Stéphane Dion, looking tired in his stiff charcoal suit, and Steve Murphy, six-o’clock-news anchor for atv Halifax, sit in upholstered chairs in a downtown hotel room as the light on the camera clicks red and the tape begins to record.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Murphy asks the then Liberal leader, “The economy is now the issue of the campaign, and on that issue you’ve said that today [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has offered nothing to put Canadians’ minds at ease and offers no vision for the country. We have to act now, you say, doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?”
“If I had been prime minister two and a half years ago?”
Murphy clarifies, “If you were the prime minister right now and for the past two years.”
Dion looks puzzled. He makes a valiant attempt to answer the question, but stopping mid-sentence, asks if they can restart. Murphy agrees and tries again.
“I don’t understand your question. At which moment? Today, a week ago or 60 weeks ago?” Dion looks to his aide Sarah Bain, who explains the question in English. Murphy repeats the question and the politician begins to laugh.
After the third restart, Dion manages to dance around the question and the interview continues. When the red light clicks off, Murphy makes a hasty exit to be back in the Halifax studio for the evening newsbreak. Before producer Peter Mallette leaves, one of Dion’s aides asks if the retakes will air. Mallette says not to worry about it.
During the cab ride back to the station, the producer phones news director Jay Witherbee to describe the unusual beginning to the interview. When he arrives, Witherbee looks at the tape and decides to seek an opinion from higher up.
In his brightly lit, suburban Toronto office, steps from the national news desk, CTV News president Robert Hurst is finalizing plans for the network’s election coverage when he receives Witherbee’s urgent e-mail at 5:20 p.m. Halifax time. Hurst calls the news director and, speaking in the gentle but firm voice he uses when dealing with problems, instructs Witherbee to upload the video to the internal network so he can see it.
The clock is ticking. By the time Hurst watches the footage with senior staff, it’s 5:40 p.m. in the Maritimes. They make a quick decision: run the entire interview. Murphy’s already on air, but during commercial breaks he works with his producer and director on the script.
At 6:40 p.m., Murphy introduces the clip: “Perhaps we shouldn’t have agreed to restart with the questioning, and the Liberal campaign was anxious this exchange not be broadcast. And initially we indicated it would not be. However, on reflection, CTV News believes we owe it to you to show you everything that happened.”
Although the Liberals left the interview thinking the retakes wouldn’t air, one of Hurst’s concerns was that if CTV didn’t break the story, another outlet would use the footage Radio-Canada had recorded. Today, despite the ensuing ethical debate, Hurst remains resolute in his defence of that decision. It was one based on his own updates to the CTV News policy handbook and his adamant belief that openness is always better than censorship.
That openness has viewers coming back for more and Hurst, president since 2002, doesn’t worry when other journalists question his decisions. His experience as a reporter seasoned him not to fear controversy. Besides, with his spirited nature and cheerleading management style, Hurst-named the most powerful person in Canadian television news by TV Guide in 2007-would rather break stories than psychoanalyze them.
Hurst is clean-cut with silver hair. His blue eyes, which stand out from a rugged face, remain alert and focused at all times. He sports classic presidential attire: dark suit, white-collared shirt, red or blue tie, black socks and black shoes. After more than 35 years in the business, the 59-year-old goes by many names: Mr. Hurst, Robert, Bob or Mr. B (for Mr. Boss). As a correspondent, his dramatic sign-off was, “Rooooobert Hurst!”
Had he chosen a different path in life, people might have been calling him “Hey Culligan Man!” Growing up in Cooksville, Ontario, Hurst worked for his father, who owned a large Culligan franchise. During the summer, Hurst helped his dad replace water-softener tanks in homes and small businesses. In high school he was named athlete of the year, excelling in football and basketball, but he wasn’t a standard jock-he was also president of the United Nations club.
Politics and current events were typical conversation topics around the family dining table. In 1957, when John Diefenbaker passed through Cooksville on the eve of becoming prime minister, Hurst’s mother took the elementary student and his two sisters (one older, one younger) to an election rally. Taken with the candidate’s speech, Hurst recalls, “He was an impressive public speaker.”
But the 1960 American political conventions were his real introduction to politics and his inspiration to pursue broadcast journalism. Just 11, he wanted to watch one of his favourite shows, but with his father in control of the TV set, Hurst resigned himself to sit through the Democratic National Convention. As John F. Kennedy accepted the party’s presidential nomination in Los Angeles, the youngster became entranced. Two weeks later, Hurst willingly tuned in to see Richard Nixon become the Republican candidate in Chicago. “This was my first exposure to the political process,” he says. “Things were going on and you just couldn’t leave.”
That passion for politics led to a liberal arts degree and graduate studies in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Having been heavily involved in sports, Hurst was disappointed when he didn’t receive any invitations to try out for the university’s teams. “I was small compared to the big, dumb guys who played football or basketball. You had to be six feet, and I’m, like, five-foot-nine.” Hurst instead tried out for the cheerleading squad. He liked the people, was able to go to the games and it was social. Naturally, he became the head cheerleader.
Outside of school, Hurst took a job at an AM radio station in London, Ontario. His show, College News With Robert Hurst, aired during the morning drive, delivering campus news. The one-and-a-half-minute segment exposed Hurst to a real newsroom and he loved watching the teletype machines continuously tapping out wire copy onto rolls of low-quality paper.
In 1972, CTV launched Canada AM. In January 1973, fresh out of graduate school, Hurst became a news writer for the show, working from midnight to 8 a.m. Ten months later he left behind the detested overnight shift and began reporting from City Hall for cfto, the network’s flagship affiliate in Toronto. “It was a pretty big deal,” Hurst remembers.
Two years later, the deal got bigger.
At 26, Hurst became the station’s news director on what he believes was the strength of his work coordinating coverage of the 1975 provincial election. The promotion was surprising considering his age and experience, and Hurst knew his credibility would be questioned. The few dozen staffers, most in their late 30s and 40s, were bound to ask themselves, Why him and not me?
Hurst now characterizes his first month as “a baby trying to boss around adults.” But his initial management strategy shows that while he may have been young, he was no fool. Requesting visits with senior staff, he sat in their backyards, sipping on beer or lemonade, and confessed, “I need your help. I don’t know everything here.” The one-on-one chats seemed to work, because strained relations between reporters and management evaporated and the newsroom began to function better. Today, Hurst still looks back on this team with pride, saying it was one of “the best core groups, most spirited groups, journalistically driven groups that cfto has ever had.”
Hurst went on to take jobs across Canada before becoming a foreign correspondent in Washington, China and Russia. During this period he covered war zones in Nicaragua, El Salvador and North Korea. Hurst’sChina Today, a documentary filmed from 1982 to ’83, won a Gold Medal at the New York Film Festival. The doc took an in-depth look at the People’s Liberation Army and the future of China after the death of Mao Zedong.
As executive producer at W-Five in the mid-1990s, Hurst brought the current-affairs show back to life by looking at its weak points and hiring the right people. Network anchor Lloyd Robertson says it was a “rescue operation,” saying Hurst is “never a guy who’s afraid to get his hands dirty.” Hurst’s travelling came to an end in 2000 when he became general manager of all station operations for CTV in British Columbia-a position he was fond of because he enjoyed the challenge of building up the network’s Vancouver station. Plus, he loved the scenery.
When Hurst returned to Toronto to become president of CTV News in 2002 he had another rescue mission to execute: revitalize the National News With Lloyd Robertson, which had become long-winded with extended story formats and theatrical dissolves. He immediately dropped the dissolves and focused on reporting the day’s events. “Before people go to bed, they want to see what happened today in the world. That’s it. They don’t want to see boring features,” says Wendy Freeman, the vice-president of CTV National News. “We report the news now in a populist way that matters to Canadians, and he really put that mantra into this newsroom. It’s a formula that’s working.”
Today, Hurst’s team spans from Vancouver to Beijing under CTV Newsnet, Business News Network,National News With Lloyd Robertson, Canada AM and CP24, Toronto’s 24-hour local news channel. As president, he tries to visit the seven Canadian stations and nine foreign bureaus once a year, although he admits it doesn’t always happen. But since Hurst oversees everything from finances to personnel problems, he cannot possibly be everywhere at once. “I can’t paint every set,” he says, motioning toward the distracting backdrop at Montreal’s station projected on a nearby TV. “If I start micromanaging each of these things-and lots of news managers micromanage-eventually it will fail. I don’t think I’m a dictator. Maybe I am, but I don’t think so.”
Neither do his senior staff, who call him “fair,” “gentlemanly” and “passionate.” That’s no surprise given that Hurst says his main goal is to provide the best working conditions to help his team thrive-even if that means singing to them. In 2006, after a long flight to Afghanistan, Freeman was jet-lagged and worn out even before she and Hurst embarked on the two-hour trek through what they called “no man’s land” to rendezvous with an awaiting vehicle. Under the glaring sun, with the temperature hovering around 40°C, the walk darkened Freeman’s mood. At one point she suggested abandoning their luggage. With little water left, Freeman began to doubt she would make it. But Hurst wouldn’t hear of it. “Just keep walking,” he barked. “We can do this!” He started singing a kitschy show tune in his best baritone. “That’s what he’s like,” Freeman says. “He gets you pumped.”
Hurst has no problem singing for me either. Suddenly-in his office cluttered with years of memorabilia, including a mask of Mikhail Gorbachev and photos of Hurst posing with, among others, George W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin-he belts out a line from “Learnin’ the Blues,” a song popularized by Frank Sinatra in the late 1950s: “The tables are empty, the dance floor is deserted-” He stops abruptly to ask if I’ve heard the one about inciting a sing-along with cbc journalists.
During the October 2008 election cycle, a consortium of Canadian networks-cbc, CTV, Global, Radio-Canada and tva-got together to produce the leaders’ debates in Ottawa. With Hurst acting as chair, the group sorted out the logistics of televising the events and hosting an after-party at the National Arts Centre. Once the leaders had left, a group of journalists gathered to “have a piece of cheese, a glass of wine and loosen the ties.” After someone made a toast to congratulate everyone on a job well done, someone else suggested Hurst sing a song. Instead, he had senior management from the various organizations join hands in a circle and he started to sing: “The more we get together, together, together. The more we get together, the happier we will be.” The group, cautious at first, began by mumbling the words. But soon enough they lost all inhibition and found their voices. When the song ended, half the people immediately dropped their hands. One of the cbcers asked: “Do you do that at CTV every day?”
Later, Hurst and one of his vice-presidents, Joanne MacDonald, joked, “Do you believe our friends at cbc? They actually joined hands in the circle and sang a campfire song!”
He looks at me and says, “Ha! It’s pretty funny, ’cause, you know, they’re so straight.”
Since 1961, CTV has provided an alternative to Canada’s long-standing public broadcaster. When CTV’sNational News first aired, it had to contend with cbc’s The National News. That precursor to The National had a larger staff, superior resources and a long tradition of reliable and credible newsgathering. CTV stressed production values right from the start. It was fast-moving, slick and personality-driven. The news played to the eye, using techniques such as video rolls, freeze-frames and Chroma key, a process that lets clips run superimposed behind the anchor, wrote Michael Nolan in his book CTV: The Network That Means Business. “We were like guerrillas because we didn’t have many people or [much] money,” says Robertson, who left behind his anchor position at CBC and jumped to CTV in 1976-not for the money, but for more freedom. “We had to get out there, get the story and compete with the big guys. We had to do it well and get an audience, because we had to survive.”
Today, CTV doesn’t just survive-it usually tops the ratings for Canadian TV news. On a typical night, CTVNational News With Lloyd Robertson leads with 1,059,000 nightly viewers, compared to 928,000 for The National and 852,000 for Global National News. But while CTV trumpets itself as the most-watched news source, it’s not always first. On the night of the 2008 federal election, for example, CBC and CBC Newsworld drew 2.43 million viewers, 36 percent higher than CTV and CTV Newsnet’s combined audience of 1.78 million.
Hurst keeps an eye on other networks via numerous television sets in his office and when Ivan Fecan, president and ceo of CTVglobemedia Inc., announced Hurst’s appointment in 2002, he said the new president’s highly competitive nature would prove invaluable. Hurst loves the term “competitive” and hopes his rivals are always looking over their shoulders, but says he still has a close and co-operative relationship with both cbc and Global.
Former colleagues have certainly seen his competitive side. A nickname that follows him around, though he brushes it off with a shrug, is one that Pamela Wallin, CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief in the late 1980s, gave him. Wallin says they “affectionately and lovingly called him ‘Rambo’ because of his determination to get the story.” Wendy Mesley, who was a cbc parliamentary correspondent at the time, says although she was part of a “pretty crack bureau” that broke a lot of stories, “There weren’t many other reporters we were afraid of, but Robert was one. He was very competitive and worked his beats very hard.” One of Hurst’s greatest reporting triumphs was his long slog to expose the StarKist tuna scandal. In 1985, the company was allegedly packaging rancid tuna, but after John Fraser, then the minister of fisheries, reviewed the situation, he deemed the fish fit to eat against the warnings of inspectors. Technically the tuna was safe, but in many cases, it was also of far lower quality than advertised. Hurst spent months preparing the story, but CTV hesitated over airing it due to legal issues, and instead CBC’s the fifth estate broke the news.
The hesitation irritated Hurst. “When we were chasing stuff and we’d see Robert in the hallway chasing the same person, we’d think, ‘Oh boy, we better get there quick,'” says Mesley. Others are mum when it comes to Hurst, merely saying he was no more or less aggressive than any other reporter. But Hurst says it’s not true, that there’s a “humble pack” that goes around Parliament Hill taking advantage of the ease of covering question period and filing their stories for the day. “Everybody is doing the same thing and the pack kind of goes along. It’s horrible.”
Today, Hurst says his Ottawa bureau breaks stories on a regular basis, proving his reporters don’t run with that group. However, others suggest it’s not a pack but a party that CTV runs with-the Conservative Party. There were whispers about Mike Duffy’s and Robert Fife’s allegiance to the Tories even before December 2008 when Duffy accepted Harper’s offer to become a Senator. Former cbc producer David Nayman says colleagues often indiscreetly referred to Duffy as “Senator” because of his apparent loyalty to the Conservatives and the regal way he carries himself in public. Nevertheless, Hurst vows to expose any politician when necessary, whether Conservative, Liberal or ndp.
On December 3, 2008, things are about to explode in the House of Commons. The Conservatives’ controversial fiscal update has led to the possible formation of a coalition between the Liberals and the ndp with the support of the Bloc Québécois. Heading south from Unionville, where he lives with his wife-son Todd is now a teacher on Vancouver Island while other son Scott is the 6 p.m. anchor for an NBC affiliate in Eureka, California-Hurst steers his gold Lexus SC 430 to CTV headquarters at 10 a.m. He knows there will be e-mails and calls waiting when he arrives.
The night before, the major networks aired the prime minister’s pre-recorded address to the nation. Harper’s focus was on the coalition’s co-operation with the separatist party-an alliance, he suggested, that could prove fatal for national unity. As leader of the coalition, Dion also recorded a video (although it appeared to be filmed with a home recorder pointed up his nose). Hurst says it arrived late, just as the network was returning to regularly scheduled programming. So as Robertson was signing off, cbc was airing Dion’s message. At 9:30 p.m., Dion’s chief of staff, Johanne Senécal, called Hurst to apologize for the tardiness and quality of the video. Taking out a black, lined notebook, Hurst reads her words to me: “‘I’m livid,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you are livid, too.'”
Viewers were also angry, but for a different reason. They bombarded Hurst with e-mails and telephone calls accusing him of favouring the Conservatives once again. Later, Globe and Mail television columnist John Doyle claimed he had insider knowledge about the video. “CTV had in fact seen it,” he wrote. “But CTV didn’t get to be the No. 1 network in Canada by putting stuff like that on air.”
The fiasco left Dion with no choice but to accelerate his withdrawal as Liberal leader. But he couldn’t blame it all on the botched video. After all, he’d already announced he would be stepping down following a lacklustre election campaign that bottomed out after the Murphy interview.
Hurst’s decision to air the Dion retakes raised a lot of questions. Susan Newhook of the University of King’s College, for instance, said it is unethical for journalists to break their word. Others questioned whether the decision was just prurient interest or a case of making fun of someone else’s misfortune.
When it comes to recent ethical debates, one of the biggest was between Hurst and former head of cbc news operations Tony Burman. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus before taking his own life. A package from the 23-year-old Cho, which later arrived at nbc, contained a home-crafted diatribe, photos and digitally recorded videos showing a clearly disturbed young man filled with hate.
Just before the 6 p.m. newscast on the day nbc aired the selected footage, CTV received the tapes from the U.S. network, leaving Hurst to make a difficult call. Along with senior staff, he decided to air the clips-but only once. Global followed suit.
Burman, on the other hand, decided against airing any of Cho’s deranged rants. The public debate became heated as the two news executives expressed their network’s strongly held positions. Hurst said he did not believe in censorship, while Burman argued that it was an error in editorial judgment to run the clips, stating, “There was the real possibility of copycat killings.”
Hurst believes these arguments weren’t made with empirical data, and that cbc’s position essentially suggested the network knew better than its viewers. His eyes twinkle mischievously as he tells me, “Tony was in a real huff.”
Two weeks after the shootings, Burman posted a letter on cbc.ca explaining his actions: “Most professional journalists long ago concluded that this type of coverage would not only gratuitously offend their audiences, it would surely serve to legitimize and encourage this kind of garbage.” He argued that “this is not about ‘censorship’ or ‘avoidance.’ It’s about ‘editorial choices.’ The fact is that we shouldn’t simply transmit that which falls on our head.”
Hurst is a headstrong man with endless energy. When he couldn’t play at the university level, he led the cheerleaders. When he was 26, he presided over a large staff. He works a room full of industry elites like he’s mingling at a family Christmas party. At CTV, he broadcasts what Canadians want to talk about. And with every controversial decision he makes, he puts himself at the centre of the debate.
His thought process goes something like this: news broadcasters are obliged to transmit information, so start with the premise that everything is open and free in our society, then edit for content. If you’re going to censor, there has to be a legal or other important reason to do so.
He’s always kept things simple. When he made his first newsroom speech as president, Hurst said, “Okay, everyone wants a long treatise from me about how we’re going to do things. I’m only going to say this: Let’s just do the news. Let’s do the basics. We all know the stories we have to cover. We do them well. And we tell people what the news is on any given day.”
There was a pause. All present at the meeting sat or stood there, motionless, staring at Hurst. Then heads slowly began to nod. “Yeah, we can do that,” Robertson recalls thinking. “That’s what we came here to do anyway.”