Mark Bulgutch’s That’s Why I’m a Journalist features experiences from celebrated Canadian journalists

October 27, 2015

by Leah Hansen

In an attempt to separate journalism from new trends, a Ryerson instructor has authored a book featuring stories from celebrated Canadian journalists to highlight what he thinks good journalism should be.

Mark Bulgutch, a contract lecturer at the Ryerson School of Journalism and former CBC journalist, spoke to 44 journalists about some of their most iconic stories for That’s Why I’m a Journalist. 

Bulgutch got his own start in journalism more than 35 years ago. Bulgutch worked at the CBC after graduating from journalism school, eventually becoming senior executive producer of TV news, which put him in the control room for special events, including election nights.

The change he sees in today’s journalism is down to a number of factors, he says, including the introduction of the Internet and the concentration of media ownership. “We depend on the goodwill or greed of a business organization for most of our news, and we pay the price for that,” he says.

We spoke to Bulgutch about what this change means to the future of journalism and the power of the stories he heard from colleagues.

What made you decide to go ahead with the book?

Two things I think. First, as a consumer of news, I think the news I watch on television now compared to what I used to watch is less than it should be and less than it was. Especially, because I teach journalism, my worry is that young people will look around and they’ll see what passes as news today and they’ll think that really is what news is supposed to be. When I was growing up, I think I saw news as steak and potatoes. I think I saw substantive, important things being treated in the news and now I think newsrooms have decided for one reason or another, that the news diet should be Coca-Cola and potato chips. And I think young people will look around and see Coca-Cola and potato chips and, having never known steak and potatoes, will think, “Well, this potato chips and Coca-Cola diet seems to be pretty nutritious.” Well, it isn’t. If you don’t know anything else, you get to know that this is what it is and I don’t want that to happen. So I think what the book is, it compiles what great journalism is supposed to be.

You’ve said that journalism is going through an “existential threat” —
do you hope the book will have some kind of effect on this threat?

I’m not deluded enough to think that one book is going to change the way everything is going but my hope is that people, especially younger people, will look at this and say, “Why isn’t there more of this? Why can’t we do this instead of water-skiing squirrels? What is going on? How did we lose this?” As I tell my students, you sort of have to do what the person signing the cheque tells you to do because you have to make a living and you’re young and you’re not going to change the world the minute you walk into a newsroom. But as you grow older and you get more experience, you’ll know in your heart this stuff is wrong, this is not what journalism is supposed to be. And one day, you’ll be in charge and maybe then you can change things if you haven’t already been corrupted by the system. So read this, read these stories about what real reporters did, about what they accomplished, what power they had and why wouldn’t you want that rather than water-skiing squirrels?
You talked to 44 different journalists for this book — did any of the stories that they had to tell surprise you at all?

I’m not sure they surprised me — I knew most of them. I lived through a lot of them if not the same way they lived through them. The Haiti earthquake, Diana Swain’s Boy Scouts, Joyce Napier’s (Karla) Homolka interview, Laurie Graham’s coal miners, Brian Stewart’s Ethiopia … I remembered the pride I felt that I could put this on my program. I think as I did each one of them, what struck me was, “Wow.” Even though I know a lot about this and I know how hard it is to get stuff, it was interesting to hear them talk about how it affected them afterwards.

You were a working journalist for nearly 40 years — what’s one of the greatest stories that you have to tell?

I’m a behind-the-scenes guy mostly, so I found standing in the CBC news control room on a federal election night — that, to me, was almost inconceivable. When I was a kid wanting to be a journalist, the fact that I would be running a CBC news election night completely would have been unimaginable. So just being there was quite something to me and I never forgot my roots as this kid, and I never forgot how privileged I was to be able to do the things I was now doing. There was one story, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I remember that story so powerfully because it was my idea to do it. And it was only a month before the anniversary, so we had to move very quickly. We didn’t have a lot of money, we put a team together very quickly, found some Auschwitz survivors who lived in Toronto, talked to them, and then one of them, he was going back for the anniversary. So we met him when we got there and in the couple of days before the actual ceremony, we went to Auschwitz with him. He took us through the barracks that he had been in and he talked about how he’d look up through the top window and see smoke and know that more Jews had been killed. His mother and sisters had already been killed — he was with his father in the barracks, he was just 16. And suddenly, as he was telling us all this, he went into one of the barracks. He lied across it and he started to cry. And, there’s not much in life that prepares you for that kind of moment. Then he lit a memorial candle for his mother and his sisters who had died there and he said the Jewish prayer for the dead and this was quite a moment.