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Recalling the greats of journalism: From Walter Stewart, to Amy Goodman, to the phony Dan Rather

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear some of North America's top investigative journalists speak.

Last week it was Amy Goodman, the amazing do-it-all journalist with Democracy Now, the independent U.S. program (and weekly rabble columnist! --ed.). She gave an uplifting (for any journalist or would-be journalist) talk -- ironically from the bowels of the CBC, where a lot of great journalism has been dying in recent years.

The evening was sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, which was created to boost corporate journalism in the country. Asking the questions was Globe and Mail Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley.  

When it was announced Goodman was coming to Toronto, I was surprised and disappointed that her journalistic integrity might rub off on The Globe and Mail, which, among other things, fired all of its progressive columnists over a period of time.

Goodman, a tiny, engaging woman, has certainly been one of America's top journalists over the past 20 years. She emphasized the importance of journalists giving voice to the voiceless -- going to the places where (in terms of media) there is silence.

Goodman described how she and fellow investigative journalist Allan Nairn came close to being shot at point blank range while trying to stop the military from massacring dozens of people in East Timor in the early 1990s. Goodman and Nairn were spared, possibly because they made it clear they were Americans and the weapons used by the soldiers were made in the U.S.

In those days, I knew Allan Nairn as a sometimes nervous and distant voice over the telephone. I was a producer with the CBC Radio Sunday Morning program, and we took in Allan's dramatic stories over the phone about the atrocities in East Timor.

Legends of industry

I never got to meet Allan Nairn, but over the years I learned a lot by listening to speeches by some of North America's top journalists.

Several of them came to speak at the conferences of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, now the Canadian Association of Journalists, an organization I helped set up in 1978.

Several of them are/were Canadians: Walter Stewart, as good an investigative reporter and author as you'll find anywhere. When he passed away, The Globe and Mail headed his obituary with: "He was Canada's Conscience."

The little-known Ron Haggart, a bit of a grump who didn't like speaking publicly, was one of Canada's greats as the guts and backbone of  the CBC's The Fifth Estate for many years. A prolific author of letters to newspapers, Haggart never suffered fools gladly.

We also heard from Linden MacIntyre, recently retired from the more recent era of The Fifth Estate. MacIntyre, now an author, has great journalistic instincts and is a wonderful storyteller. He also was probably the most trusted journalist in Canada over the last 20 years.

British-born Michael Maclear became a legend among Canadian journalists who idolized the man for his coverage of the Vietnam War. He worked for both CBC and CTV. Maclear strongly believed that documentaries needed to reflect a point of view. He was most proud of his independent film, Vietnam Goes to War.

This Hour Has Seven Days was probably Canada's best-ever current affairs show. Its confrontational methods were used so effectively to hammer unsuspecting politicians that the CBC took it off the air. Over the years, the CIJ showed many of the program's amazing episodes, and heard from its hosts, including the cool Patrick Watson.

On the U.S. side, I got to hear and know Seymour Hersh, perhaps America's most outstanding modern-day journalist. Hersh reminded me of Walter Stewart because they both had a nose and determination to uncover a big story. Hersh is the guy who broke the story about the Vietnam My Lai massacre and cover-up. His Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation helped turn Americans against their futile and insane war in Southeast Asia.

Noam Chomsky, perhaps America's most important progressive and anarchist thinker, can talk about any topic under the sun for at least three hours non-stop. When Chomsky spoke, we needed a heavy-handed moderator who tried to keep him on the topic he was supposed to speak about.

I'll briefly mention two other greats of a bygone era I've heard speak: Jessica Mitford exposed the corruption in the U.S. funeral business; and Morton Mintz investigated corporate misconduct in the tobacco, automotive and pharmaceutical industries for The Washington Post during the days when it was a great paper.

Dan Rather: not the best

Over all those years, I heard only one famous journalist give a laughable speech. Dan Rather was Mr. All-American Journalist. He built a bit of a reputation working in small cities in Texas, rose to be the face of CBC Nightly News, and went on to be a star with 60 Minutes.

In the 1980s, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors. I'm not sure what year it was, but we were excited that Rather was coming to deliver the key note address.

The first part of the speech was okay, though I can't remember what he said. The room was full of many of America's top investigative journalists. So what was the message of this icon of journalism? He explained over and over again that good journalism had to be: "Deep and down the middle."

What? That's it? While there was no laughter in the room, there was a lot of snickering. Maybe Rather though he was addressing a first-year journalism school class.

Well, corporate media. This is awkward.

Following Amy Goodman's speech on Thursday there a tense moment. Earlier, she made it clear that she has no time for corporate journalism. This caused the Globe's Walmsley to squirm a little in his chair. During the question period, someone in the audience asked Goodman what she thought about the fact that the Globe had endorsed the Harper government.

Avoiding a possible dust-up with the Globe, Goodman politely said she didn't know the situation well enough to respond.

During the question, the Globe Editor-in-Chief squirmed even more than before, and I seemed to detect his face turned a little red. He nervously leaned forward and said to the effect: "Wow I dodged that one."

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a founder of both the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. He worked close to 30 years in many different editorial capacities at the CBC. However, Nick feels his most important contribution to public interest journalism came during the nine years in the 1970s when he was Publisher of The 4th Estate. The upstart Halifax paper challenged slum landlords, advocated for the poor, fought for the rights of black citizens, and helped defeat one tired, old Nova Scotia government.  

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