MEDIA

Message from a worldwide network

When Canadian correspondents join the big leagues, few miss the comforts of home

Roy MacGregor April 27 1981
MEDIA

Message from a worldwide network

When Canadian correspondents join the big leagues, few miss the comforts of home

Roy MacGregor April 27 1981

Message from a worldwide network

MEDIA

When Canadian correspondents join the big leagues, few miss the comforts of home

Roy MacGregor

Welcome to the global village. In a moment the last crackle of head-office instruction will clear the transatlantic lines and the headphones on Mike Boultbee will pick up the live cue from Washington: “For that story we go to our foreign desk in London and Peter Jennings ... Peter?” A red light will come on over Boultbee’s camera, the signal that Jennings may now explain the world beyond America to some 40 million Americans. Thanks to cable and border overlap, several hundred thousand Canadians will also be watching, a fairly insignificant perk to the huge ABC television network, but a vitally important one to the two men in the London studio. In a small way, they are calling home. Jenning’s mother will be watching in Ottawa, Boultbee’s old friends in Vancouver.

This is not passing coincidence. During the biggest news celebration of this year, when the 52 released American hostages landed at Algiers, they were met not by former president Jimmy Carter as he had hoped, but by ABC’s Cairo correspondent, Doreen Kays, the network’s Johannesburg man, Mike McCourt, and Jacques Grenier of the Paris bureau. Those are just their current addresses. Kays used to be from Charlottetown, McCourt from Saskatoon and Grenier from Quebec City.

On that particular story, the Canadians were forced to share. As for a real scoop—the first interview with Cynthia Dwyer, the so-called 53rd hostage—it went to another American network, CBS, after an enterprising reporter named John Blackstone outmanoeuvred ABC’s chartered Lear jet and managed to book himself and a film crew onto Dwyer’s flight when she touched down in Zurich, Switzerland. Her first words, given en route to the United States, went to a native of Goderich, Ont.

The Canadians are not always as easy to spot as they were in Tehran where, anxious not to be mistaken for Americans, they proudly wore maple leaves. Away from Iran they are identifiable only through their invaluable passports, yet they range widely from a CBS free-lancer in South Africa ( London, Ontario’s Allen Pizzey),to a high-powered Paris producer for CBS’s flagship 60Minutes ( Vancouver’s Barry Landau). There was even a point, earlier this year, when all three American network representatives in South Africa were Canadians—Pizzey, ABC’s McCourt, and NBC’s Peter Kent. That ended last month when Kent, the former reader of CBC’s The National news, resigned in frustration to return to Canada and the CBC’s upcoming evening news program, The Journal. “They lost interest in Africa,” Kent says of NBC. “When they lost interest in Africa, I lost interest in them.”

Kent originally left seeking “a new adventure.” It sounds romantic, but that most people would prefer to join the correspondents only from their living rooms is hardly surprising. Some of the TV journalists, like Grenier and Pizzey, spend fully 75 per cent of their time on the road; others have marriages to worry about, and all too often they find themselves in places—Afghanistan, Iran, most of Africa—where one is, in the words of U.S. foreign correspondent Michael Herr, “living too close to my bones.” Beyond all that, however, lies the chance of one day ending up in the gargantuan salary brackets of 60 Minutes co-host Morley Safer, a former CBC television reporter, or with the peer respect of Robert MacNeil, who rose to PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Report from a start in a Halifax radio station.

Today’s Canadian-American star, of course, is Jennings, who moved from Washington to London four years ago as ABC’s chief foreign correspondent. The son of the late Charles Jennings, former CBC network chief, Jennings was pulling down $25 a week when he was all j)f 9 years old, hosting a CBC children’s show called Peter’s Program. At 24 he was CTV anchorman, based in Ottawa. “That was no way to make a career,” he says. “If you’re going to make a really great broadcast journalist you’ve got to get out and be a reporter.” So he did, joining ABC in 1964.

The others came to their present postings by various routes: Blackstone was discovered by a “talent spotter”; Grenier “bugged their ass” until ABC gave him a first,and entirely successful, chance on probation. For Mike McCourt, a bit older than the others at 38, it was a case of “reaching a peak,” having moved from CTV’s chief Ottawa correspondent to Washington, with nowhere to go but upstairs to oblivion. “It’s not the fault of anyone,” he says, “but it’s akin to the big leagues and the minor leagues.”

The attractions are obvious. The standard correspondent’s pay runs between $40,000 and $75,000 (Jennings, as an anchorman, is said to make at least twice that) with generous cost-of-living allowances ranging from $15,000 to $25,000—all of it tax-free. (American reporters’ interest in these jobs has fallen off significantly since the Carter administration cancelled this tax break for U.S. citizens.) Both Kent and Jennings, however, initially took salary cuts to join the American networks. “It’s true there’s much more money available,” Jennings says, “but that’s not even one per cent of the consideration in deciding to go south. It’s things like wider experience and opportunity to work with superb technical facilities such as the global satellite operation.”

“If New York decides a story is important,” says Grenier, “then cost is not important. If I were working for a Canadian network in Europe I wouldn’t have gone to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Algeria—I would have been covering the constitutional debate.” That is a statement echoed by the other correspondents, though none goes as far as Allen Pizzey, who slams Canadian news interests as “unutterably boring.”

Ironically, it is the superb training provided by CBC and CTV that leads to the networks losing their creations. There is also, of course, the not-insignificant matter of passports, with Canadians often given access to areas that have been closed to Americans. “Canadian passport holders are hired guns,” says Peter Kent. “There are limits to how high one can go in the States.” Kent learned the hard way: eager for an NBC posting to Moscow, he discovered his employer would prefer to be represented by an American point of view.

It has been four decades since Time’s China correspondent Teddy White tacked the following sign in his Chungking office: “Any resemblance to what is written here and what is printed in Time magazine is purely coincidental.” Today’s Canadian foreign correspondents say they are under no editorial sway whatsoever. “Nobody ever says do it this way or that,” says ABC’s Grenier. “They trust your judgment—that’s why they hire you.” And in hiring them, their networks say, no thought is ever given to nationalityjust ability.

“I never felt any particular effect,” says Morley Safer of his Canadian perspective (he remains a Canadian citizen). “In a certain way I feel kind of stateless and that’s not a bad feeling.” Robert MacNeil (also still a Canadian citizen) disagrees: “I think being from Canada has always given me a somewhat more detached and unhysterical view of the Cold War than many American journalists have. We are also a bridge into the pysches and minds of Third World peoples through our ties with the Commonwealth. Canadians can talk to them through shared experiences in a way the Americans and Europeans find difficult.”

“I find I can be more objective as a Canadian about issues that impinge on American interests,” says CBS’s Barry Landau. “For instance, Iran —I don’t have an immediate nationalistic response when they burn the American flag.” ABC’s John McKenzie agrees: “It isn’t the good guys and the bad guys. Canada has been middle of the road in international affairs, which adds a new perspective. I think it’s different—but I’m not sure it’s appreciated.”

Peter Kent, for one, was irritated by the American preoccupation with “spectacular events like war. Some important stories are ignored or covered in only a shallow way.” That Kent is returning to Canada does not, however, indicate a trend. Even when one of these “graduates” would like to come home, as in the case of Peter Jennings, the arms seem more often crossed than open. “Maybe they think I’m going to demand huge amounts of money,” he says with some bitterness, “but I know that I’d be lucky to get a third of my present salary. That’s not the point. What bugs me is the way you send out a message and get silence.” Last spring, knowing his ABC contract was up for renegotiation and also aware of the CBC’s plans for The Journal, Jennings dropped a note to CBC officials in Toronto. All he got out of it was a dinner —at his expense—and “absolute silence” for a year. After Jennings learned second hand that Peter Kent had the job, he signed up for three more years with ABC.

“When I told them I was going,” recalls Morley Safer, “the response was, ‘Oh, really?’ In a certain way, the people who run television in Canada don’t take it very seriously. ‘You can always find another body to fill a hole’ is the way of thinking. And if that body is very good you might lose that body as well.”

With files from Patrick Keatley in London, Lawrence O'Toole in New York, Caryle Murphy in Johannesburg and Catherine Rodd in Toronto.