories derived from the (mostly) Toronto police, politics, education and urban culture beats. With minimal effort, I told Greenspon, those pages — in the Ontario region beyond the GTA — could be converted to “Ontario” pages that would gather in the most important developments of the day from the great rural-urban mix from Windsor to Guelph. It’s home to more people than live in all of Atlantic Canada, billions of dollars in annual research budgets, and a key piston in the country’s economic engine. Alas, I never did manage to sell him on the idea.

Unfortunately, the CBC gives residents of Southwestern Ontario similar treatment in the late afternoon, when it sends the signal of its Toronto-centric Here And Now, hosted by Matt Galloway, to transmitters through the region. Some of the discussion on that program is all but irrelevent to anyone beyond the sightlines from the CN Tower’s observation deck.

All of which makes Ontario Morning, with its strong provincial emphasis and regional correspondents, a unique and valuable pleasure.

Covering the plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud

Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC) photo)
Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC photo)

Kudos to the Toronto Star for going the extra 7,500 miles (about 12,000 kilometres) to cover firsthand the extraordinary plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian citizen and Toronto resident detained in Kenya for three months after she was falsely accused of passport fraud. The Star’s national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, was in the courtroom in Nairobi today to file a story minutes after Judge Stella Muketi dismissed all charges against Mohamud.

The Globe and Mail, by comparison, hired freelancer Zoe Alsop to cover the story from the Kenyan capital, splicing her prose with Canadian Press wire copy. The National Post assigned a domestic staffer to assemble the story. Canadian Press, likewise, cobbled together their reports using its staff, member news organizations and other wires as sources. Both CBC and CTV used wire services and other news sources to put together their early stories.

The Nairobi assignment must have been a mixed blessing for Shephard, who has been staying on top of the Omar Khadr story for years and has authored a book on him, titled Guantanamo’s Child. In dropping into Nairobi from another assignment in Europe, Shephard was forced to miss this morning’s ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal, which affirmed an earlier court decision compelling the Harper government to press for Khadr’s release. In an age of instant communication, however, she may well weigh in on it and share a byline before tomorrow’s editions.

Three other things to note about this story of bungling by Canada’s foreign affairs department:

• It was originally broken by The Star’s John Goddard last month, based on information fed to him by sources.
• Today’s events demonstrate how agile and multidimensional some large newsrooms have become. In what may be a Canadian first, a broadcaster today aired video on a breaking foreign news story shot by a newspaper. This morning, the CBC aired video of Mohamud’s release, shot by The Star’s Lucas Oleniuk, who accompanied Shephard to Kenya.
• It takes the reach and pocket depth of major news organizations to do some stories. With apologies to diehard fans of social media who claim that a paradigm shift has rendered big legacy media mute, impotent or irrelevant, no amount of Twittering, Facebooking or crowdsourcing would have permitted this story to be told with urgency, context and depth it needed. Some stories require trained journalists in agile boots on far-away ground.

Update: Turns out Shephard was, in fact, on assignment to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, when the call came to make the side trip to Nairobi. She was working on her amazing visit with Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner famous for having been a driver for Osama bin Laden. Shephard’s feature, accompanied by Oleniuk’s photography, appears today (Aug. 17).

Update 2 (Aug. 21): Mohamud has filed a civil suit against the federal government for $2.5 million in damages and is demanding an inquiry be held (see the Toronto Star story). Can you say Maher Arar?

CBC shuffles its reporters

Every fleet-footed news organization must, from time to time, re-evaluate the demands of a constantly changing news landscape and measure them against the resources it’s able to muster to cover that territory, including the most important of its assets: the journalists on staff.

In the case of CBC Television News, the pressing need for such a review coincided earlier this summer with at least two other factors: continuing budget pressures and the probability of a federal election campaign within a year. The result is a series of personnel moves and reassignments that will take effect in the coming weeks.

Terry Milewski
Terry Milewski

The most noticeable for regular CBC-TV viewers will be the installment of Vancouver-based Terry Milewski as the parliamentary bureau’s chief political correspondent in Ottawa, replacing Keith Boag. Milewski has developed a reputation for boldness and courage in the face of political and social pressure. A veteran of CBC reporting from Washington, Jerusalem and elsewhere, he was the target of a complaint of bias from Peter Donolo, then an aide to prime minister Jean Chrétien, during the 1998 Asian Pacific Economic Conference. A subsequent investigation by CBC Ombudsman Marcel Pepin found the complaint to be unjustified and praised Milewski for his “aggressive and critical journalism.” Milewski has also delivered hard-hitting reports on the politics within the Sikh-Canadian community and the tasering of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. He’s the kind of reporter that managers love to have in their stable, despite the fact that he’ll give them his share of administrative headaches from time to time.

Maclean’s senior columnist Paul Wells agrees Milewski’s assignment to Ottawa will help reinvigorate the network’s journalism on the Hill, praising him for his ability to “jump onto the back of a complex, significant story” and “sink his teeth in up to the gums.” Even the departing Boag told the Hill Times that dramatic change is ahead and that Milewski’s impact will be felt.

I confess I don’t quite understand the CBC’s decision to move Boag to Los Angeles. Informal chatter indicates the City of Angels will be as much a staging ground for assignments to places such as Mexico and the western U.S. as it will be the locale for reports from Hollywood and California. I’m skeptical about that kind of journalistic investment, but hope I’m wrong.

Other significant moves, according to the CBC announcement: Evan Solomon replaces the retired broadcasting giant Don Newman on the talk show Politics. It’ll run two hours daily on Newsworld. Meanwhile, Susan Bonner will go from the Ottawa bureau to Washington, to be joined there by Paul Hunter, and David Common will head to New York from Paris.

Update (Aug. 4): This morning, CBC announced additional reassignments, effective this fall. Peter Armstrong will return to Toronto from Jerusalem to anchor the morning news program World Report on Radio One. Meanwhile, Mark Kelley, who has been a correspondent for The National, occasionally also filling in on the anchor desk, will host a two-hour evening news-talk program focused on the day’s breaking news stories. (Sounds a bit like CNN’s Situation Room or Anderson Cooper’s AC360°, no?) Kelley has also been a contributor to the investigative program Disclosure.

The CBC’s Brian Stewart signs off

CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart
CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart

Though he’ll be back on the air from time to time to help cover major events, today marks the last day on the job for CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart. After he anchors The National tonight in place of Peter Mansbridge, he’ll saunter off into semi-retirement.

Stewart is a journalist’s journalist and has had a remarkable career. Like so many others of his generation, the 1964 graduate of Ryerson‘s journalism program started in print. He was a reporter and columnist at the Montreal Gazette in the late 1960s, winning a National Newspaper Award in 1969 for feature writing. From there, it was on to a current-affairs show on CBC-TV’s Montreal affiliate, CBMT, and then to Ottawa as a political reporter in 1973. It was while Stewart was in the nation’s capital that he honed his skills and broadened his knowledge in foreign and military affairs — a specialty that would shape the rest of his career.

After a three-year stint as the CBC’s foreign correspondent in London, Stewart joined NBC News in 1985. However, he returned to the CBC two years later to become senior reporter with the CBC’s The Journal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Quite literally. What motivated Stewart in the decades that followed were the things that drive all great journalists: to satisfy one’s curiosity about the world and why things happen the way they do; to bear witness to the unfolding of history at home and abroad; to tell meaningful and important stories in compelling and interesting ways; to find out, firsthand, what will happen next in some of the greatest historical and human dramas of our time.

Like many others, I’ll remember Stewart best for his unparalleled coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. He and fellow CBC journalist Tony Burman were the ones who, almost singlehandedly, alerted the world to the unfolding human crisis in that part of eastern Africa, prompting a massive aid response.

As a foreign correspondent, Stewart was on the front lines of other big international stories too. He reported extensively from Beirut on the Lebanese civil war; he filed gripping accounts of child slavery in Sudan. When the international coalition drove into Kuwait to wrest it from Saddam Hussein’s grip in the Gulf War of 1991, Stewart was the first Canadian reporter on the scene. He witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and filed extensively from the war zones of El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all that time amid the dangers of the field, Stewart’s greatest fear appears to have been that he’d somehow get the story wrong.

The CBC has, fittingly, built a special Web tribute page in his honour; several compelling interviews are there, including chats with Burman and Mansbridge. Also available there is the profile that aired last night as part of The National.

Though he’s already past the traditional retirement age of 65, Stewart’s departure from the CBC is part of the public broadcaster’s efforts to downsize through attrition and buyouts. He lives in Toronto with his wife, former broadcaster Tina Srebotnjak, who now works in the communications and marketing department of Toronto Public Library. They have a daughter, Katie.