Veteran journalist visits Waterloo

Just one year ago, after 48 years in journalism, 42 of which were spent with big name networks, CBC Newsworld’s Henry Champ retired from his post at CBC’s Washington bureau. According to Champ, the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama was the perfect note on which to end a career. Champ sat down with The Cord to share his reflections on being a first-hand witness at the world’s most defining events of the last several decades.

Champ started as a sports writer in Brandon, Manitoba; however, after a mere 10 months, he grew disinterested with what he saw as the redundancy of athletics reporting. Soon after, Champ made the leap to network news and throughout his lengthy career he served as a correspondent with the likes of CTV, NBC and CBC.

Champ swapped interviewing hockey players for world leaders and became a fixture at the front lines of major geopolitical events. Champ was accounted for at nearly every event in the past five decades including the fall of Saigon and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He was even present at the Chad-Libyan War, of which Champ jokes that no one alive at the time even remembers.

After years of extensive world travelling and witnessing some of modern history’s most defining moments, Champ cites Vietnam as an era of particular personal importance. Champ explains, “What I saw in Vietnam led me to the kind of political views I have today.”

On Vietnam, Champ said, “It was the wrong war, it was imperialism.” Moreover, his disillusionment with the war ballooned after seeing first hand the unfairness in who was fighting the war itself. “It was the farmer’s sons and the kids from the ghettos,” said Champ.

It was during this same war that Champ felt his role as a journalist was most crucial to greater society. He modestly recounts being one of a number of journalists whose reporting helped to drive the anti-war movement back at home.

To this day, Champ credits American college students for their role in bringing the war to an end. It was American post-secondary students’ reaction to the draft that acted as the main driver for action from young people across the U.S. In light of the relative political apathy of today’s youth, it is difficult to imagine the level of engagement and political activism of youth at the time.
In the years leading up to his retirement, Champ closely covered the U.S.-led war on terror. After experiencing Afghanistan first-hand, Champ said that from the earliest stages he recognized “nothing good would come out of American intervention” in the region.

Today, it is common to hear experts and historians draw parallels between Vietnam and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Regardless, Champ discounts the fighting and the war effort itself as the strongest similarities. Instead, he points to the questionable government the Americans are trying to endorse and uphold, in opposition to what many Afghans support, as the most obvious parallel.

Champ explains that the South Vietnamese government “was corrupt and it was audacious and damaging.” For the same reasons, Champ believes that “the people are never going to accept the Karzai government.”

Champ, himself a veteran war correspondent, believes that contemporary foreign correspondence is much more difficult and dangerous than it was in the past. Throughout his career Champ travelled into countless tumultuous regions, including Soviet-controlled Afghan territory while accompanied by Mujahedeen fighters. Speaking from personal experience, he joked, a journalist’s biggest worry was being thrown in jail. However, there is an element of “thuggery” in modern warfare, he said. As a journalist today, “You stand a very good chance of being kidnapped and held for ransom.”

Unlike many in the journalistic field today, Champ remains optimistic about the future of the profession. Champ’s optimism stems from a recent report, called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” released by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

In line with the report, Champ asserts that while a reconstruction is necessary, the field will not grow defunct, and abundant opportunity awaits those who hope to tap into the industry’s future.

Coming from such a seasoned and well-respected journalist, Champ’s words are both reassuring and inspirational to many in the journalism community. Not bad for a guy who admittedly went to university to play basketball.