Media

The little, lost Africa corps

Ken Becker November 26 1979
Media

The little, lost Africa corps

Ken Becker November 26 1979

The little, lost Africa corps

Media

In 1974, Doreen Kays, a local CBC Montreal television reporter, visited Toronto to be interviewed for a national correspondent’s job in Winnipeg. Working for The National, she figured, would be the first step to better assignments and what she really wanted: a posting abroad. She didn’t get the job. In 1975, and again in 1977, Arden Ostrander, a local CTV-affiliate reporter in

Vancouver, travelled to Toronto. He too saw either a trench coat or a safari suit in his future. He too failed to impress the honchos in Toronto. In 1978, Peter Kent gave up his $60,000-a-year job as The National's anchorman and returned to reporting. Like Kays and Ostrander, he was after a glamorous international posting, but he knew he had the clout to get it. Since there wasn’t a full-scale war anywhere, he chose Africa. And when he arrived there, he found that Kays and Ostrander were there first.

Together they are Canadian television’s Africa corps: Kays, 38, of Charlottetown; Ostrander, 32, of Regina; and Kent, 36, born to Canadian parents in wartime England, raised in Calgary. Three homegrown products beaming home the news from across the sea. It seemingly augurs well for the Canadian television viewer, but there’s a problem: Kays reports for ABC, Ostrander for CBS and, beginning Jan. 1, Kent for NBC.

All three, in interviews from Africa

this month, voiced resentment, touched with remorse, that they are not using their talents for a Canadian audience. Kays and Ostrander were never given a chance. Kent says he was never given the resources to do the job right. “The CBC runs a very modest international operation,” Kent said from Johannesburg. “Politics, money, conflicting priorities always seem to muddy the waters

of the news program.” And at NBC? “Well, there, when a big story breaks, you charter a jet, bring in the troops, hire the satellite, and go live from somebody’s backyard.”

Kent can criticize Canadian television, the CBC and anything else he cares to. He is an established star, the journalist-celebrity. Not so with Kays and Ostrander. “They were lucky enough to break away and make it,” says Kent. “But a lot of other journalistic and creative corpses have been strewn across Canada by some of the turkeys in Toronto.”

When Kays was interviewed for the CBC Winnipeg job, she had been with the company eight years. Before that she had worked for The Chronicle Herald in Halifax. She had the background, the attractiveness television demands, the skills. “I still don’t know why I was turned down,” she said from Cairo. “But after that I figured, the hell with this.”

When the Montreal Olympic Games were over, she took a year’s leave of absence. She went to Brussels. “I always saw my future either in New York, Europe or the Mideast,” she says. “But it was apparent nobody in Canada was going to send me there.” (When she told the CBC she spoke Arabic, she was advised she would never get a Mideast post because her Lebanese ancestry would make her biased.) ABC hired her one week after her leave of absence ran out. On Nov. 1,1977, she became the network’s Cairo correspondent. “ABC apparently saw something in me and took a risk. Americans take risks.”

If Kays was a gamble, Ostrander was a long shot. In 1977, Ostrander left Vancouver for Europe. He had $600 in his jeans and a ticket to London. His résumé showed a couple of years at radio stations in Prince George, B.C., and three years in local Vancouver television news. He stopped in Toronto en route to give the Canadian networks a last shot. “It was: don’t call us and we certainly won’t call you,” he recalls.

Less than a week after arriving in London he was working for ABC. “I was lucky,” he said from Johannesburg. “But I also think they liked the idea of a guy travelling 7,000 miles with little more than enough confidence in himself that he’d succeed.” For the next two years Ostrander covered major stories all over Western Europe, the Soviet Union, the Mideast and Africa. Last spring, CBS called. In June he was assigned to Johannesburg as a reporterproducer. Now, he says, all that’s left is getting to Nairobi, to Ahmed Tailors, “the place where they make the definitive safari suit.”

What has all this taught Arden Ostrander? “Beware of what you want, in case you get it.” And what has it shown once again about the U.S. networks, which already have Morley Safer (CBS), Peter Jennings (ABC), Robert MacNeil (PBS) and scores of other talented Canadian journalists? Says Kays’s boss, ABC news director Stan Opotowsky: “We tend to forget whether a person’s Canadian or American. It just doesn’t matter.”

And what does it say to the Canadian networks? “Well,” says CTV news director Tim Kotcheff: “I guess it’s give and take. Americans come up here, Canadians go down there. When I was with CBC didn’t we get Jim Bitterman from NBC?” True enough. But Bitterman is now an NBC correspondent in Europe.

Ken Becker