Interview: Tony Burman

Tony Burman, Ryerson University’s new Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair

Against the suitable backdrop of the bustling Starbucks on Church and Gerrard, Tony Burman can’t sit still. For the duration of a 45-minute interview he remains, remarkably, in motion — gesturing wildly, as if to assist him with his point and, to drive something home, smacking the table with the side of his palm. And for someone who has spent the majority of his life in an “intense, 24-7 pace,” that isn’t the least bit out of character.

But the king of speed himself is planning to slow down. As Ryerson’s newly-appointed Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair, Burman said he’s looking forward to “us[ing] my brain as much as I’m using my legs” come September, when he joins the school.

It certainly will be a change of pace.

Burman, 63, got his start in journalism working as the editor of Loyola College’s newspaper, Loyola News, for two years, though his subjects of study were actually political science and history. After he graduated he moved onto the Montreal Star, where his father worked as an editor. Burman remained there for “about 4 or 5 years.”

Montreal in the late 60s and 70s was the perfect place to be for an up-and-coming journalist. With the political tension, FLQ crisis, and talk of separation, the country was in constant distress. Because of his position as an education reporter, Burman said he was required to cover a lot of the main events, as it was “really the schooling sector in Quebec that was most in turmoil.”

“For somebody in my early twenties, it was a fascinating period,” he said. “I had a sense that I was in the middle of a historic period in Quebec, which turned out to be the case. And the fact that I was able to write and try to interpret that for a wider audience in Montreal was really quite exciting.”

After his stint at the Star, and a year and a half traveling through South America, Burman moved to Toronto and took a job at the CBC. He worked his way up through the corporate ladder, as a writer, editor, executive producer of The National, and by the 1980s was the CBC News European producer. In that position he was able to report on the Lebanon Civil War, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela.

The latter, he said, was a story that has a special meaning to him. Prior to Mandela’s 1991 release, Burman produced a documentary on the man, which included a reenactment of the trial that unjustly put him in prison. Winnie Mandela had seen the footage, and gotten it into the prison so her husband could view it as well. Because of that documentary, the CBC was chosen as one of the three networks to interview Mandela on the day of his release.

“I have a photograph of Barbara Frum, Nelson Mandela, and myself [from that day], and it’s one that I totally cherish,” he shared.

Burman continued his rise through the CBC, doing current affairs and international documentaries for The Journal, and then entered management, spending seven and a half years as Editor-in-Chief. When he left, he said, it was “getting repetitive, so it was really time to leave, and it was a very natural thing.”

Though his plan at that point was to do consulting work for international networks, that wasn’t what fate had in mind. Around a year after leaving the CBC, Burman was invited by Al Jazeera to come to Qatar. Thinking he would be involved in the network in a “part-time, consultative way,” Burman hopped on a plane, only to be presented with a job offer: the Managing Director position.

“I fell backwards,” Burman said, “And said ‘obviously I can do that from Toronto, can’t I?’ They said ‘no, you can’t.’ So the issue of moving to Qatar became very serious for me, but it was an opportunity that I was given.”

Burman spent the next two and a half years in Qatar, flying back and forth to Toronto to see his family. Around the time he planned to return to North America, western interest in Al Jazeera piqued so the move to Washington, to take over as Chief Strategic Advisor, seemed only natural. During his time in that role, Burman brought Al Jazeera to Washington and all of Canada.

In September Burman’s role will change drastically. At the university he’ll be teaching Journalism and Politics in the winter semester, as well as doing research into privacy and censorship issues, and the role of emerging technologies on the practice of journalism.

Burman cited the Arab Spring as an example of that growing trend. “When Tunisia [and] Egypt started exploding, there was a real inability for journalists to be able to do their work publicly,” he said. “There had to be a reliance on people, collectively, to contribute. There’s a serious dimension to emerging technologies, [and] social media…that’s well beyond whether Charlie Sheen should be hired by CBS.”

“[Emerging technologies are] the way the next ten years will be defined,” he said. “The fact that the journalists who are students now will eventually replace people like me in the wider world, it’s important that they understand as much as possible what’s coming around the corner.”

(This article was published in the Sept. 2011 issue of the Ryerson Free Press.)


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