A rock and hard places

Adrienne Arsenault (BA, MA Journalism) reports from one of the most volatile places on Earth, yet her outlook is optimistic
By Terry Rice

There’s a “jagged, fist-sized” rock that sits on Adrienne Arsenault’s desk.

It’s a keepsake from when her and cameraman Azur Mizrachi were stoned while covering the conflict between ultra-orthodox and secular people in Jerusalem, in July 2003. After a foot race, being dragged and finally making it back to her vehicle, “my rock” as she calls it, came crashing through the back window. She’s kept it ever since – a kind of “mascot” but also memento of that moment.

It’s the kind of reporting Arsenault prides herself on.

“I don’t ever want to feel detached from anything I do…that’s the time I’ll need to step out, when I no longer feel a connection. But for now my connection is nice and sharp,” she says.

Since 2003 Arsenault has been working as CBC’s Bureau Chief based in Jerusalem – a job she says was never part of any master plan.

“I’m not the bravest person on the planet, that’s for sure. I was always very intimidated by the region, but an opportunity came up and some people I know and trust and respect said just try it, just give it a shot, and I’m glad I did.”

Intimidation can’t last long when you’re reporting from one of the most volatile parts of the globe.

“I am not a war zone craving, maniacal, reporter. If people are shooting I’d like to get away. Having said that, I can think of three separate times in Gaza when I’ve been a lot closer than I’d like to air strikes, to shooting, to shelling,” she says.

“It’s hard to sleep when it’s just before dawn and a sonic boom shakes the walls and the windows sort of warp in. And my colleague down the hall, the bathroom tiles crashed to the floor. Physically there are moments when you can’t sleep, but we are lucky. We have access to food and water and some power and shelter and we can leave…We’re never as hard off as some of the people we spend time with,” she adds.

The streets of Jerusalem are a long way from her days growing up in Toronto and studying politics and journalism at The University of Western Ontario. But those early years at Western have proven influential.

“I was attracted to the idea of being able to do a one-year program and get out. What I didn’t expect was to love it as much as I did. The best thing for me was writing something and then it would come back with Mac Lang’s red crayon all over it – he had absolutely decimated the copy and effectively beat the art of writing into us.”

And what she took away from the program was not the mechanics or the theory.

“It was just the idea that no matter what era you’re in a good story, well told, will always be important…Whether we were doing radio or TV or print it was always this focus on story telling and they never let us forget it. And I’m grateful to them for that.”

Fresh from Western, Arsenault landed an interview with As It Happens, one of CBC’s flagship radio programs.

Excited and a bit green she got lost in the big building on Jarvis Street in Toronto and ended up on the fifth floor (television). Call it fate, she asked for directions from the late David Bazay, at that time Executive Producer for The National. A few questions later and Bazay told Arsenault, “You know what? You’re not going to your interview. You’re going to work for me as an Editorial Assistant…you’ll start on Monday.”

Delivering newspapers around the newsroom at 5:45 a.m. and running up and down stairs handing out scripts didn’t fit with her “big hopes and expectations”. A discouraged Arsenault was told by Bazay to, “be patient, just watch everyone and everything and if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.”

And it has.

Arsenault recently won Journalist of the Year for 2005 from the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association for her work covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the death of Pope John Paul II and the aftermath of the Asian tsunami. She has been nominated for two Gemini awards and has won awards from the American Society of Professional Journalists, the radio and television news directors association, and the New York and Columbus film festivals.

She is humble about her success and credits her peers at the CBC, Anna Maria Tremonti in particular, for motivating her. She also credits Ann Medina for inspiring her to believe she could be a good journalist, helping her connect with places that seemed so far away.

Today, Arsenault is the one providing inspiration to a new generation of journalists. At 39 she has been the Bureau Chief in Washington and Jerusalem and in October she will replace Don Murray as Bureau Chief in London, England.

She will leave Jerusalem with many memories.

“As horrible sometimes as these stories are, there is a richness to the experience here that is endlessly fascinating. My list of stories I haven’t told is huge. And I look at the little stories I have told and it seems paltry. The list of stories you want to tell goes on and on and on,” she says.

But there are things she won’t miss.

“There’s a lot of hatred here – it’s exhausting. I think that’s the thing I will miss the least. The anger, and the hatred, and the rage, and the venom, and the cruelty – I won’t miss that.”

She is excited about the many opportunities that London will bring. Beyond that, what will the future be like for Adrienne Arsenault?

“I guess I should figure that one out,” she jokes.

“It’s a long, endlessly fascinating road and job to have. You have no idea one day to the next where you’re going to be, whom you’re going to meet, what you’re going to see. If you’re a curious person I can’t think of a better job on the planet.”