One of the great correspondents of my generation, Joe Schlesinger, died on February 11th at his home in Toronto. He celebrated his 90th birthday last May. This was a milestone that few of us thought that he’d reach given how many physical and health obstacles he’d overcome.
So many of the tributes and accolades, especially from younger reporters who’d had the privilege of working with him or around him in his later years, portrayed him as a kindly, generous and mellowed avuncular presence.
But the Joe Schlesinger I treasured working with in the field and tried to manage when I was the Chief News Editor of CBC News was no pussycat. He was a tenacious and competitive journalist.
Hell had no fury like Schlesinger when he couldn’t find the story that he thought would explain and illuminate a big international event that the world’s media were also covering. He wasn’t prepared to file a Canadian variation of what the others, especially the American Networks were sending by satellite to their viewers. He had higher standards and expected anyone working with or for him to provide the pictures and logistical support to enable him to deliver a memorable television report. He would rip into cameramen who failed to capture on video what he had seen with his own eyes and planned on writing to in his inimitable style. I had to drag one cameraman out of his hotel room after Schlesinger had fumed after a screening session of the day’s raw video footage. I feared carnage.
He didn’t like criticism but the most withering thing that you could say to him after he showed you a draft of his script was ” This is good Schlesinger but not great Schlesinger.” He’d rip the script out of your hand, say something insulting, and retreat to rewrite it. Invariably it was great Schlesinger. I recall time and again taking a finished Schlesinger piece to what was then called the feed point where we would (often frantically) send by satellite the video report to Toronto in time for The National. These feed points were usually paid for and operated by one of the American Networks. They agreed to feed the CBC reports after their own nightly news programmes had been serviced. The editors and technicians would watch Schlesinger’s piece being fed and say something to the effect of ” that’s the first time that we’ve understood this story.”
We worked together in El Salvador covering that violent civil war. In the run-up to the elections there, Schlesinger was restless. He had not found a way of capturing the mood in a country run by a blood-thirsty regime propped up by the United States and under siege by a vicious guerrilla group. He didn’t like much how we proposed to tell the story. He wandered off by himself to try and figure out what was happening on the ground independent of the news conferences and government pronouncements. When
he came back hours later he was beaming. I’ve got it he said. He’d found a middle-aged man who’d told him that if he didn’t have a visible show of ink on his fingers that he needed to display in order to vote that the government he feared would kill him. But if he did have the ink on his fingers and anti-government, pro-rebel sympathisers spotted him, they might also kill him. ” Fear,” Joe Schlesinger said was the ” common denominator in this election. He had found his story.
He always saw the world and its conflicts through the eyes of the refugee that he had been. It gave him an empathy, an understanding and insight that most other reporters lacked. I remember, again in El Salvador, a report that he did based on the grotesque accounts of the torture and murder of human rights activists. He turned the pages of this book of atrocities and described on camera what had happened to these victims. That deep, Czech -accented voice quivering.