Reporting what’s real in the era of fake news
Journalist Robert Fisher to speak in Haliburton March 13
By Jenn Watt
Published March 5, 2019
Robert Fisher has been embracing the rural life since retiring from his decades-long career in television and radio journalism, getting used to power outages, learning to use a chainsaw and donning his orange tuque when hunting season rolls around.
It’s been a change for Fisher, who is best known for his work with CBC Radio and TV as well as Global Television, where he has reported and provided analysis on provincial politics since the 1980s.
After spending most of his career living in downtown Toronto, he now resides in the country south of Ottawa, and said meeting residents there has given him new political insights not necessarily found in the city.
“It’s interesting, for me, when I was still on a regular basis commenting on politics for CBC, it was good to get a sounding from people at the real grassroots: people who would be considered very supportive of [Conservative leader] Doug Ford and not so supportive of [then Liberal premier] Kathleen Wynne,” he said in an interview over the phone last week. “It gave me a good sense, going into the last election, where a lot of folks are coming from. It was kind of my own polling. What did you overhear in Tim Hortons that might be relevant to a political discussion about the future of the Liberal government?”
He could tell people were done with the Liberals and looking for change, which played out in June when Doug Ford’s Conservatives trounced the Liberals, earning a majority.
Fisher has been watching the ebbs and flows of provincial politics since Bill Davis was premier. Now in his retirement, he has time for other endeavours, like visiting Haliburton to give a speech about how the media reports on Queen’s Park in the era of so-called “fake news.”
His talk, called Trumping the Media: The Two Sides of Fake News from Davis to Ford, takes place Wednesday, March 13 at the fish hatchery in Haliburton as part of the Yours Outdoors speaker series.
A shift is underway, hastened by new technology, that calls into question journalism as an institution. While the term “fake news” is most frequently bandied about by U.S. President Donald Trump, there is movement in Ontario as well to circumvent the media, taking the unfiltered political message directly to voters.
“If my political reporting goes back to 1981, it by far predates the term fake news,” Fisher said. There was always political spin, and certainly disagreement over whether reporters were being fair, but the current level of animosity is new.
“The questioning of the media today is more prevalent than it ever was when I started my political reporting. … No one was ever suggesting what I was doing, in my case out of Queen’s Park, was fake news,” he said.
Fisher covered eight premiers from Bill Davis to Kathleen Wynne. He said his relationship with each was not always warm, but that there was a mutual respect.
“Now there’s, in my view, open warfare between many politicians and many reporters,” he said.
He remarked at the current Conservative government’s online news-style operation called Ontario News Now, which presents clips that look like they were created by journalists. However, their purpose is to get a highly political message directly to voters, without the filter and critical eye of a reporter.
“It is a political way of getting a message out that tries to circumvent the media,” he said.
Fisher started his career in radio working at a station in Oakville in 1967. In 1970, he was hired by CJAD in Montreal, where he was given the opportunity to tackle major stories including the FLQ’s kidnapping of diplomat James Cross and the kidnapping and murder of Quebec’s labour minister Pierre Laporte. He joined CBC Television in the 1980s as their Queen’s Park reporter, before moving to Global TV in 1988 where he hosted Focus Ontario for years. Fisher later returned to CBC Radio where he anchored the afternoon news on Toronto’s CBC Radio One and appeared on television as a provincial political analyst. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University and has taught at Centennial College and Ryerson University.
Despite the rising temperature of today’s politics, Fisher doesn’t gloss over the uglier points of earlier eras.
While last week MPPs took issue with the Conservatives about expensive plans for Premier Doug Ford’s new van, Fisher remembers a similar scenario a few decades back.
“Back in the ’80s, the government of Ontario bought a jet and it was initially I guess to get the premier around, Mr. Davis, flying around. And one of the luxury items they had on this little small jet was a leather-covered toilet seat. It was like a huge issue,” he said. The government ended up telling the public the plane was to become an air ambulance.
There have also been times when Fisher received death threats and harassment.
“I suppose the lowest point for me as a reporter would have been back to 1999, when people took great umbrage to a question I had for [then Liberal leader] Dalton McGuinty in the leaders debate in that election campaign. At the time, the Conservatives were running an ad that had a picture of McGuinty on it and lots of question marks behind him and it was referred to as the Riddler Ad, like who is this guy, what does he stand for?” he recalls. “I asked [McGuinty] if he was ready for prime time based on some of the things that he had said leading up to the election campaign, or done. He didn’t have an answer for me. Their famous response, of course, from McGuinty was ‘thank you for the question, Robert.’”
Fisher said he could tell right away that McGuinty was surprised, and angered, by the question. Soon after, his phone number was circulated to political agitators who started calling his home.
“The phone calls that were coming in were very nasty. And that’s fine for me. I’m the adult. I’m the guy who asked the question. ... At the time, the calls that were coming to my home were often answered by my children or my wife and that was very upsetting. It was such an invasion,” he said.
His relationship with premier Dalton McGuinty was “up and down,” he said.
“His office actually organized a luncheon after that campaign to kind of smooth things over and I said to them, yes, I would go to a luncheon with Mr. McGuinty on the understanding that the utensils were all plastic,” Fisher laughed.
He attended the luncheon and indeed there were plastic knives and forks at the table.
Even taking into account the more difficult times, Fisher said without hesitation he would do it all again.
“For me, when I was appointed bureau chief for CBC Television at Queen’s Park, I considered then and still do to this day, I got a dream job. It was an amazing experience,” he said, recalling the energy of walking into the building every day, the chance to travel the province and talk to interesting people.
“I consider myself a pretty lucky guy to have had that opportunity. And quite frankly, still miss it. I think there’s something very special about covering politics in that particular place.”
You can hear more about Fisher’s experience covering provincial politics on Wednesday, March 13 at 7 p.m. at the HHOA Fish Hatchery at 6712 Gelert Rd. in Haliburton. Tickets are $10 each and you can reserve yours by going to www.yoursoutdoors.ca or by calling 705-754-3436 or 705-457-7557.