'I know enough about anthrax to make it in my basement," jokes Colleen McEdwards from CNN's Moscow bureau.
Earlier this week, the Canadian journalist, who left the CBC for CNN in 1997, had reported on two anthrax stories in Russia: the discovery of anthrax spores in a diplomatic bag sent to the U.S. consulate in the city of Yekaterinburg and the revelation of a covered-up anthrax accident at a germ-warfare laboratory in the same area 22 years ago. At least 68 people died. "It's the place where the world got a taste of what inhalation anthrax can do," she explains.
Hired by CNN to anchor World News from the network's headquarters in Atlanta, she is currently filling in for the Moscow bureau chief, who is taking 1½ months off. It's the end of her day, close to 7 p.m., and she sounds tired.
"How old am I?" she checks with a colleague seated beside her when I ask. "37? Yeah, I'm 37," she confirms with a chuckle.
She's the only on-air reporter in the bureau of 20 people, which means she files segments not just for CNN's domestic network, broadcast in North America, but for CNN International, which airs two newscasts in Europe and Asia.
McEdwards is one of a number of Canadians who have joined CNN's vast news organization of more than 4,000 employees worldwide in 43 bureaus. Fellow Canadians include CNN reporter Sheila MacVicar, CNN International's Jonathan Mann and Rosey Edeh, the three-time Olympic hurdler and sprinter who has recently been hired as the network's entertainment and weather anchor.
But if McEdwards fits the stereotype of the Canadian who heads off to bright lights and big ambitions in the United States, she is surprisingly unfocused about her ultimate goal.
"It's true that you don't survive in this business if you don't have some ambition," she concedes, but "I always ask myself simple questions, like: Am I still growing? Do I still love what I do? Does my work have meaning? I don't have a plan. I take my temperature every morning, figuratively speaking. I feel in my body whether what I'm doing is right."
Spoken like a true and earnest Canadian. She certainly doesn't sound like a hard-bitten news hound. "Well, we're not all the same," she counters.
Which, of course, is a shrewd comment, and a politically astute one, given that she works for CNN. It's a good place for broadcast journalists who don't fit the mould, either physically or otherwise. Most networks have a distinguishable on-air "look." Moses Znaimer at CITY-TV has his Benetton nation of ethnically diverse reporters. The ABCs of the world have their chiselled males and their blow-dried babes.
But CNN? Well, they've got Greta van Susteren, host of The Point, whose sharp questions only partly make up for her bad hair and tendency to speak out of the side of her mouth. They've got Larry King, who must be the most popular untelegenic interviewer on the air, and Aaron Brown, with his bottle-brown hair and denture-like teeth, who is known for the way he puzzles his way through a story like Joe America. Paula Zahn, the pretty and smartly suited morning person recently recruited from Fox, is glaringly un-CNN because she's so, well, traditionally news-anchory.
McEdwards acknowledges the "real people" hiring practices of CNN. "Greta wouldn't be Greta if she combed her hair," she says with a laugh. "If she did, you'd be shocked."
McEdwards understands that CNN's more unconventional on-air choices work to her advantage, especially as a woman. "CNN values experience. That's pretty obvious when you look on-air, especially with the women. They don't fulfill the stereotype in this business that once you're 40, you're off the air, and that you have to be this blow-dried, bleached-blond thing. The women on CNN are not just young twinkies."
McEdwards, the younger of two sisters, grew up in a small farming community, Puslinch, just outside Guelph, Ont. Her family -- which she describes as "your typical WASP mix of Irish, Scottish and a bit of German thrown in" -- had farmed in the area for more than 100 years. Her parents built a house on a farm owned by her grandparents. They still live there.
McEdwards attended local schools, then went on to graduate from the nearby University of Waterloo with a degree in English literature. Bookish as a child, she thought she'd study for a PhD, become a writer or work in a publishing house.
"I remember going to one of those job-fair things in high school and hearing people talk about journalism. I thought it sounded really dumb," she says.
As part of a university co-op program, designed to give students experience in the workplace, she did a stint at CKCO in neighbouring Kitchener. "I got a job as a beginner writer. It was completely by accident. But I got the bug. I loved having that front-row seat on the news."
After graduation, she worked for a CTV affiliate in New Brunswick for three years, then moved to Windsor, Ont., to report for the local CBC Television station. Laid off as part of the widespread cuts in 1990, McEdwards left for Eastern Europe, where she freelanced for a year, filing stories mostly for CBC.
"It was such an interesting time to be there, right after the collapse of communism. . . . I've always had this fascination with Eastern Europe. I like it in the same way you like a bad boyfriend. They can be really bad to you but you like them anyway."
A year later, she returned to Toronto, where she covered the Ontario legislature for CBC-TV. By the time she left for CNN, she was anchoring CBC Toronto's late-evening local newscast, CBC Late Night News.
"I loved the CBC. It was a fantastic training ground, and I felt nurtured, but the opportunities were getting a little thin." She acquired an agent in the United States who helped her land the CNN job. She will not divulge her salary.
Her current agent is the high-powered Ken Lindner in Los Angeles, who represents many rising media personalities, such as Matt Lauer of NBC's Today Show, Julie Moran of Entertainment Tonight and Elizabeth Vargas of ABC's 20/20.
Even though CNN's all-news-all-the-time mantra requires a faster turnaround for stories, McEdwards doesn't feel that her journalistic principles have been compromised.
"If someone wants you to do a live shot and you don't have the material, you just say no," she explains. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, doesn't CNN, which has the potential to broadcast panic as much as it does information, have an added responsibility not to terrorize people with unconfirmed information or freelance speculation from so-called experts?
"CNN has people who monitor our air, who give us guidance and make sure information about, say, anthrax is properly contextualized," McEdwards says. "[CNN]is a pretty awesome machine, and it's awesome to see it up and running."
She defends the evolving-story method of CNN. "What the viewer at home is seeing [on CNN]is the grist of news, news as it unfolds. That means there are going to be times that an official tells us something that gets on air and then it turns out to be wrong, but that's not really about someone not checking it out. That's just about seeing the story develop before your eyes."
Still, that approach assumes viewers are sophisticated enough to understand an evolving story from a factually concrete one.
"Yeah," she agrees. "You have to give the public a lot of credit." Which she does, without hesitation, she says. The journalistic skills that have been challenged -- and improved -- since her move to CNN is "my ability to assimilate information . . . to work without script and to be sane and accurate [with shorter lead times]"
McEdwards had been asking for a chance to cover news from the Moscow bureau because she likes to be "out in the field," and Russia has always fascinated her. In 1986, she spent a year in Moscow and Leningrad studying Russian. The Moscow request is not part of some calculated attempt to further her ascendancy at CNN, she says. She is simply fulfilling journalistic curiosity.
"It's fascinating to watch the new relationship between [U.S. President George W.]Bush and [Russian President Vladimir]Putin. I'm just about to interview an academic to ask him how real he feels this new cozy relationship with the States is."
Beneath all her journalist-of-the-world success, McEdwards, who has travelled extensively, has never cut off her Canadian roots, however. When in Atlanta, she commutes every second week back to Toronto, where she owns a house with her common-law husband of 11 years, National Post sportswriter Scott Burnside.
"It's not for everybody," she says of her long-distance romantic life. To keep in touch from Moscow, "We e-mail and talk on the phone a million times a day," she says, laughing.
Would she ever consider moving back to Toronto? "Absolutely," she asserts without a pause. "It's a great city. I would never say never."
Canada must be something that just feels good in her bones.