Journalism is a funny profession for someone who trends to the overly self-critical. And by “funny”, I mean lunatic. Journalists deal in facts, and facts are verifiable, yet, maddeningly, truth is subjective. If the job of the journalist is to report on the facts — facts that are gathered and assimilated by said (fallible) journalist — then a person who’s
conscious of obsessed with her own flawed nature is probably not cut from whatever cloth they make journalists from these days.
This is one of the reasons I rarely call myself a journalist. “Creative nonfiction writer” has a built in caveat, and is less likely to send me to my room with nothing but heart palpitations and a bottle of wine to keep me company.
Nonetheless, I do occasionally wear the journalist hat (a fedora with a press card tucked in the band), and it sometimes leads to unexpectedly cool assignments like that time I was asked to interview Chantal Hébert. Oh you know: Chantal Hébert, the nationally revered Canadian political columnist? The panelist for The National? Yeah, that Chantal Hébert.
Behind the scenes I freaked out. How do you interview a master interviewer? How do you write about an accomplished writer? Normally, it would be off to my room with the Fuzion (creative nonfiction writers call this “brainstorming”), but I was on-site at York University. They were planning on giving Hébert an honorary doctorate at the coming convocation ceremonies and there was no time for drinking.
In the end, I did OK. I take pride in keeping myself informed about politics and I’d prepared a list of questions that I hoped would keep Hébert from dozing off. I closed our conversation within 60 seconds of the 20 full minutes she’d promised me. I made her chuckle.
The finished Q&A was published on York University’s Alumni Matters on June 21, 2012, and is republished with permission here. Enjoy.
When she was in Grade 9, Chantal Hébert moved with her family from Hull to Toronto. At the time, she spoke no English. Earning her diploma at the province’s first francophone public high school, Hébert experienced the challenges of being unilingual in a bilingual country. By 1976, when she graduated from York University’s Glendon College with a BA in political science, she’d yet to write an essay in English.
Three-and-a-half decades later Hébert is a columnist with Montreal’sLe Devoir, a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star, a weekly contributor to CBC television’s weekly newscast The National, and a blogger for L’actualité. With a reputation for producing sharp, insightful commentary on Canadian politics, Hébert is one of the country’s celebrated—and fully bilingual—journalists.
Recently, Hébert was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from York University. We caught up with her just days before her convocation address for a quick chat about the place of social media in journalism today, French-language education and her advice for the Class of 2012.
Thinking back to your early days in the newsroom at Radio-Canada, can you paint a picture of the national news at the time?
It goes back such a long way. Listen, to give you a sense of how far back it goes, I won my first political bet in the office pool a year after I started by betting on Joe Clark for Conservative leader.
In 1975, Canada was barely into the Official Languages Act. Most bilingual politicians were francophones; very few anglophones spoke French. And we wrote on typewriters.
Now, we’re in a 24/7 news environment, everything is instant. Take the [Liberal party leadership] race story. It wasn’t on the radar at 9am this morning; he announced that he wasn’t running to the Liberal caucus at 10am; Liberal members used their BlackBerrys to tell journalists, who then put it on Twitter; and my column is already on the Star’s website. It’s 3pm in the afternoon.
On social media
Speaking of Twitter, you have an active feed and over 24,000 followers.
Actually, I’m not a good social media person. I keep my Twitter feed alive but I don’t engage in tweet fights and I frankly feel that I find my stories where normal people are and not the Twittersphere. I don’t believe that reality is the same as Twitter.
The ubiquity of social tools and channels has created a global platform for citizen journalists. What does it mean to be a “traditional” journalist in a time of citizen journalism?
I’m paid to add some fact-based analysis to the debate. If people want to debate things on Twitter or if they want to debate it as they used to in the taverns, that’s a different issue. But my job has not changed. My job is to provide fact-based analysis about politics.
So, yes, I’m all for citizen journalists, but a journalist is not someone who writes his opinions, it’s someone who seeks facts and puts them together in a way that people who have actual serious jobs—like teaching and being doctors and repairing roads, and who don’t have the luxury to spend their day on Twitter or on something else—can come home and apprise themselves of what they missed because they were too busy contributing to society in more meaningful ways than I am.
Do you refer to any social media channels to get any information or none at all?
Why would I need social media channels to get information for my beat? I’m not going to go on Twitter to see the reactions to Rae’s announcements, as if what’s on Twitter is representative of anything, right? Why would I? How could I? On that basis I would think that on any given day all Quebecers are demonstrating in the streets over tuition fees. The fact is, they’re not. I live in downtown Montreal. I know they’re not, but if I just go on the basis of Twitter, I would be sitting in a bomb shelter.
So that news story has been completely overblown in that regard?
No, it hasn’t, but the thing is, journalism is not about what people say about what people do, it’s about what people do.
If you’re going to interpret it through the glass of social media then you’re [relying on] a distorted piece of glass. It’s going to make some small fish bigger and some blue fish red.
Twitter and social media are not a substitute to talking to actual, normal voters. I know it’s very old fashioned, this notion of speaking to actual people, but it’s easier to not get it wrong. If you look into what happened in the national media during the last Federal election you will notice that a heavy majority of journalists did not expect the Conservative majority. Yet when you spoke to people on the ground you couldn’t help but hear the Conservative message resonate about a stable government.
And I think in part, social media, while it has immense advantages—including the fact that two seconds after Bob Rae told an MP that he was quitting it was on Twitter and this allowed me to change tack on which column I was going to write—sometimes we get our heads lost on Twitter.
On French-language education
As you know, the Centre of Excellence at Glendon campus opened on May 15. Don Valley MPP Kathleen Wynne said—and this is a quote—“I think it’s really important that we all recognize the importance of a strong francophonie in Ontario.” Can you comment on the significance of having French-language education in southern Ontario?
I think Glendon is a bit more than a product of francophone education in Ontario. I think it’s a product of the fact that the French language has—and the capacity to speak more than one language has—risen in status over the past 40 years.
I wrote a column recently about how when the Bloc Quebecois came to Parliament Hill, French really became one of the two languages of the House of Commons rather than just a marginal reality. Increasingly, ministers answer questions in the language they’re asked in, and part of the reason is French is now seen as a status symbol for a politician. It means you can aspire to be Prime Minister.
I think institutions like Glendon, where bilingualism is part and parcel of the way of life of the people who go there, have contributed to that change.
Wynne also remarked that French-language education is “part of our sense of there not being only one way to do things.” You’ve worked in both official languages. Do you get the sense that your bilingualism results in a fuller picture of the politics and culture of our country?
I don’t know if you can cover Federal politics if you don’t understand both official languages. I’m not saying you should be able to write in both official languages or even speak them, but the notion that you would be guessing at part of what is happening in one or the other language means that you’re missing a section of the picture, and it’s not just that you’re paid to report about the whole picture.
It’s impossible to imagine a francophone journalist covering national politics in this country that couldn’t understand English and I think that the reverse should be just as impossible.
Advice for the Class of 2012
In a couple of days, you’ll address the 2012 graduating class at Glendon. What message will you deliver to the graduates?
I’m certainly not going to be giving them life advice. I’ll tell them that having a plan is wildly overrated and going with the flow is an immensely good idea. It takes you places where you never thought you’d end up and they’re usually more interesting than your planned destination.
I went to Glendon so I wouldn’t have to write in English.
Uh-huh. When we moved to Toronto—we used to live in Hull—I could not speak English and I was in Grade 9. They weren’t doing anglais, they were doing English. They were doing Shakespeare. They were doing The Mayor of Casterbridge, and I could say, “John has a dog.”
I went [to Glendon] specifically because I knew I could not and did not want to write essays in English. I only became really proficient in English later on because I like to read and English books were cheaper.
The first time I was asked to write an English column the person who hired me said, “Writing in English is no problem?” and I said, “Not at all.” And that was in 1990.
So the plan thing? Nah.
That’s pretty good advice.
Well it seems to be better than to be frustrated about what you thought you wanted to do but didn’t get to do, which is probably not as great as it’s made out to be, but you don’t know that because you didn’t get to do it.
And now you’re on television, on radio, in print, on the Internet.
Go figure. But you know, stuff happens. If you’re crazy enough to take chances, things usually work out.
You know, my sons have graduated in law and me getting these honorary doctorates [Hébert was awarded an honorary doctorate in Civil Law from Bishop's University in 2009] which are always in law, they find that very annoying. I think it’s funnier than anything. It’s all part of the fun.