June 26, 2019 3 months 3 weeks ago

Cartt.ca Interview (part II): Anna Maria Tremonti on hard lessons learned

LAST THURSDAY, ANNA MARIA TREMONTI hosted her final episode of The Current before an audience at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

As she moves onto podcasting for the CBC, Tremonti won’t have to wake up weekday mornings at 4:30 a.m. and be at the studio by 6 a.m. to be ready to go live with the network’s flagship current-affairs radio program at 7:37 a.m. for the Maritimes.

Having a more flexible schedule will allow the veteran broadcaster to pursue stories and ideas that have driven her 41-year career in journalism, which she addresses in the second part of an interview with Parliament Hill correspondent Christopher Guly. Click here to read part I.

Christopher Guly: In announcing your departure from The Current, the CBC described your journalism as “hard-hitting” and it has always been refreshing to listen to you because your approach to interviews is intelligent.

Anna Maria Tremonti: That’s very kind.

CG: You have a certain style, and is that something you honed over time?

AMT: You said “intelligent” and I think the people listening are smart. We don’t have to hold their hand. We have to treat them like they’re smart.

I always say, if they don’t get something then they’ll start to think about it and maybe they’ll look it up! (chuckles) They’re smarter than most broadcasters think they are.

But for me, it’s a process. My real experience and what I brought to the table as the host of The Current was as a field reporter. I was not interested in being a host. I was a host early on in my career. I had a CBC job as a radio host in Fredericton in 1981 and I just wanted to be a reporter. I didn’t want to be a personality. I didn’t know how to ad-lib. I was a shy person, but I liked to hear what other people thought.

When I came into the studio for The Current, I liked the idea that I would be able to have longer conversations with people and explore issues.

[CBC said] “hard-hitting,” and it was funny because in the early days, people didn’t know what to make of me and saw me as this reporter who covered tough stories. When you’re a reporter in the field, you’ve got finite time to put a microphone in somebody’s face who doesn’t want to talk to you and get it out of them – or you go into their living-room and you need to really talk to them.

I would say to people, what do you think war coverage is? All you do when you cover war is meet people who are in the most traumatic moments of their lives. That’s about emotion, not about hard-hitting.

As the years have gone on, I’ve always been about telling other people’s stories, not my own. I didn’t want you to hear if I had emotion, but sometimes people made me cry and I couldn’t hide it because my voice would crack. Or sometimes they would piss me off because they weren’t answering the question! (laughs)

CG: You mentioned you were shy, and so am I by nature. I wonder if we’re drawn to our craft because we’re fascinated by the world around us and that allows us to be more ourselves.

AMT: Yeah. But I don’t think I’m sure anymore. I remember first going to Parliament Hill and the idea to schmooze politicians and make small talk and get to know people. It was like, oh my God! Who do I talk to!

For journalists in the field, that’s what they do. You stand in a room and watch what other people do, and kind of absorb it. You don’t walk into a room and say, “this is the story.” You have to hang back and figure out what you’re seeing.

I remember watching some big-name CBC journalist at a news conference and he didn’t ask any questions, and I thought, isn’t that interesting. And then I realized, it’s because he was hanging back and watching how the person answered questions. Part of it is observing and listening.

When I talk it’s to get someone else to talk. When people ask me how I get questions I say, work backwards. What do you need to hear? What do you want to know? How do you ask that to get someone to talk with you about it?

CG: You’re partnered with John Filion, so you live with a politician. By osmosis, I suppose you’ve adopted some of that schmoozing that he would have to do as a Toronto city councilor [and former journalist]… Is politics a possibility for you?

AMT: Oh, no thank you. Elections are tough. I don’t know if I would have the stomach to be a candidate.

We’re at a really interesting political time where an electorate has indicated its unhappiness with things the way they’ve been, and there’s a lot of legitimacy to that. We see that in Trump. But we also see it in the use of experts. There’s this whole idea that people who know what they’re talking about aren’t legit, and the ones who say let’s shake it up but they don’t know anything can be more legit.

“It’s seductive to think that we can snap our fingers and things will change.”

There’s a benefit in people asking those questions. But it doesn’t mean you throw everything else out.

We talk about governments. Do we cover bureaucracies enough? We talk about bureaucrats with a one-word pejorative, when in fact there’s a whole bunch of dedicated people who make things tick. There are other people who make things slow down. All of those things are hard, so when somebody comes out and says “drain the swamp,” it’s seductive to think that we can snap our fingers and things will change – and some things need to change.

CG: On Parliament Hill, it’s difficult to get bureaucrats to speak to journalists.

AMT: That’s a worldwide phenomenon. The more we are able to get information, the more people who want to control the information want to clamp down – everything from access to interviews to who you can talk to.

At one point, with The Current, during the Afghan war, you could get more information out of the Pentagon about Canada than you could out of the Department of National Defence.

The Americans, for all of their political faults and craziness, they are really clear about what’s in the public domain, often.

I remember, when I was a Washington correspondent, going to the 1999 launch of the space shuttle Discovery [that included future Governor General Julie Payette].

The Canadian Space Agency was going to hold a news conference at [Cape Canaveral, Fla.] just for Canadian reporters and were told, “Sorry, this is the United States, you have to let all journalists in.”

CG: Have you got any favourite stories you’ve covered or favourite interviews you’ve done?

AMT: So many things; it has also given me an opportunity to learn about my own my country and see the world.

In terms of The Current, there was an interview with [Alberta journalist] Amanda Lindhout [held hostage in Somalia for 15 months] and her mother that starts with this awful piece of tape of her screaming, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.” They had just taken her out of a torture-stress position and put the phone to her ear so she could tell her mother that they need the money.

We made a decision to run that tape, which was hard to listen to, but we thought our audience could handle it.

When Amanda Lindhout was kidnapped [in 2008], a lot of people were critical of her because she wasn’t a seasoned journalist. But what happened to her could have happened to any seasoned journalist. That one to me was really important, but there are so many.

I think what links them are people who can share insights into their world and are willing to talk about it.

There’s [German filmmaker] Werner Herzog. He was at TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival] with his doc [on volcanoes in 2016].

He’s such a generous interviewee. I started to ask him questions about what he’s going to do next. And he gives me this answer, “Well, I’ve got these burglars who came into my house,” and I’m thinking, what the hell, does he have insurance claims? And he keeps talking and I realize he’s talking about ideas. So I stop him and go, “Why do you call your ideas burglars?” And he looks at me and says, “Because I don’t invite them in!”

Monique Lepine, whose son [Marc] killed the women at École Polytechnique [in Montreal in 1989] wrote a book and my first reaction was, why would I want to talk to the mother of a killer? My producer said, “Ah, take another look at this.”

[Lepine] was in Montreal, and I was told later that the studio technician [there] was related to one of the women who was killed. When he realized that she was coming to the studio, he said, “I’ll set the levels, but I won’t be able to stay.” And he stayed.

She came in and was kind of out of breath, and my first question was how she first heard about the shootings. She starts to talk to me and it sounds like she’s reading. And I said that to my producer through the glass, who says to the producer in Montreal, “Is she reading?” and he says, “Yeah, she’s reading.” So I stop her and say, “Madame Lepine, are you reading?” And she said, “Yes, my English isn’t very good,” and I said, “Your English is very good. This is your story. It’s okay, you can talk to me.” So apparently she took off her glasses, closed her eyes and started talking.

I asked her about hearing about the killings, and this was in her book but I wanted to hear her say it, she said she heard about the shootings before going to a prayer meeting – she’s religious – and when she got there, she said, “Let’s pray for the mother of the killer.” She didn’t know she was the mother of the killer.

“It was important for me because I was so ashamed of myself for ever thinking that I had the right to think that I shouldn’t talk to her.”

She started talking about what a bad mother she was, that this was her fault. And I just remember thinking that was really an important conversation for people to hear. But it was important for me because I was so ashamed of myself for ever thinking that I had the right to think that I shouldn’t talk to her. It stopped me short and made me think, “Who the hell do you think you are, AMT, that you would ever say no?”

That’s how we treat families of people who do something wrong. We brand them all. As individuals, people get emotional, I get it. But we in the media do it too. That was my big lesson.

I am very grateful for the big newsmakers I’ve talked to, but I’m even more grateful for the regular people whom I’ve spent time with.

CG: Is there someone on your bucket list in terms of someone whom you’d like to interview?

AMT: Everyone always asks me that and I go, “Oh my God, so many and no one!”

I don’t know if it’s the answer people expect, but there’s one person I wish I could have gotten at The Current and we came so close twice: Mikhail Gorbachev. I was in Red Square [on Dec. 26, 1991] the night the hammer and sickle came off the flagpole at the Kremlin. When he took power [as general secretary of the ruling Soviet Communist Party in 1985], Mikhail Gorbachev brought in Perestroika and Glasnost and that start changing the world in good ways and bad ways. With the fall of communism, there were Russians – the KGB people – who said that he was always an American plant. I would be so interested just to hear what he thinks. I am just so fascinated with somebody who’s that big in the world whom the next generation doesn’t know.

CG: Well, you still have time.

AMT: I have a conversation podcast! (laughs) He’s still on my bucket list.

CG: You’ve won two Gemini Awards [in 1995 and 1998]. Remind me for what.

AMT: I like the irony of this. One was for my work covering the war in Bosnia. The other one for was covering the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales [in 1997]. So that’s like two extremes.

CG: Both for The National?

AMT: Yeah. I was based in Jerusalem and I remember getting called in the middle of the night and I said, “What’s wrong,” and was told that I had to get to London because Diana was dead. I remember I raced to the airport in Tel Aviv and grabbed the [former International] Herald Tribune and there’s a story about 400 people killed in Algeria, and thought we’re not covering that but we’re going to cover the death of the Princess of Wales.

But when I got to London I understood that was a moment in time for the British. I had never seen anything like it.

It was late at night, down The Mall, and people were waiting in line to leave flowers. They had come from all over the country and you could barely hear a noise.

“The journalism that looks at our society and how we react to events matters.”

My first reaction was to belittle the fact that was my assignment versus Algeria, which I tried to but couldn’t get into.

The journalism that looks at our society and how we react to events matters. It’s not solely about wars and elections. The fact that the city of Toronto became this cacophony of noise when the clock ran out and the Raptors [won the NBA title] matters too.

CG: You’ve twice talked about how you changed your thinking about stories, and it harkens back to what you said [in part one] about audiences being open to ideas. You as a journalist, you as a presenter of information to audiences have had to do that as well.

AMT: Yeah. My greatest fear is calcification.