"In the new journalism getting a story, getting it right, and presenting it clearly don’t have much to do with it."
By John Pepall
Ghosts of War: Chasing my Father’s Legend Through Vietnam. Eric Reguly. Sutherland House, 2022.
Robert Reguly had two of the greatest scoops in Canada’s newspaper history. Working for The Toronto Star in 1964 he tracked down Hal Banks, the American thug and union boss who had run the Seafarers International Union in Canada and was on the lam, wanted for assault. In 1966 he found Gerda Munsinger, the supposed spy who had had affairs with Diefenbaker cabinet ministers, living in Munich. On the strength of these coups he was sent by The Star to Washington, living in genteel Chevy Chase, whence he departed in June 1967 for a months-long tour of journalistic duty in Vietnam where he hitched rides with US forces and carried, and fired, an M-16.
Eric Reguly, Robert’s son and a long time foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail, has written this poignant account of his father’s life, his achievements, and his disappointments.
Click on image to order from Sutherland House Books
Robert was born in 1931 in Fort William, now part of Thunder Bay, to Slovakian immigrants. A childhood accident left him without the use of his left eye, which, paradoxically, led to his becoming a great reader. Though it did not keep him from an active life, including free-fall parachute stunt-jumping to help pay his way through university. Later he became a smokejumper in Saskatchewan, parachuting in to fight forest fires.
Robert studied literature at the University of Western Ontario when few of his modest background went to university. From smoke-jumping he went straight into reporting, working for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Timmins Daily Press, and The Sudbury Star, and The Vancouver Province before, having shown his keenness to get a story, being hired by The Star in 1958.
In his three years posted to Washington, Robert travelled widely and covered race riots, anti-war protests, and the Chicago Democratic Convention, and even met the young Margaret Atwood, who was visiting Harvard. A series of stories on racism in the States won him a third National Newspaper Award. He was thirty feet away from Bobby Kennedy when he was shot. After filing a lengthy story, including a detailed background of Sirhan Sirhan, he broke down in tears.
Leaving Washington in 1969, Robert was posted to Rome, and reported from Biafra, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. He was, briefly, kidnapped by some Arab faction or other in Lebanon in 1970.
Eric writes, “Dad believed that one of the reasons he was yanked from Rome after little more than three years was because his editors were getting worn down by complaints from the Israeli lobby about his coverage.” Souring on The Star, Robert moved to CTV’s W5. There “as a hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners reporter” he covered “environmental damage by corporations, harassment by the Church of Scientology, the health dangers of cheap cosmetics, Canada’s woefully inadequate military hardware, sleazy politicians, and politicians blackmailed by the Soviets in the Cold War.” His documentary on cosmetics won him another award.
“He yearned to get back into print where he could be independent and move fast, without a team. In his newspaper career, he had always been a one-man show,” and in 1977 he went to work for The Toronto Sun as their chief investigative reporter. He had some successes, but in 1981 inexplicably allowed his byline to go on a story by a junior reporter claiming that Liberal cabinet minister John Munro had profited from shares in Petrofina when it was bought by the government owned PetroCanada. Munro sued and won and the junior reporter was fired and Robert resigned.
He found work in communications for two Ontario government ministries, but after a quadruple bypass retired in 1986, declining a pension. He spent his last twenty-five years in obscurity while his son built a distinguished career. He wrote for Outdoor Canada, and occasionally for The Globe, largely about life in the North, spending much of his time at his beloved cottage in northwestern Ontario. He died in 2011.
The centrepiece of the book is Eric’s review of his father’s reporting from Vietnam, and an account of a trip he made to Vietnam in 2018 to retrace his fathers steps. Robert’s time in Vietnam reads like outtakes from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Fifty years on Vietnam is transformed and there might seem more interest in the war in visitors from the West than in Vietnamese born after it ended.
Eric also studied literature at Western and then took a Master’s there in journalism. He started out at Alberta Report and also worked for The Times of London, The Financial Post, and The Financial Times of Canada before joining The Globe in 1997. He has been principally a business journalist rising from reporting, to analysis, to opinion. Since 2007 he has been based in Rome.
Newspapers fifty and more years ago were full of an extraordinary amount of information. Local news from crime and fires and accidents to municipal politics. Social news. Amateur sports. High school and university exam results. Church news. Some of it would now fall foul of privacy rules. Most of it can now be found online.
As much as competition for advertising, the decline of newspapers can be explained by the availability of much of what readers once found there online. This is not a question of people getting their news from Twitter. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to know what your local council was up to you had to read the local paper. Now you can follow council meetings online. I remember journalist friends remarking on the dropping of stock market listings, and then TV listings. Once there were radio listings.
Most of this information was there for the asking or from simple observation. Crime reporters may have had their sources in the police, or even amongst criminals, and political reporters may have had off the record sources. Much was learned in bars. But only a tiny amount was the fruit of what is called ‘investigative reporting.’
When Eric tries to explain his father’s vocation, he writes of “exposing the truth about tragedy or corruption,” and “find[ing] out what politicians and businessmen were trying to hide.” Robert described the mainstream media of his time as “champions of the overdog.” This attitude is prevalent in journalists now who see themselves as speaking truth to power.
But Robert did not go to Vietnam an opponent of the war. Eric writes “…my father went to Vietnam thinking the United States would win the war….” Had he found U.S. forces fighting effectively to defend a viable South Vietnam he would have reported that. For those wanting to speak truth to power that might not be a story.
I have known two men who headed journalism schools, but I was never able to glean what it was they thought they were doing. Enrolment remains strong, producing far more graduates than there are places to fill in the media. What Eric learned earning his Master’s I can’t imagine. Only a couple of the many journalists I have known went to a journalism school. Robert never went to journalism school, but he got the biggest stories. Though he had some fanciful ideas for stories he never found:
a secret Canadian helicopter team in Vietnam that was wiped out by Viet Cong guerrillas; another about a hidden Cuban terrorist training camp in the wilderness of Quebec; still another about his belief that an Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow interceptor jet was secretly flown to the United States in 1959, minutes after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker killed off the costly, world-leading aerospace project.
A recent article in Quillette unsurprisingly reported that journalism schools are now much given over to woke indoctrination of mostly willing subjects. Getting a story, getting it right, and presenting it clearly don’t seem to have much to do with it. A fundamental question facing journalism schools is whether they are training people to produce material that will make a profit for media companies, or social justice warriors.
Eric writes that his father’s “era of journalism was one that abhorred first-person reporting, a time when newspapers were seen as bastions of integrity and impartiality whose goal was to build trust among broad swathes of readers, not narrow interest groups with political agendas.” More than a passionate pursuit of social justice today’s would-be journalists hope for a modicum of fame. Robert Reguly earned his fame, and then lost it from a byline. In an earlier era there would have been no byline.
In their heyday many who worked at newspapers only had a decent oldfashioned high school education. Some started as copy boys without even that. And it was also a rougher world. Tracking down Gerda Munsinger, Robert
went straight to the Operon Café and talked to the manager, who was not revealing anything. Dad lost his patience and smacked him a few times. …This was not an unusual occurrence. In that era, reporters were known to rough up sources if they needed information, … his newsroom colleagues would even get into drunken brawls with their editors, and … fights with the bosses outside the newsroom would not get you fired.
Now in media that still have money and sway everyone is a college grad, often from elite universities, and from the affluent middle class.
Robert showed great initiative and tenacity in getting his scoops, and could count on his paper for expenses, including inducements to Munsinger, and bar bills. Eric reflects on the luxury of their home in Rome. Now newspapers cry poor and demand, and in Canada get, government subsidies and tax breaks, and the right to make FaceBook and Google pay for bringing business to them.
Most of what appears in newspapers now is opinion, haphazardly backed up by select facts. Newspapers and broadcasters trumpet their occasional investigative reports, but these are generally a dull read and have little impact. Rather than scrounge for subsidies and protection, old media should be working out what they can still do better than others and do it well: bring us the daily news plain. Perhaps the sports pages, much reduced as they are, show what can still be done. We may not see the like of Robert Reguly again.
John Pepall is a contributing editor to THE DORCHESTER REVIEW. This article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2022 print edition, Vol. 12, No. 1.