It's always a heady rush when Canadian journalists fly south to greater opportunities in a United States that admires their talents. Our chests swell when expats like Peter Jennings and Morley Safer survive the sharks and emerge as American icons.
The trumpets, however, play only mutely when Canadian stars come home, as a couple of high-profile people recently have done.
Celebrity anchorman and investigator Bob McKeown left CBC's the fifth estate for a job offer at CBS in 1991. His first posting was the Gulf War, where he was the first reporter to arrive in beseiged Kuwait City. He then became a chief correspondent for NBC's Dateline newsmagazine.
Now he's . . . back at the fifth estate?
"My wife and I thought [the U.S.]would be an adventure for a couple of years," says McKeown, who returned to Canada last month. "Then, lo and behold, 12 years later, we were still there. It dawned on us that if we wanted to go home again, we'd have to make it happen fast."
Just last week, Gillian Findlay, who left CBC a decade ago to become a Moscow- and Jerusalem-based correspondent for ABC, returned to Toronto to resume her CBC career on the newsmagazine Disclosure. "From a family point of view, we had to come home," says Findlay, whose children were all born abroad. "The kids visited their relatives here, and they wanted to be Canadian."
She evokes the image of her son playing computer hockey games under the hot Jerusalem sun by way of keeping up with his cousins back home. McKeown speaks of his nostalgia for Ottawa, where both he and his wife Sheilagh D'Arcy McGee were born, and where they bought a home last spring near Kingsmere in the Gatineaus.
Others down south pine for home. Kevin Tibbles, who started his career at CBLT-TV in Toronto, leaped to the dream job of NBC correspondent in London in 1995, and moved to Chicago two years ago as an NBC correspondent. But he and his Quebec-born wife, novelist Marie-Andrée Laberge, are feeling the pull back to Canada. "Am I angling to come back to Canada? I'm like a Newfoundlander, I'm always angling for a way to get back home," laughs Tibbles.
Are these people home (or on their way) because their careers didn't work out? Apparently not. All reached good jobs in organizations bigger and better-funded than any they could find here. " Dateline is a show which can turn out an in-depth hour of programming on 48 hours notice," sighs McKeown. " The fifth estate will never be able to do that. Think of it: 400 people work for Dateline."
Findlay's situation was different: She was hired by ABC to fill overseas posts and was never posted back to the U.S. "For me, it's not that I rejected becoming American," says Findlay. "After all, I never actually lived there."
For McKeown, the decision was much tougher. After 12 years in New York, his attachment to the place was deep. But there were problems that ran deeper still -- including the matter of U.S. patriotism. "There's a jingoism in wartime that's not in our blood as Canadians," says McKeown. "I remember when covering the Gulf War, one day Dan Rather said to Connie Chung, 'Join me now, Connie, in saluting our fighting men.' And he saluted. Can you imagine Peter Mansbridge doing something like that?"
After Sept. 11, a profound shock ran through an America that had felt such a thing could never happen to it. "For the first six months in New York, it was hard to talk about it without tears coming," says McKeown. But with the passage of time, he came to feel that rather than leading to introspection or fresh thinking, the terrorist attacks had caused American attitudes to harden.
In his own household, however, there was a great deal of soul-searching. "It caused Sheila and I to reflect on what I wanted to do." He will, however, greatly miss working for Dateline. He came aboard the show in 1993 when it was undergoing a major makeover. The previous year, it had attracted scandal when it was accused (falsely, says McKeown) of faking tests on Ford vehicles in the famous exploding gas-tank story. NBC, afraid the show would fold, invited Andy Lack to come from CBS to restore its credibility. Lack brought McKeown and several other journalists with him.
"Andy hired smart people. To be different from 60 Minutes, our competition, he based the show on creative tension, where people could speak as equals. At Dateline, you didn't have people yelling at each other," he says, alluding to the famously fractious 60 Minutes house style.
And Dateline could afford to send him immediately to any story, anywhere in the world. "There's an animal enjoyment in covering hurricanes and seeing the human condition in warfare," he says.
McKeown disputes the widespread notion that American TV news has declined or become sensationalistic in recent years. "There's more bad," he says, "but also more good."
Pressed about a couple of stories he was involved in that attracted criticism, he admits to reservations. " Dateline is in a more competitive market [than Canada] so sometimes they had to respond to that." When a Puerto Rican parade in New York got out of hand and some women had their clothes stripped off, Dateline was criticized for repeatedly running amateur video footage of the semi-naked women. "Let's just say that's probably an example of a story I am glad I don't have to do any more," he says.
Findlay agrees that "there is that trend" to sensationalizing the news south of the border. Working for "conservative" shows like Nightline, she feels she was spared the worst of it. "But I have to say there were long periods of time in Moscow and Jerusalem when we couldn't get on [the air]for love or money," she observes sardonically. "The O. J. Simpson trial shut us out for months. I'd watch it, trying to get a sense of what it was about, and I have to say I was just shaking my head."
Findlay and McKeown were both attracted by CBC's new emphasis on serious current-affairs programming. The fifth estate is returning to a format of hour-long investigations of one subject, and Disclosure is moving away from the zippy, hyped-up style it used last year. "It was a big factor for me," says McKeown, "that CBC decided the fifth estate was going to take the high road."