As a part of the College of Arts and Science’s sixth annual alumni of influence awards, award-winning CBC journalist Piya Chattopadhyay was invited to speak about her life in a lecture theatre at the Edwards School of Business on March 13.
Chattopadhyay graduated with a bachelor of arts honours degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan in 1995 and went on to earn a journalism degree from Ryerson University. From there, she embarked on a two-decade career in radio and television. Over this time, Chattopadhyay found herself in Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan and was stationed for a time in Jerusalem working as a Fox News Middle East correspondent.
The event was attended by Chattopadhyay’s former university professors, teachers and fans of her work at the CBC, as well as former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. The talk was informal, and audience members were invited to ask questions at any time.
Chattopadhyay was quite candid for the majority of the interview and did not shy away from answering personal questions.
“I want people to know me,” said Chattopadhyay. “I want them to not hold journalists up on a pedestal, because we’re just doing our job like everyone else.”
Early in the talk, Chattopadhyay was asked about whether she interviews people differently depending on who they are. Chattopadhyay did not hesitate to explain why she differentiates between interviewing politicians and civilians.
“Politicians and people in positions of power — which is [mostly] politicians — they sign up for this job knowing full well that they have the role of accountability. So I have no problem trying to hold them accountable. It’s my job to do that as the representative of the Canadian public… But I treat people differently depending on why they’re sitting across the table.”
Chattopadhyay was asked about her stint as a Middle East reporter for Fox News and how she found herself sitting across from provocative American radio shock jockeys. Prepared, she responded by joking that reporting for a left-wing “Communist” organization (CBC) and the “crazy right-wing Tea Party people” (Fox News) left her as a straight shooter in the middle. More seriously, Chattopadhyay reflected on what she learned from interacting with radio jockeys who would try to “goad” her into saying something controversial.
“It was the best learning experience I could ever have,” Chattopadhyay said, “because I would have to figure out a way to address that, to answer that without letting them get the best of me, without coming across as a bully… and try to educate the listeners.”
When asked about how her own education in the College of Arts and Science helped her later in her career, Chattopadhyay — who was also once a reporter for the Sheaf — took a strong stance on the value of a liberal arts degree.
“A broad-based education in arts and science teaches you to critically think, to ask questions, to ask not only ‘what do you think?’ but ‘why do you think it?’, ‘how do you know that?’ Those are all skills I learned here… So I’m a really huge proponent of a liberal arts education.”
However, Chattopadhyay also said that journalists from all backgrounds are needed, especially when it comes to reporting on science-related stories.
“Every university now, basically, has a journalism school,” she said. “We’ve [forgotten] that expertise in certain areas is really, really vital. Especially as we’ve seen in the vaccine debate that having journalists with scientific knowledge is critical.”
Inevitably, the topic of Jian Ghomeshi, former radio host of the popular pop culture show Q, arose with regards to the work culture at the CBC. Ghomeshi was recently fired amidst serious accusations of sexual assault from numerous women. Chattopadhyay wasn’t afraid of tackling the issue.
“I say this, and I say this to my younger colleagues: the work is amazing. There is no better game in the world. I really believe that,” she said. “Yes, there is toxicity and there are challenges. But the people that I work with, you know, the grunts? We’re pretty awesome.”
While she may consider herself a grunt, Chattopadhyay had been introduced as “the Swiss army knife” of the CBC, alluding both to her various roles within the organization over her career and the fact that she hasn’t yet been the full-time host of any program. One of the few instances where Chattopadhyay became evasive in the interview was when she was asked whether that state of affairs would continue.
“This is all about to change,” she said. “So, I’m not going to be the ‘Swiss Army knife’ for much longer. That’s all I have to say about that, but things are afoot.”