PRESS

The charge of the Canadian brigade

DICK BROWN December 1 1986
PRESS

The charge of the Canadian brigade

DICK BROWN December 1 1986

The charge of the Canadian brigade

PRESS

Brian Stewart was a CBC TV correspondent in London when the American network NBC set out early this year to hire him away. NBC News executives had seen Stewart’s reports on, among other things, the ravages of famine in Ethiopia, and they were impressed. But CBC executives in Toronto knew that NBC wanted Stewart, and they were anxious to hang on to him. So in February they pulled him out of London and shipped him to the Philippines where he would have something exciting to report on—the precarious aftermath of the country’s presidential election—and where he would be far out of the range of NBC executives. Stewart checked into a Manila hotel and there, in the lobby, was John Lane, an NBC vice-president and one of its top recruiters. After much soul-searching, Stewart, 44, said “yes” to NBC and last April joined a long list of Canadians who now gather and present the news on U.S. television.

Some of Stewart’s countrymen who heeded similar calls include Peter Jennings, 48, who anchors ABC’s main news broadcast, and four of the network’s correspondents: Barrie Dunsmore, John McKenzie, Jerry King and Hilary Bowker. Among other Canadi-

ans who have joined U.S. networks are NBC’s Peter Kent and Henry Champ; Morley Safer, Mark Phillips, Don McNeill and John Blackstone of CBS; Robert MacNeil, co-anchor of the nightly news report on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); and Keith Morrison, who co-anchors the news for KNBC, NBC’s big Los Angeles affiliate.

For Canadian journalists, U.S. TV news promises high-profile lives filled with adventure, difficult schedules filled with chaos and the compensation of high salaries. But for the networks in Canada that train them, the exodus represents a difficult situation. Said Stewart, a former Montrealer: “I really love the CBC—I care passionately for it.” But like other Canadians now working for NBC, CBS and ABC, he received an offer that he could not refuse. The Canadian correspondents usually hesitate to discuss salaries, but one said that incomes of overseas reporters for U.S. networks are generally between $140,000 and $190,000 a year. Dunsmore, 47, who has been with ABC since 1965, admits to making more than $230,000 per year as a London-based correspondent. And Peter Jennings gets more than $1,240,000. Said Denis

Harvey, a vice-president of CBC TV where correspondents seldom earn more than $80,000: “You can’t fight the American networks with money.” Added Donald Cameron, CTV’s vicepresident of news features and information programming: “We can’t compete.”

The enthusiasm by U.S. network officials for Canadian employees adds only to the difficulty Canadian programmers have keeping their top reporters. Said Jack Hubbard, director of recruitment for CBS: “I think there are a lot of very good journalists in Canada who are very solid citizens and do really good work. The level of literacy, intelligence, understanding and, particularly, the level of reporting are superb.” Added David Burke, ABC’s executive vice-president of news: “The Canadians have not been affected by the showier aspects of television. They have a refreshing sense of objectivity and a clear view. And there’s respect for the English language. That is key for us because people who articulate well usually write well.”

The correspondents themselves see a number of Canadian qualities as especially attractive —including the fact that the Canadian passport is sometimes more readily acceptable in

world trouble spots than a U.S. passport. As well, several Canadians point to their early training. Said Toronto-born Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, who was a CBC correspondent and producer before joining CBS in 1965: “You have a couple of almost parallel networks in Canada, and this tends to be a kind of very, very intense training process.” Peter Jennings of Toronto, who worked for both CTV and CBC, added: “I think Canadians get better training. From my first boss to my last boss in Canada, there was always somebody who said, ‘Look, we’re interested in teaching you to improve your craft.’ ” Jerry King, 45, who joined ABC 15 years ago after four years in Canadian radio, is now a national correspondent based in St. Louis, Mo. Added King, who is from Welland, Ont.: “Americans tend to be insular—and lazy in their language. I had to learn to say ‘bin’ for ‘been.’ ”

In most cases, the American networks take the initiative: they go after the Canadians. But with Safer, the CBS offer was a fluke. Stanley Burke, the former anchorman for the CBC’s national newscast, applied for a job with CBS in 1964, and he sent the network a tape of a round-table discussion of world events by several CBC news people, including Safer. The CBS executives watched the tape—and hired Safer. Safer, now 55, worked in many countries and made such a strong mark reporting from Vietnam that Fred Friendly, then chief of CBS news, called the conflict “Morley Safer’s war.” A Safer newsclip, aired on Aug. 5, 1965, showed U.S. Marines setting fire with cigarette lighters to huts in the village of Cam Ne. It was the first major television report to portray the American soldiers as callous and it infuriated U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. There were accounts that he telephoned a CBS executive and said, “One of your boys just shit on the American flag.” As for whether Johnson really reacted that way, Safer said, “I’m assuming that it’s true.”

In general, working for the U.S. networks is demanding and competitive. The staffs are large, and national newscasts run just 22 minutes. Said Bill Morgan, the CBC’s director of TV news and current affairs: “There is not much ice time—and a lot of people have skates on.” Added Montrealer Mark Phillips, now CBS Rome correspondent: “You really have to create your reputation all over again.” Wherever they are, the pace is relentless for most correspondents. Peter Kent, 43, who anchored the CBC national news for two years, now works with NBC’s news program 1986. But he recalls the demands of his previous jobs with CBC

and NBC as a correspondent: “You’re into the old meat grinder. If you show up in London, the desk provides you with a beeper—they’ve got beepers for visiting hacks. They call you and say, ‘You’re on the way to Karachi.’ Last

year I was on the road 80 per cent of the time.”

In addition, Kent said that the future of network correspondents is uncertain because many large affiliate stations are providing extended local news presentations. Saskatchewanborn Keith Morrison, 39, left his job with The Journal earlier this year to

co-anchor the local news at KNBC, Los Angeles. Said Morrison: “There is a lot of talk around that the networks are in decline and that the news function, especially, is one that can be taken over by local stations.” KNBC accompanies NBC’s news show with three hours of its own news, plus a 30-minute, late-evening wrap-up. Morrison is on air 90 minutes each day.

Published reports have said that Morrison earns anywhere from $400,000 to $700,000 to read the Los Angeles news. He himself says that it is less than $400,000. He adds that he likes the job and his station’s ratings are climbing, but the quality of U.S. TV news bothers him. Declared Morrison: “They are in this business to make money, and they’re not concerned with quality as much as the CBC is. Maybe it’s just the Canadian way. I didn’t think there was such a thing until I came here, and now I miss it.”

Quality is a major reason why Robert MacNeil, 55, who was raised in Halifax, remains with PBS. He refused to reveal his salary but said that he has turned down more lucrative offers. He also likes the freedom at PBS. Added MacNeil: “We have an hour of network time, shown all over this continent five nights a week, and we can run it pretty well as we see fit. You don’t have many opportunities like that in television.”

Most Canadians who have jumped into U.S. TV news say that they plan to hang on to their Canadian citizenship. Peter Jennings is an exception. He has been under some pressure to become a U.S. citizen and now, he says, “As long as I have made my home and my career in this country I think the possibilities of becoming an American are pretty strong.” Robert MacNeil is more typical. He hangs on firmly and proudly to the fact that he is a Canadian: “Americans introduce me and say, ‘He was originally from Canada.’ And I say, ‘I’m still from Canada.’ ” Still, the fact remains that whether or not they have strong patriotic sentiments, the Canadians on U.S. networks have been enticed away by the brighter lights and bigger rewards south of the border.

DICK BROWN in Toronto