Joe Schlesinger: Foreign correspondent

Joe Schlesinger, photo:

In today's Special Jan's guest is Joe Schlesinger, one of Canada's most respected journalists, who for years was the CBC's - that is, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's - top foreign correspondent. Fifteen years ago - in 1989 during the fall of communism - Joe Schlesinger's news reports carried special resonance precisely because they marked a return to his homeland Czechoslovakia. As a boy Joe had been sent out of the country to escape the Nazis and the Holocaust. When he returned after the war, he learned his parents had not survived. And, the future looked dim again as Czechoslovakia's communists assumed power. Working then for the AP - the Associated Press -Schlesinger saw the first arrests and decided it was only a matter of time before he'd have to get out.

"I spent two years in hospitals between '46 and '48 and by the time I came out of hospital the Communists had taken over. I was looking around for a job, and the only qualification I had is that I spoke English. So, I got a job with the Associated Press. And, they started arresting people at the bureau: so that was the immediate impulse to leave. Whether I would have left without it, I don't know. I mean, there were a lot of people who had thought over the idea at the time, but didn't do it because it was dangerous. The other thing is that I didn't have any family left, so there was nothing really to hold me, in that sense. My network of friends had also disappeared. So I really had nobody."

The decision to finally leave...

"The first attempt didn't work. I paid a guy who knew his way through Bratislava to Petrzelka on the other side of the Danube... we got across there and we were just about to cross over when we almost ran into a patrol with a dog. We hid and luckily the dog didn't smell us, and we went back to town and couldn't cross that day. But, I tried again in February 1950 and again we paid off someone who knew the area and there was a kind of 'forbidden zone' around the border, but somehow we had got a pass to go through that zone to Ceske Velenice, and on the other side of the river it's Gmund, in Austria. And I went with a girlfriend and walked along the river: this was still early on, so it wasn't as it was later on, but there were machine gun towers that we could see. And, the river was frozen and at some point we just sort of ran across the river and dropped into a ditch on the other side, and we hadn't been seen by anyone in the tower. Because, even if they hadn't gunned us down, this was the Russian zone, the Soviet zone of Austria, so they could have reported us to the Russians who would have picked us up. So, that was it."

You could have stayed in Western Europe, how did the decision to come to Canada come about?

"Oh, my brother was already in Canada. My brother had left in early '48, a couple months after the Communists took over. He left under some sort of scheme for Jewish war orphans coming to Canada, so my brother could get me a visa to Canada. Otherwise, you know, there was a possibility of going to Australia - there were possibilities. But, if you were European Australia seemed very far, far away."

Did you have any idea what life in Canada might be like?

"I don't know but I had some surprises, you know! When I got to Vancouver I remember what is now the Granville Street Bridge which is this soaring concrete structure over Falls Creek: then it was this wooden low level bridge and the street cars would go over the bridge and every time a junk barge passed through the bridge would open and everything would stop and I thought 'My god!'... I mean, the street cars too were kind of wooden-sided and Prague they were much more modern {laughs}! To say nothing that I'd been in London and Paris, Vienna and god knows where else: it just seemed that the New World was very old-fashioned!"

You pursued studies in economics but you had already been bitten by the journalistic bug at with your experience at the Associated Press. You began writing at a university paper: what were some of the more important lessons you learned during this period?

"First of all, I wasn't bitten by the journalistic bug. That just sort of happened by accident, I just sort of wandered into the student newspaper and before I knew it I was the editor of it, so, that sort of did that, I suppose. It was a student newspaper so the tone was much lighter: the homecoming festival, and football games, and all sorts of entertainment were important. It was kind of fun. It wasn't all about invasions, disasters, and coups, and war."

Gradually you began considering a serious career in journalism: what was the turning point?

"Oh, the Ubyssey was a student newspaper, but while I was doing that I also got a night job with the Vancouver Sun., on the police beat. So, I covered all sorts of night police stuff: robberies and accidents and stuff like that. And, I quickly realised that Vancouver, in the newspaper business that I was in, it was just too parochial, it was the end of line in the news business. So, I struck out for Toronto and got a job at the CBC for a while, then at McClean-Hunter, then at the Toronto Star. In those days journalists in Canada went overseas for a couple years, you went to London and you worked for either Reuters or UPI or something or other and then you came back. So, I went to London and got a job. Then I was offered a job at the Herald Tribune in Paris, met my wife in Paris, we were married, our kids were born there, and, I probably would have stayed there if it hadn't been for the fact that Paris life was great. Paris is great for lovers but not so great if you were raising little kids. I moved back to Canada with my family, got a job at the CBC as foreign editor, then, later they came and offered me a job as executive producer of 'The National', which was their main news programme, so... And I became the head of CBC TV News, then decided that news management was not what I wanted to do and went abroad, to Hong Kong, Paris... Washington and Berlin, you know..."

How did you find, for instance, the transition from working in print to working in broadcasting?

"I managed it; there's a great difference but I started in television at the production end, as an editor, not as a correspondent, not as a reporter, so I saw what reporters were doing. I think I learned that way and when I went out into the field I guess I just took to it."

When you're covering a conflict like Vietnam is there anything, any kind of 'school' that can prepare you for that kind of reporting? I expect it must be an experience like no other...

"Yes it is, but, there are two things: one, I used to tell myself 'you survived Hitler, you survived Stalin, so the rest was sort of child's play after that'. That was one thing. The other thing I also realised when I was boss of CBC TV News: I had a young reporter, Bobby Scafino, who wanted to go to Vietnam and I said to him 'Bobby, you're 29 years-old, you have a wife and two kids and another one on the way, there's no way I'm going to send you to a war zone.' So, we sent him on some assignment to Northern Ontario, in a small plane, and on the way back they crashed and it killed him. And, I decided, well, if you're going to die, you're going to die. So off I went to Vietnam even though I was married and had two kids. It just seemed to me that you do what you have to do and you follow your gut instincts."

Vietnam,  photo:
I imagine as well that many of the stories that you covered and that many of the people that you met, whether it was in Vietnam or El Salvador, or elsewhere, that those stories have stayed with you.

"Oh yes, definitely you know... you can go to whatever part of the world you want, whatever conflict you want and you will see things that always seem to say the same: that, that there are the 'losers' and the 'winners' and that the 'losers' can suffer for no reason at all. The winners, well, there is a certain amount of common elements to all of them: the way they handle it, the way they handle themselves, they way they impose themselves, whether they are Left or Right."

What about moments of great historic importance: Gorbachev's reforms: perestroika and glasnost?

"You know, I was there when Gorbachev came to Washington, I was with Reagan in Moscow, and I was there in 1987 when Reagan was in Berlin and made his speech about 'tear down that wall, Mr Gorbachev'. And I remember thinking at the time 'that's not very likely to happen very soon.' And, of course, it did!"

November 1989
I was one of the many Canadians of Czech descent who watched you reporting from Prague in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution: what was it like to be there at that time, to experience something you never thought would happen?

"I think it was one of the great moments of my life. I had to leave the country twice. And in all that time between the time I left in '39, and the time I came back in '89, Czechoslovakia had a rough, rough time. First the Nazis, then the Communists: finally, I was able to return, and watch that 'era', that tyranny - the last of it - vanish. It was a kind of a personal vindication."