Anchor away: Journalist Keith Morrison has found success south of the border by Ned Powers

Jul 2, 2003

Source : Saskatoon Star Pheonix

Once considered the leading candidate to succeed Lloyd Robertson as the CTV News national anchor, Keith Morrison played the waiting game for a while and then jumped to a prime-time job with NBC's current affairs program, Dateline.

Morrison, who revisited Saskatoon for two speaking engagements last week, admits the CTV opportunity was attractive but the last time he looked Robertson still hadn't abdicated the throne.

"I was working out of Los Angeles for NBC and, every so often, I would get a call from my friends at CTV," says Morrison. "In 1992, John Cassaday, who was president of CTV, brought me back to Toronto and suggested Lloyd might not renew his contract in 1994. The assumption was wrong because Lloyd signed again.

"Although we worked in the same newsroom, Lloyd and I never talked about what might be ahead for me or when he might retire. Then we went to cover the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Europe in June, 1994, and worked together for a week. We stayed up the last night, sipping what was left in the liquor cabinets and Lloyd left the impression he'd be retiring. When I landed in Toronto, there was Cassaday waiting for me at the airport, with a limousine, champagne in hand and a new contract to sign.

"But strange things happened, and within three or four months, CTV didn't seem to need me and I called NBC again."

He's never regretted his decision to hook up with Dateline.

It has been a rewarding TV journalism career for Morrison, who after once registering for classes at the University of Saskatchewan, still wasn't sure what he wanted to be in life.

"My father, Ernest, was a United Church minister. His brothers were ministers and so was their father. My mother, Margaret, was always an organist and a choir leader. I was interested in religion but after part of one summer as a student minister, I knew it wasn't for me. But I learned from my parents that it was important to think for yourself and to project your feelings," says Morrison.

By a strange coincidence, he started to drive neighbour and former StarPhoenix editor, Eric Knowles, down to his post-retirement stint as a news director at CKOM and it was Knowles who first hired him and opened Morrison's eyes to the world of journalism in 1964.

After radio stints with CKOM and two Regina stations, CJME and CKRM, Morrison joined the newsroom at CFQC in Saskatoon and launched his television career. Later he was employed by BCTV in Vancouver, CFTO in Toronto, the CTV network where he shared in the Canada AM success, then the CBC "where people called me Barbara Frum's live cutaway." He then moved to NBC, returned to CTV and eventually went to Dateline.

"Funny the things you remember," said Morrison. "I was on assignment for The Journal with the CBC and was eating at a restaurant in Sudbury. My friend and I were talking about our desire to stay in the business in Canada. Unbelievably, while we were sitting there, the restaurant telephone rang and at the other end was the president of KNBC in Los Angeles. He asked me to at least come down and have a look. I decided to go and consider it a sabbatical."

Los Angeles was really an eye-opener.

"They didn't really practice journalism the way I learned it with CBC and CTV. Sometimes major stories were ignored because they realized the news shows were getting big enough audiences. We were in a situation where we had local news breaks at 4, 5 and 6 p.m. But ahead of us, Phil Donahue was getting hurt in the ratings badly by Oprah Winfrey, who had just joined ABC. Our profit margin was being reduced.

"A strange thing happened. We had a Vietnam-era helicopter pilot, who would go out and get picturesque, scenic shots we could use as backgrounders for the weather forecasts. One afternoon, he started following a red convertible, being pursued by a police cruiser, and people were standing around and watching this unfold as he fed the pictures back to the control room. Then the station manager walked in and ordered it on the air. From 3:30 until 6 that day, we had the biggest audience for news coverage they'd ever had.

"By the next day, all the stations in Los Angeles had helicopters, and we all know how important helicopters became to the bigtime coverage in later years of the O.J. Simpson chase and the Princess Diana death."

With Dateline, Morrison contributes a piece of 12 minutes, which fits between commercials, up to one as long as the 90-minute program he did on gambling addiction. Although Dateline once appeared as often as five times a week, it now airs twice a week.

Since he and his wife, Suzanne, live in Laguna Beach, he is able to work out of the Los Angeles office.

The story which touched his heart the most was about an American infantryman who went back to Vietnam 32 years later to find the daughter of a North Vietnamese soldier he had killed.

"The young American was drafted, sent to Vietnam immediately in 1968 and on one of his first manouevres, he came face-to-face with a Vietnamese soldier. They looked at each other for seconds and then American shot and killed him. While others were rummaging through the dead soldier's pockets, a photograph fell out and it showed the Vietnamese soldier hugging his baby daughter," says Morrison.

"The incident became an albatross of depression which haunted the American for years. He wanted to find the girl and he tried on his own. Then an ambassador in Vietnam put the photo in a paper. And still it was just by accident that someone in an open-air market just outside of Hanoi saw the picture and recognized the girl who, by then, was an adult woman.

"We went back to Vietnam with him in 2000 and it was one of the most remarkable trips I'd ever taken. The American was full of guilt, pain and tremendous nervousness as we drove out to the village and up to the compound where the woman lived. She was pregnant. The two of them collapsed in each other 's arms and the woman believed the American was the spirit of her father who had come back. It was so heart-warming, so real, and the American still remains in touch with the woman and her brother today.

"The great satisfaction about working for Dateline is that you start at one end, follow it all the way through, structure it, put it all in context and you become a storyteller."

Morrison also returns to Canada to moderate a panel show, The Editors, where he and some big-time journalists sit around a round table and discuss the news and issues of the day.

He says the CBC "sets the standard in news coverage and no one else in North America can match them.

"The CTV, a private network, tries but it also has to recognize the value of commerciality. In the United States, no one has the ability to do what they should do and survive economically. The over-the-air stations are shrinking in importance and the cable stations just haven't been able to jump in and take advantage."

Morrison was born in Lloydminster and since his father was a minister, he lived in Melfort and Edmonton before moving to Saskatoon in 1958.

He vividly remembers a night at CFQC "where one of the roles of a night newsman, aside from doing TV, was to try and find a voice clip the radio station could use in the morning.

"It was just a month after Ross Thatcher and the Liberals lost the provincial election to the NDP in 1971. I called him by chance, he agreed to talk to me and we settled on a time to make the call. I had known him while covering politics and he could be gruff. But, this night, he told me how he was coming to terms with losing the election and he was honest, open and sounded genuinely kind. I left the tape for the morning staff.

"I woke up the next morning to hear that Mr. Thatcher died overnight. I was the last newsman to talk to him."

© Saskatoon Star Phoenix