Acclaimed journalist looking for action

One of the best reporters in Canada, or anywhere else, can’t get a job.

Why? Beats the hell out of me. I’m not about to play shrink to the managers of human resources in the news biz.

I do know that during nearly 30 years with Canadian Press, Stephen Thorne earned three National Newspaper Awards and a passel of other prizes for his work, mainly stories of disaster and war.

He was with the first wave of Canadian Forces into Afghanistan in 2002 and chronicled their hunt for Osama bin Laden.

He covered the 1985 Arrow Air crash that killed 248 U.S. soldiers in Gander, Newfoundland; the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 that killed 229 off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia; ships sinking, a deadly mine explosion.

That is his special talent – reporting from dangerous places, being on the scene when the stench of death is strongest, working his ass off, instinctively ingesting the key elements of the story, and writing it well.

But something happened. He stopped getting the prized assignments. He drove his bosses crazy.

That’s partly my fault. In the late ’80s, I was Ontario news editor for CP. Thorne was among the 20 or so reporter/editors working for me.

Traditionally, they all rotated through reporting and editing shifts. I changed that. Thorne became a fulltime reporter.

“I won’t run a newsroom like my kid’s T-ball team,” I told the bureau chief. “You get to the majors, not everybody gets to hit cleanup.”

Whatever the top story was that day, I sent Thorne to cover it.

When the Dubin inquiry – into Ben Johnson and the other dopes and dopers – convened in January 1989, Thorne covered all 10 months of the public hearings. His daily wrapups were consistently solid.

As it turned out, Thorne and I did not work together for very long.

Personal business precipitated his move to his hometown of Halifax, to the CP bureau there.

My time as news editor expired when the woman I was filling in for returned from pregnancy leave.

By then, I was in my mid-40s and CP was on a youth kick. (Thorne would later be in the same boat.)

I lasted another few years at the news agency before taking a buyout.

Thorne, meanwhile, was lighting up the CP wire from Halifax.

In 1995, he earned his first National Newspaper Award with the tale of all 30 people aboard a sinking cargo ship being rescued – one at a time – by a navy corporal lowered from a helicopter.

In 1998, his reports from the gruesome scene off Peggy’s Cove garnered his second NNA, with a story that sent chills through readers. It began:

The lives of the 229 passengers and crew who died aboard Swissair Flight 111 float by in 100,000 tiny pieces.

A running shoe. A baseball cap. An eyeglass case. An open book.

On the windswept sea 10 kilometres southwest of this postcard place, the acrid smell of jet fuel is almost overpowering; the blunt, visceral reality of death is all about, washed clean by the constantly rolling ocean.

And always there are the reminders.

Purses. Suitcases. A shaving kit. Documents with names and Swiss addresses.

Thorne moved to CP’s Ottawa bureau the next year and became the go-to guy when Canadians went to war.

He was with the troops that entered Kosovo in June 1999.

And he reported on Canada’s first combat mission since the Korean War, in Afghanistan, in early 2002.

In winning his third NNA, Thorne’s reporting conveyed the misery of the grunts digging up graves in Tora Bora, hoping one entombed the body of bin Laden:

“It sucked,” an exhausted Cpl. Shaun Seaton said after the last grave was excavated Monday. “I don’t ever want to do it again.

“I realize it’s part of the mission and it had to be done, but it’s not something I really signed up for. The smell, the shape of them and just actually having to dig up a grave … I’m glad it’s done and over with.”

Thorne would make two more trips to Afghanistan, spending about a year in-country.

But, in 2005, the reporter with the itch for action, then in his mid-40s, found himself deskbound in Ottawa. CP was playing T-ball.

Thorne stewed in the bureau for years, struggling with personal issues and skirmishing with his bosses, until he took a buyout in 2012.

Since then, he’s done some contract writing and honed his considerable skill as a photographer, with a particular passion for beautiful women and birds of prey.

The last time I spoke with him, he was going out to shoot bald eagles.

Now 56, he may be old for an NFL running back, but still in his prime as a reporter. Yet too many news organizations have cast off their most seasoned journalists.

What a waste.

Thorne belongs on the front lines of the biggest stories.

Just come to work every day – and bring your passport.

When I was a copyboy at the New York Times in the 1960s, I was told that Homer Bigart, a legendary war correspondent and lifelong reporter, was earning more money than the managing editor.

Why? Because he was better at his job than the boss was at his.

There should always be a place in journalism for the best of the best.

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One thought on “Acclaimed journalist looking for action

  1. The only reporting I remember from Swissair is the article you quote here. And I’ve never forgotten it. I was lucky enough to work in the Halifax bureau when Elaine McCluskey was running it and SxT was working alongside Tom McDougall, Allan Jeffers, Steve MacLeod, Maggie Marwah and Beth Gorham, not to mention the great BN reporters and editors. It was the A-Team, and I’m grateful for everything they taught me. If Thorne wants a job and can’t get one, that’s a tragedy.

    Like

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