Morning after morning, sparks fly on Anna Maria Tremonti's CBC radio show. And that's just the way she likes it (well, most of the time)
It’s 5:30 a.m. and Anna Maria Tremonti is singing at the top of her lungs. As she drives to work, she warms up her voice by belting out the words to “Romanza,” which blares from the stereo of her 1997 Honda Accord. Andrea Bocelli’s ballad is perfect for the job because it has lots of trills. This is a routine the host of CBC Radio’s The Current follows Monday through Thursday, but when she did it one day in mid-April 2003, she had no idea that a few hours later she’d help make a decision that would create so much controversy.
After hosting her national show that day, Tremonti met with then- executive producer Jamie Purdon and senior producer Cathy Perry to discuss an upcoming interview with Henry Kissinger. The three of them sat around the huge table that takes up most of the editorial room and decided they wanted the interview to explore an op-ed piece the former U.S. Secretary of State wrote for The Washington Post about the damage the Iraq War will do to America’s European alliances. If some countries saw the U.S. as arrogant, they reasoned, shouldn’t the powerful and controversial Kissinger take some of the blame himself? The question had, after all, been a hot topic among experts for the previous year. So the following Monday, after discussing war crimes with him, Tremonti asked the celebrity statesman: “Couldn’t you also be vulnerable to those kinds of charges?”
“Who?” Kissinger responded, sounding surprised.
“Me personally?” His surprise had turned to anger.
“That is one of those questions on which one ends the interview, but just for your information, if you read the provisions of the International Criminal Court, it does not have retrospective jurisdiction – and on this we’ll end the interview.”
“Well, can I talk to you, sir…”
Tremonti knew he wouldn’t be happy, but she didn’t think he’d hang up the phone; nor did she think such a question would inflame her critics. Jonathan Kay, for example, appeared as perturbed as Kissinger. The editorials editor at the National Post considered it another example of Tremonti’s left-wing anti-Americanism. The next day, the paper ran an editorial entitled, “Ambush on the airwaves” that called the interview “an adolescent act of on-air activism.” About two weeks later, a Washington-based journalist known for his conservative and pro-American views joined the attack. In his daily U.S. radio commentary called Media Monitor, Cliff Kincaid claimed Tremonti was misinformed because she didn’t realize the International Criminal Court couldn’t prosecute Kissinger for anything he did as a U.S. official. “Those actions were before the court was established,” he complained. Even some CBC listeners weren’t impressed – one admonished her with an angry email that read, “Shame on you!”
Though blaming the news media isn’t new, in the past decade journalists have been under more scrutiny. David Spencer, a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, thinks the epidemic of unfair criticism is the result of an increase in everything from poverty to terrorism in the world. “It’s much easier to blame journalists rather than believing the bad news,” he says. And it’s particularly easy for those in power – last October, for example, U.S. President George W. Bush publicly complained about what he perceived as negative coverage of the Iraq War. “There’s a feeling among politicians and large corporations that journalists are there to support their craft,” says Spencer. “We’re not paid to act as propaganda machines, but when we don’t, we get this attitude: ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and to hell with what you have to say.'”
Tremonti’s certainly no stranger to this type of criticism. From the start of her 22-year career at the CBC, she aspired to cover controversial issues because she thought ignoring them would be wrong. Now, like other high-profile journalists who refuse to shy away from tough topics, she’s under perpetual scrutiny from critics with their own agendas – people who are not looking for fair coverage, but news that fits their ideology. Still, it doesn’t faze her. “Getting blamed unfairly has always been part of the business,” she reasons. “Sometimes the criticism is as narrow as it accuses me of being, but I’m not a victim. It goes with the territory.”
o o o
It’s about 5:45 a.m. when Tremonti arrives on CBC’s third floor each morning. As she struts around the corner and past a blue sign that still reads “This Morning,” she looks like a walking coat-hanger – an extra-large coffee in one hand, a bottle of water in the other and an overflowing, leather bag draped over her shoulder. She wears beige slacks with a fitted brown turtleneck and matching, waist-length dress-coat as she stomps heavily toward her office in ultra-high stilettos. Her posture is erect, her head raised, and her frozen blue-green eyes focused.
Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, in the house where her parents still live, Tremonti was a curious kid who loved school so much she’d spend her summers reading indoors. Her father Tullio was a carpenter who emigrated from Italy, and her mother Eleanor was a schoolteacher. Both encouraged Tremonti and her older brother, Robert, to ask questions. Now 46, Tremonti says she’s a “glorified gossip” because of that advice. She hadn’t lived anywhere else until she received her BA in communications from the University of Windsor and moved to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, at age 21 for her first on-air radio position. Five years later, in 1983, Tremonti made the jump from radio to television when she became a local reporter for the CBC in Edmonton. But her goal was to go national. In 1987, she became a Parliament Hill reporter for CBC’s The National. But she wanted to travel. So she moved to Berlin in 1991 for her first posting as a foreign correspondent for the same program. Then in 2000, David Studer, executive producer of the fifth estate, invited her to join the show as a host. That may have seemed like an unusual move, but unlike some broadcast journalists, Tremonti has always chosen her own career path. Besides, she was ready to come home to Canada after nine years away.
After just two seasons, she happily returned to her radio roots when she became host of Radio One’s The Current in November 2002. For the self-proclaimed nighthawk, the move meant living like a monk to keep up with her demanding new days, but she missed radio. Before accepting the job, she insisted she’d only host four days a week, because sometimes she needs to be out of the studio to get another perspective. So The Current features guest hosts on Fridays.
CBC Radio created The Current as part of a revamping of the three-hour time slot made famous by the late Peter Gzowski. In the spring of 1997, Morningside had nearly 1.3 million listeners daily, but a year later, after Gzowski retired and the show became This Morning, numbers dropped to 1.18 million. Though not a disastrous slip, the network also wanted to improve the ratings of local morning shows between 8 and 9 a.m. since audiences have stopped listening by then because they are commuting or are already at work. The solution was to start The Current at 8:30. And by replacing This Morning with two shows, Tremonti could cover both national and international news, leaving the lighter Sounds Like Canada to focus entirely on Canada. Jennifer McGuire, now executive director of programming at CBC Radio, created the concept of The Current in July 2002 when she was head of network current affairs at Radio One. Wanting a sassy, edgy, independent show because the dying This Morning wasn’t receiving much critical acclaim, McGuire composed a list of about 20 names of possible hosts and Tremonti was near the top. “I courted her until she couldn’t say no,” laughs McGuire. Today, Tremonti tests positively in CBC’s audience reports, and The Current has nearly 1.5 million listeners daily.
o o o
When she arrives at her office, where the door is always open, Tremonti sits down at a desk cluttered with loose papers, marked-up books and a computer drowning in Post-its. She flips the TV to CBC or CNN or BBC, mutes the volume, and fixes her radio to Metro Morning, CBC’s local morning show in Toronto. The bulletin board hanging behind her is jammed with pictures: her old garden in Jerusalem, friends from Berlin and the “TV tarts on tour” – that’s what Tremonti, Wendy Mesley and Halina St. James, who met at The National in the mid-’80s, call themselves. When AMT, as they call her, worked in Berlin, London and Jerusalem, Mesley (now host of CBC’s Marketplace) and St. James (now executive producer at Discovery) always visited. A diamond-shaped piece of Afghan art that Tremonti “really loves” hangs next to the pics and across from a tall shelf filled with books. “Whenever she’s interviewing someone, her first reaction is ‘I want to read everything he’s ever written,'” laughs Purdon.
With stilettos crossed up on her desk and a hard copy of the show’s question list in her hands, Tremonti picks up a thick red pen and mulls over the notes like a school teacher. She’s changing words, removing, adding and always writing the names of the people she’s interviewing at the top of each page – it’s easy to get confused when talking to six or seven people in an hour-and-a-half. As she finishes writing the bills – or story intros – it’s almost time to tape. Here at The Current, Tremonti writes the least she ever has and she misses it. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote almost all her own stories; on the fifth estate, she wrote hour-long documentary scripts. She loved the fifth estate and says she left too soon. But there, too, controversy was by her side.
In August 2002, Arthur Weinreb, associate editor of Media Report, a watchdog for biases in the news, took on Tremonti. The previous April, Tremonti hosted an episode of the fifth estate chronicling the path of Direct Action, better known as The Squamish Five: a group of Canadian left-wing, urban guerrillas who believed mainstream activism wasn’t working and went on a bombing spree to force radical change in the early ’80s. Weinreb accused Tremonti of glorifying terrorism by giving ex-con Ann Hanson a platform to espouse her ideas. He compared The Squamish Five’s actions to those of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, “whom the CBC never fawned over.”
Such criticism inflames Tremonti. She slouches over her desk reading a printout of the article. “I interviewed Hanson. Did he interview McVeigh?” she responds, her tone like a whip that would crack him in half. “When I do a story like that, I want to make you think and I got him to think. So, I did my job.” Indeed, during her two years at the fifth estate, Tremonti won a Gracie Allen Award from the American Women in Radio and Television and was nominated for a Gemini for best writing in an information program.
Such awards don’t impress her critics, however. In 2003, the Post – one of the11 major English-speaking newspapers in Canada owned by CanWest Global Communications, which competes with CBC on the television side – created CBC Watch, a forum for Canadians to express their views and keep the public broadcaster “accountable.” The eyes of CBC Watch bugged out after a 37-second copy story on The Current a few months after the Kissinger fiasco. Tremonti reported that Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defence secretary, said the reason for the U.S. War on Iraq was that “the country swims on a sea of oil.” The next day, the Post accused her of misrepresenting the facts: “Mr. Wolfowitz was not describing America’s reason for launching a war,” it argued, “but rather explaining why its range of non-military options had been limited.” That same morning, The Current ran a correction nearly four times as long as the original item. “We did take that out of context,” admits Purdon. “So we corrected ourselves.” CBC Watch never mentioned the correction.
Of course, Tremonti’s not the only target of such bullying. Last July, The Washington Post berated ABC News reporter Jeffrey Kofman for a report he filed about the plummeting morale of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Critics deemed Kofman’s piece as inaccurate and personally motivated because he’s gay – and Canadian. And no one at the CBC has taken more flak for his alleged anti-Israel reporting than Neil Macdonald, who served five years as the network’s Middle Eastern correspondent before moving to the Washington bureau last year. His coverage prompted a written complaint from Leonard Asper, the president and chief executive officer of CanWest Global, a demonstration against CBC from a group called Canadians Against Anti-Semitism, and several complaints from the Canada-Israel Committee, which promotes the relationship between Canada and Israel. As Western’s Spencer points out, the people taking the shots usually have their own agendas. Unfortunately, the more their views are publicized, the more trust in journalists diminishes. According to Bruce Sanford, author of a 2001 book called Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us, this is the result of increased sensationalism in the news. “A canyon of disbelief and distrust has developed between the public and the news media,” he writes. But sensationalism in reporting doesn’t explain why Tremonti is a prime target of such shooting.
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Back at The Current, it’s 7:37 a.m. and CBC’s regional news has just finished. It’s time to tape The Current. The show goes live to the east coast and then the tape airs at 8:37 across the rest of the country. Tremonti sits in the studio – her shoulders back, head up, eyes focused and hands in constant motion so if you couldn’t hear her voice, her hands could tell the story.
If you’re anywhere near her, you can feel her intensity – it’s intimidating. It could be the way she cuts you off to make her point or her tendency to bark down the phone if you’re wasting her time, or it could be when she snaps, “Not now,” if she doesn’t want to talk to you. But maybe it’s her face: her eyebrows that curve inward and might look evil if they were a darker colour than the strawberry red that matches her hair. Her lips also curve down – in seriousness, not sadness. She’s forever tucking her soft, shoulder-length hair behind her ears – it halfway covers three deep lines along her forehead. Her hair softens the rest of her. Apart from it, every feature is angular – strong jaw, razor eyes, protruding nose – they look like triangles drawn with a pencil and ruler. But none of this really explains why she’s intimidating – that comes from her entire being. You only need to meet her once, just for a moment, and you’ll feel it. Though Wendy Mesley insists her friend just expects a lot, rather than being overly tough, Tremonti’s determination drives her to tackle difficult issues.
That toughness took her to Bosnia to cover the war in 1992. She spent her nights alone in a tiny room with twin beds in Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, where the walls were cluttered with bullet holes and other marks. She couldn’t turn on the light because a sniper might spot it and shoot. She lay awake her first night, eyes darting around the room, like a child afraid of monsters under her bed – only the monsters were bullets and bombs (and they were real). She leaned a mattress against the window to muffle the bangs and blasts. Something could come through that mattress and kill me, she thought. She jumped up and fastened her flak jacket over her long T-shirt and tights. She grabbed a sleeping bag and pillow and rushed out into the dark and empty hallway. She lay down on the floor. But now there was a 10-storey atrium made of glass about three feet away. What if something came flying through that glass? With that, she picked herself up and made camp in the tiny hotel bathroom. She snuggled into the sleeping bag with her feet by the sink and her head next to the toilet. But if something hits that wall and the sink comes flying at me? leaving the sleeping bag on the floor, Tremonti grabbed her pillow and went back to bed. There’s no use in panicking, she rationalized. There’s nothing I can do. She was fast asleep an hour later. And having come to terms with the danger, she never had trouble sleeping again.
Later, she spent three years in Jerusalem covering the Arab-Israeli conflict. While her coverage from the Middle East didn’t upset too many, she faces accusations that she’s anti-Israel at The Current. “Anna Maria Tremonti and the whole mob of unnecessary CBC duplicates are incredibly biased against Israel,” complains Warren Klass, who has written for The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and others. Klass claims his views about Israel are shaped by the fact that he lost 500 relatives in the Holocaust, but feels that CBC News blames Israel first because the majority of its journalists have no understanding of Middle Eastern history. And Bryan Dobbs, a retired professor of Jewish studies and the owner and operator of the Electronic Emporium for Jewish History, News and Opinion (EEJH), an Internet discussion list and website, argues that CBC’s audience receives Palestinian propaganda.
Though Dobbs – a lifelong friend of the late CanWest owner Izzy Asper – may be easy to dismiss, Tremonti gave him some ammunition when she interviewed Daniel Pipes in January 2003. Pipes is a political commentator and columnist who established Campus Watch, an organization that monitors Middle Eastern studies in North American universities. The interview was rocky. Pipes began by correcting Tremonti’s definition of Campus Watch. “It’s not about Israel,” he snapped. “It critiques the studies of the Middle East in hopes of improving them.” He also complained when Tremonti asked about a list of alleged anti-Israeli professors on the site: “There is no list? You and many others are talking about [Campus Watch] in the abstract without looking at it.” However, Tremonti never claimed his website was about Israel; rather, she introduced Pipes as a defender of the country. Still, she admits she’s not proud of the interview. She could have been more prepared – she could have clicked on campus-watch.org, for example.
But in this case some critics cut her some slack. The Canada-Israel Committee, for example, received many complaints about the Pipes interview but didn’t feel it was worth issuing a report. “Mistakes are going to happen,” says the group’s director of communications Paul Michaels. He listens to The Current two or three times a week, and respects Tremonti for her balanced coverage as The National’s Middle Eastern correspondent six years ago. “So she didn’t look at the website. That doesn’t make her anti-Israel.”
Though bias in the media is not as rabid as its critics imply, it doesn’t follow that journalists are never accountable. In 1998 Tremonti won her second Gemini – the first being her reportage of the Bosnian war – this time for her coverage of the death of Princess Diana from London. But she isn’t entirely proud of her award; something about it still nags at her. The night before Diana’s car crashed Islamic terrorists in Algeria massacred nearly 300 people. “And none of us went there,” she says softly. She bites her lip and looks down, ashamed – a rare look for her. She throws her hands in the air. “We all went to cover British royalty instead.”
It’s nearly 3 p.m. now and Tremonti’s day is almost over. She’s looking at the Post’s editorial about the Kissinger interview drama, but she’s not bothered or concerned by it – she’d only worry if she thought they were right. Tremonti is sure of her role in Canadian radio journalism.
Marianne Delija was the Columns Editor for the Summer 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.