When she succeeded Kevin Newman as Global National’s anchor back in 2010, the network rolled out the red carpet for Dawna Friesen. The Winnipeg-born journalist, who had spent 11 years prior in England as NBC's London-based correspondent, quickly found her face splashed across newspaper ads, transit shelters, billboards, and TV spots (one featured Friesen walking in slow-motion through a field, promising: “I’m coming home”).
Raised on a grain farm 40 minutes west of Winnipeg by Mennonite parents, Friesen found the attention overwhelming. The shiny, U.S.-style sensationalism of the marketing campaign contrasted with her work as a war correspondent and coverage of such stories as the fall of Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade or the Beslan school massacre in Russia.
Friesen took some time this week to reflect on the blurry media blitz that welcomed her back. She also talks candidly about sexism, news bloopers, and the fine line between family and work — whether it’s featuring your parents in a documentary or turning down travel to be with your kids.
When you returned home to Canada to anchor Global National and they launched the major marketing campaign, you described seeing yourself on billboards as “a shock.” What do you think now when you look back on that time in your career?
It was a bit overwhelming. I had been a reporter for years before taking this job, and I was used to telling other people’s stories, not being front and center myself. Everything was so rushed at the time, because I was finishing up my job as a foreign correspondent, packing up my house in London, finding a new home in Canada, settling my son into grade one in a new country and new school, ending a long-term relationship, and starting a high-profile, high-pressure new job. Even that picture that ended up on billboards was taken in a hurry because I had to be on air at NBC that afternoon. So when I look back now, it feels like a bit of a blur. I wish there had been someone to turn to for some advice on how to handle it all. But I am proud that I did it and made it work.
Can you tell us about any courting tactics Global used to draw you over from NBC?
They called and told me the job was available. We talked. I said I wasn’t interested because I had a good job that I loved and had recently signed a new contract with NBC. There wasn’t much courting, but they didn’t take no for an answer. I gave it some thought and realized my son was five and my parents near Winnipeg were elderly. I wanted my son to have a sense of what it means to be Canadian, and I wanted to be closer to my parents as their health declined. And I thought these kinds of opportunities don’t come along every day. So then I began to think about it seriously and realized it would be a new challenge for me and could be exciting.
It was heartbreaking to watch both your parents suffering from dementia in "The Unspooling Mind". Would you consider doing another documentary that’s so personal? Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for other people who are also “grieving for people who are still alive?”
It was a difficult period for the whole family to go through, but all we could do was be there as much as possible, advocate for their care, and try to live in the moment with them as much as possible. It’s not their fault they are slipping into an unreachable world. It’s a disease of the brain. I’d remind people who are going through the early stages of this with a loved one to be patient, try not to constantly prompt them to remember or chastise them if they can’t. Relax and gently let it go.
It was a difficult decision making the documentary, mostly because I know my mother would be appalled at me for doing it. She would have hated for them to be shown that way to the public. And I really struggled with whether to do it. My parents were so vulnerable at that point, and couldn’t consent. In the end, I hoped it would lead to a greater good. I like to think it did, and that they’d forgive me if they could.
You received an Emmy Award for your work on NBC's coverage of Obama's election-night victory in 2008. As the network's only foreign correspondent with a child, you reflected, "I couldn't be the first person out the door to the airport. I couldn't leave for indefinite periods." Do you have any advice for working parents in a similar situation?
That’s a good question. I think what I have learned is that it’s easy to give advice about how other people should parent, but it’s not always wise. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone’s character is different. I wanted to be able to spend time with my son and not be an absentee mom. I had the kind of job that required me to jump on a plane to someplace at the last minute, and stay for an indeterminate time. And I had a partner who did the same thing. I loved it when I was childless, but it didn’t work when my son arrived. Parenting requires time and patience and for you to be present as they grow up. Your time is the most valuable thing to them, not what you do for a living. So I think you need to find a way to adjust your career to make that happen.
While researching you, I was reminded of the blatant sexism that women in broadcast journalism face. The first page of Google results is filled with commentary on your appearance and marriage; another article quotes Ray Erickson, general manager of CJLB in Thunder Bay as “complimenting” you when you were hired by saying “you didn't sound like a housewife”; not to mention the comments that broadcasters receive from viewers on any female anchor’s appearance. How do you deal with this? How can we change this?
Another good question. I think what I did was shove all that nonsense to one side and just get on with my work. I laughed at being told I didn’t sound like a housewife because I thought it was so stupid — what the hell does a housewife sound like anyway? It’s one of those ridiculous sexist things that men of a certain era say without realizing how much they sound like dinosaurs. Anyway, I took the job because it got me to another city, increased my salary, and gave me new challenges.
As for physical appearance, I have always said that I think females on TV are held to a different and higher standard than men. We’re expected to be attractive and look younger than our years. Our appearance — from hair to clothes to make-up — is picked apart and analyzed with far greater scrutiny than our male counterparts, who put on a suit and tie and call it a day. It was suggested I wear hair extensions and false eyelashes and dye my hair a different colour. I ignored all of it. My advice is to stay true to yourself, and be authentic.
Who do you think should replace Peter Mansbridge at The National? Should it be a woman?
This is an awkward question! I really think gender is a non-issue. I believe in merit and being promoted based on ability. I think it would be wise to have someone in that role who has lived and worked in several places across the country, who has a breadth of knowledge and experience, who has perhaps worked overseas or at least travelled a fair bit. There are plenty of people who have those credentials. Anyway, it’s up to the CBC, not me!
I enjoyed your live on-air blooper while filling in on Canada AM when you introduced yourself as Valerie Pringle. Have you had any more since then?
Oh, I have messed up many times. I’ve ended the newscast many times saying “That’s Global National for this Monday” when it’s actually Tuesday, or Friday. I can’t remember all the mistakes. One of my favorite awkward moments was when I was asked to stand directly in front of the penis of Michelangelo’s David statue in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. I was going to be live on the Today show, and they didn’t want to show a penis on TV. Even one carved by a master. So I had to stand perfectly still and block it out from all those sensitive American viewers.