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February 02, 2003

Robert Sawyer comments

Robert Sawyer comments on this morning's interview on CBC Newsworld. His comments may be found posted to his personal website. I am reproducing his letter to me here in its entirety. I want to thank Mr. Sawyer for his interpretation of the interview. I hope he is correct to suggest the CBC anchor's question was a result of distraction rather than any intent to cause offense. Once again, I am not posting the name of the anchor to this website until the CBC ombudsman's office opens on Monday and has an opportunity to respond.

Robert J. Sawyer here, at 12:50 a.m. on February 2.

At 9:37 a.m. on February 1, I was awoken in my bedroom by my wife saying the phone was ringing. (We'd been up late the night before.) We have the ringer off in our bedroom, but she was awake and had heard it from her office, down the hall. Since the bedroom phone is on my night table, not hers, I picked it up.

A producer from CBC Newsworld (the public broadcaster's national cable news channel up here) was on the phone and told me that contact had been lost with COLUMBIA. He put me on hold, with the CBC Newsworld audio in the background, while my wife put on the TV, and we flipped back and forth between channels, watching the breaking news. I tried very rapidly to come up to speed on the shocking, horrible, devastating events. I saw the video footage, and my heart sank. At about 9:42 -- just five minutes after waking -- I was on the air, doing a phone interview for live television.

The interviewer (I'm sorry, but I don't know her name, or even what city she was in -- Newsworld does production across Canada; I've been on Newsworld many times, but never had been interviewed by this woman) did indeed ask me a question related to whether this was a terrorist attack, and whether it had been arrogant of the Americans to launch a shuttle now. The idea that it was terrorism hadn't even occurred to me -- it looked like a tragic accident, and I was reliving my memories of when CHALLENGER had blown up all those years ago. So, the question took me by surprise.

In any event, I told her no, it wasn't arrogance, and added that the Bush administration had very much had a business-as-usual policy post-September 11; I can't remember exactly how I phrased it, but my thought was that if you let terrorists freeze you into doing nothing out of fear, they've won. I wish I remembered her exact words better, and my own, but, like everyone else I was in shock.

I'm sure she didn't mean to be offensive, and it was quite clear during our brief interview that she was being distracted by all sorts of chatter in her earpiece (she first introduced me as Robert Fischer, who is a staff reporter the CBC).

After finishing interviewing me, she had on Randy Attwood, also by phone; Randy is the former president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I listened to his interview, but then my wife and I started channel surfing, looking for other coverage; we settled on CNN. I didn't see any more of the Newsworld coverage.
I have no direct knowledge of what the reporter said subsequently, but there has apparently been much discussion of it
online, including in this blog:

Flea link

Here are two separate excerpts from that blog:

I am watching coverage on different networks. CBC
Newsworld just interviewed writer Robert Sawyer for
his reflections on the shuttle program and
potential causes of the disaster. The Newsworld
interviewer asked Sawyer whether the cause was
"arrogance" on the part of the U.S. government.
(Sawyer said no.) This is one of the most odious
questions I can imagine. It took minutes for the
CBC to twist a tragedy into a politically motivated
theatre of hate. Talk about manufacturing consent.

Furthermore... the interviewer linked American
"arrogance" explicitly to current potential
conflict in the Middle East. My only surprise is
the CBC did not manage to sneer at the death of
Israel's first astronaut in the same breath.

More manufactured consent as the same CBC
interviewer introduced the theme of American
"arrogance" in an echo-chamber interview with
another CBC journalist. She cited a "space expert"
- referring to writer Robert Sawyer - in which
"over-confidence" in the face of "fear and tension"
due to potential hostilities in the Middle East
could have lead NASA to go ahead with the flight
despite possible damage to one of Columbia's wings.
First, Robert Sawyer is a science fiction writer
and, while informed and interested in this stuff,
is hardly an expert. Second, in my view the CBC
interviewer misrepresented her leading question as
Sawyer's views. They were not. Sawyer clearly
denied the charge of "arrogance" and suggested that
at most a kind of over-confidence in a proven and
reliable technology may have been a factor. "Fear
and tension" in the Middle East had no place in his

As I said above, I didn't hear any of the woman's later comments, but she did ask me whether it was an act of arrogance, and I said it was not. If she ascribed any other sentiment to me later, she was inaccurate.

My heart goes out to everyone involved, but especially to the families of these seven brave heroes.


Robert J. Sawyer

Posted by Ghost of a flea at February 2, 2003 01:39 AM