June 24, 2019 3 months 2 weeks ago

Cartt.ca Interview: Anna Maria Tremonti on technology, fake news and the truth

VETERAN JOURNALIST AND CBC stalwart Anna Maria Tremonti reversed her iconic role as interviewer and was the guest – in the same Toronto studio where she hosts The Current – on a special “Ask Me Anything” 26-minute segment on the network’s radio national call-in show Cross Country Checkup, two Sundays ago.

Listeners asked Tremonti various questions, including what she would ask U.S. President Donald Trump in an interview (“I would not try not to argue with him”) and offered some personal anecdotes to Checkup host Duncan McCue, who sat in The Current seat Tremonti normally occupies. “I sing in the car – to get my voice ready, so it doesn’t crack,” she replied to his question on her early-morning, pre-show routine. “I sing Andrea Bocelli – with him, he’s there with me.”

Windsor-born Tremonti, 61, has had a storied, four-decade-long career that began in 1978 as a radio reporter-newsreader at CKEC in New Glasgow, N.S., after graduating from the University of Windsor with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies, but most of her time on the air has been with the CBC: on television, as a national and later foreign correspondent for The National and later, as a co-host of the network’s flagship investigative program, The Fifth Estate; and more recently on radio, where for the last 17 years she has been at the helm of the national weekday morning current-affairs show, The Current.

Last Thursday, the two-time Gemini Award-winning broadcaster signed off with The Current and will now move into podcasting for CBC.

Tremonti recently spoke to one of our Parliament Hill correspondents Christopher Guly about the next chapter in her professional life and the changes, challenges and opportunities in journalism in the first of a two-part conversation.

Christopher Guly: Why did you decide to leave The Current?

Anna Maria Tremonti: Because it’s time. I have had a lot of different iterations in my journalism and they always begin with, “Oh, what are they doing over there? Could I do that? How do I get there? Do you like what you’re doing?” So I’ve constantly moved in my journalism career. I have moved geographically and I have moved venues within the CBC. The fact that I’ve done 17 seasons of The Current and spent 13 years with The National and I kept moving around the world. I’m always thinking about what’s out there – how can I do something different next within the parameters of what I think matters for me journalistically.

I have been watching what’s been going on and listening digitally for a while. And I have been really interested in what podcasting does – of how you can do a narrow focus on a finite offering. There are other things that I want to do that I can’t within the context of The Current. I think that audio-digital storytelling just has for me some more tentacles.

I am moving to podcasting to do a conversation series and I’m noodling many ideas of stories that I can move forward. I know how to tell an audio story, and I want to play with that more in different ways.

CG: You said conversations. Would these be profiles of people or on topics?

AMT: They will be a series of one-on-one conversations. But in terms of the theme of that package, that’s being nailed down.

CG: Let’s have a conversation about the state of journalism. What do you make of the federal government’s $600-million media support fund?

AMT: There are ideological questions of whether a government should do that and I’m not comfortable weighing in on that. I work for a public broadcaster, and there are a lot of people who have a problem with that, as we know.

“There are a lot of assumptions about who listeners and viewers are. It’s just more complicated than that.”

There are a lot of people who don’t understand that a public broadcaster is not a state broadcaster, and there are a lot of private organizations who allow that piece of misinformation to continue.  

There are people who love the CBC and people who love to hate the CBC.

CG: Do you think those people are divided along ideological lines?

AMT: I think there are a lot of assumptions about who listeners and viewers are. It’s just more complicated than that.

There are people who listen because they’re interested, and they want to learn something or know something. There are other people who just want to hear themselves mirrored, and if they’re not then [the] media organization is somehow at fault.

CG: How has journalism changed since you started in the business?

AMT: What has changed a lot is the technology; the delivery has changed – the ability to get information and to pump it out has changed dramatically. The ability for people who are not journalists to get information and pump it out has changed.

When I was a foreign correspondent in a warzone, I had this giant satellite phone. It took up the equivalent of two giant suitcases so that I could get out voice. Then I’d have to make my way to a TV building that was surrounded by sandbags and under fire to get stuff out. Now you can upload it from your phone no matter where you are. You couldn’t do that in the mid-90s. That didn’t exist.

With that comes really important information. Look at the uprising [that led to] the war in Syria. The first images came from people in the streets. Then there were these amazing and very brave Syrian journalists who would teach people how to send up stuff and make sure that it was verifiable so that it could be used.

There was a citizen-journalist in London who would look at 400 videos a day and started to figure out what kind of ordinance was being used, which could be traced back to who was using it. You used to have to go into the field and pick up the broken mortar shell and try to find the serial number to figure out where it came from.

The other side of that of course is fake news. It’s a double-edged sword. But make no mistake that technology has made us more informed.

CG: Is fake news here to stay?

AMT: It was always here.

A couple of summers ago I was in the U.K. – it was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution – and there was this display of propaganda from the time at The British Library. Propaganda was fake news.

Technology makes it more pervasive. Before you had to have a printing press and were a government or an entity. Now you can be somebody in a basement.

As individuals we have to sort through it, which is where journalism matters because you do have to find trusted sources – but are you looking for trusted sources that are really trusted, or are you looking for people who are just going to mirror everything you already think to make you feel better about what you think even if what you think is flawed? And you don’t even know what you think is flawed because you’re so closed. And what’s the difference between being open to real thinking and being open to trolls?

"In the name of balance and fairness, are we providing imbalance? Are we being unfair to truth?"

In the name of balance and fairness, are we providing imbalance? Are we being unfair to truth? Those are the kinds of questions, journalistically, we have to ask ourselves. Not just those of us who turn on a mic, not just those of us in the field. But those people who are assigning in the newsrooms, and those corporate bosses above them who are funding it. Everybody’s got to ask about that. 

CG: You have the president of the United States calling mainstream media coverage “fake news.” Do you think it’s going to be hard to reverse that and convince people that journalists are serious about their craft?

AMT: It’s certainly been accelerated and it’s problematic. I think it really will have to influence the thinking around how [the U.S. media] cover the presidential election this time around, and the thinking about how the rest of us cover our own election this time around because we’ve now seen this in a different way.

The other side of this is that because so many people do care about getting truth and information that isn’t fake, you have seen – especially in the States – subscription rates rise. But is it enough for people worrying about the bottom line?

On the one hand, you have people go into their silos, and you have other people saying, “I need to know more.”

CG: You mentioned the upcoming federal election. I’m interested to know what you think about media coverage during the campaign.

AMT: Part of covering, not just an election campaign, but politics, is getting politicians on the record. We, as voters, need to know how they think. But they’re going to say things that might be erroneous or spin. Sometimes there is a fine line between spin and falsity.

And we’ve had a run at this and we’re not good at it with climate change. We have a whole body of scientific research and one scientist will come out and question something, and a bunch of people will jump on that and say that climate change is wrong. We have to ask ourselves how we cover these things.

CG: Do we have enough resources to do so?

AMT: I would argue that if you keep cutting back on newsrooms, no. This stuff takes work.

You have people who go down their own little rabbit-holes on one issue and spew things, and to actually pick it apart and make sure that you’re dealing with facts takes more work. Do we have that kind of time all the time? No we don’t.

CG: What do you make of the accusation that journalists lean liberal?

AMT: I don’t know what to make of that. If people are left-leaning and journalists don’t cover it their way they say those journalists are right-leaning. Some of that comes down to, again, people who only want to hear themselves mirrored.

There are some issues that you can appear to be left-leaning on that have less to do with left-and-right politics and more to do with thinking and humanity? Are you left-leaning if you cover the human side of war and the spill of refugees coming out?

CG: You have worked in both television and radio. Do you have a preference?

AMT: I always loved working in picture, but I like how radio is nimble and that you can really share ideas in radio. You can go longer with a conversation; you’re not dealing with a 30-second [video] clip.

I like the intimacy of radio, and the nimbleness of it.

Watch for part two of our conversation with Anna Maria Tremonti on Thursday.