Joe Schlesinger celebrates career telling Canada about the world

Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger caps his 65 years in reporting Tuesday night with an award for lifetime achievement from the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger caps his 65 years in reporting Tuesday night with an award for lifetime achievement from the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Schlesinger, now 81, worked as a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. He has examined Canadian foreign policy under prime ministers, from Pierre Trudeau to Jean Chrétien.

He was in Russia with former U.S. president Richard Nixon, in Vietnam when troops were on the ground, in Tehran when the Shah fell and in St. Peter's Square when John Paul II became Pope.

The jury that selected Schlesinger for the honour cited his reporting for its fairness, accuracy and intelligence.

Schlesinger himself speaks of getting the "heartbeat" of a story — of finding a way to tell it so viewers, or listeners, identify with what is happening.

"I could tell you a story from the earthquake in Italy. I've [reported on] earthquakes before and after. What you do is you have wide shots of the town, you have medium shots of the ruins and people crying or being dug out, etc., " he said in an interview with CBC News.

"And I saw a group of people around one hole in the ground and there was a little boy in there — you could hear his voice. You couldn't see him. So I decided to forgo all the rest of the day and just stay with that little boy. And they had no tools. There was a lot of arguing…. Italians can be quite voluble."

"I spent most of the day and they finally managed to extricate this little boy. They lifted him out of that hole like a newborn baby. As they do that, we stand there transfixed. This kid was born over again."

Holocaust survivor

Schlesinger has been officially retired for more than 15 years, but continues to contribute to the CBC.

He says he's still curious about the world and the way it works, just as he was as a child.

Schlesinger was born in Vienna in 1928 and raised in the former Czechoslovakia. He and his family were living in Bratislava in the late 1930s, and witnessed the rise of Hitler.

His parents decided to send him and his younger brother to Britain in 1939, under a program that invited Jewish children to study and board with local families. That decision saved their lives — his parents were killed in the Holocaust.

Schlesinger remembers listening at his school to the BBC broadcast to his majesty's ships at sea in an effort to follow the war.

"On [one] particular day, I added something — they both spoke of sea and air battles in the channel and I thought, 'It's finally started,' and when the kids came down for breakfast, they were all kidding me and asked me if I'd been dreaming because there was nothing on the radio," he recalled.

"Then two or three hours later, the BBC broke into its programming with a statement signed by some American general named Eisenhower, saying that the D-Day landing had started in Normandy and I had myself a real scoop."

Schlesinger joined the services and returned with his brother to Czechoslovakia after the war.

One of his earliest journalism jobs was with the The Associated Press in Prague in 1948. Two years later, the Communists began arresting journalists and colleagues warned him to leave. He slipped out of the country and applied to immigrate to Canada.

In Canada, he landed in Vancouver, where he worked as waiter, construction worker and seaman before studying at University of British Columbia. He started working for the campus newspaper, which led to a job at a Vancouver newspaper.

Schlesinger went to the Toronto Star, to UPI in London, to the Herald Tribune in Paris and then back to Canada, where he started at the CBC in 1966.

'You've lost that connection'

Schlesinger says journalism hasn't changed substantially in all those years, but that new technology has encouraged news organizations to spend less on foreign correspondents.

"Canadian reporters don't go out as much as they used to, where they can relate to Canadian things. You've lost that connection," he said.

Organizations use canned images, and sometimes ask their reporters to write from well back of the actual action, just because that is possible, he said.

"At a time when we need to know as much as we can about the outside world, because it affects our lives, we're pulling out. Partly because of money, partly because of technology. It's so easy to do it without feet on the ground," Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger's memoirs, Time Zones, were published in 1990.

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean will present Schlesinger with his award Tuesday evening.