Meet Compass host Sheila MacVicar

The host discusses the greatest discoveries and darkest moments in her decades as a foreign correspondent

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Originally from Montreal, Sheila MacVicar has been a correspondent for more than three decades, first with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then ABC News, CNN and CBS News. For more than 20 years, she covered the world from her base in London, earning many accolades along the way including three Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and a duPont Award.

MacVicar, whose reporting as a senior correspondent with America Tonight has won two National Headliner Awards, is the host of Al Jazeera America's new foreign policy show Compass, based in Washington, D.C. This is the first time she’s lived in the United States. Here, she speaks about what she learned covering war and the experience of being a woman in the media business.

What was your first journalism job?

At a newspaper in Montreal. I was this kid on a news desk that had some great reporters working there, because it was such an extraordinary time. We sat at long worktables, almost like the kind of tables they have in convents, and of course, we’re talking the old typewriters, so we’re like, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. And there’s this guy, a classic police reporter. And every once in a while he gets up, and he walks by, and he says, “Kid, there’s a floater in the Lachine Canal. Are you coming?”

Did you go? 

Yeah, I went – more than once.

Where have you spent a lot of time reporting?

I spent a lot of time in Baghdad, in most of the Middle East, the Balkans, South East Asia. I spent a lot of time in Africa, in the conflict zones of Sierra Leone and Liberia. I got malaria in Ethiopia.

Sheila MacVicar in Uzbekistan around 1994, covering the region's drug war.
Courtesy of Sheila MacVicar

Was it very serious?

By the time I realized I was sick, it was many months later and I was in Poland. It was the time of the Solidarity Movement, and all kinds of craziness was ensuing, and I collapsed in Warsaw. I was hospitalized and then flew home to Canada. I couldn’t work for months. I remember the restrictions: You can walk half a block, you can walk to the corner store, but you can’t buy anything because you can’t carry it.

Have you ever thought you were going to die?

Where would you like to start? I was in Kuwait within 10 hours of it being liberated, when there were still firefights galore. I spent years in the Balkans, covering all the Balkans wars. I was in Albania when Albania melted down over Ponzi schemes. I did the nasty wars of West Africa. I covered the genocide and cholera epidemic of Rwanda.

I have PTSD. I’ve had it for a long time. I’m now at more of a distance, which helps. And I’ve had a fair amount of therapy. But sometimes, even now, things take me back to a place in ways that cannot be predicted. It’s something that is still not talked about very much in most newsrooms. That’s something I’d like to change.

I’ve met extraordinary people and seen some truly inspirational things. And I’ve seen some truly horrifying things. And I spent a lot of my career exploring the thinness of the veneer of civilization; what makes evil.  

Have you come to any grand conclusions? What makes evil?

One of the things I used to say toward the end of the Balkans, because I was so fed up with nationalist excuse-mongering-I wanted one of those metallic signs that I could stick on the side of the frickin’ armored car that said: “I never again want to hear 14th-century justifications for 20th-century atrocities.” I was tired of people who were so into this fundamental historic wrong that was still so raw that they were willing to kill their neighbors. By the end, I just could not deal with that.

Sheila MacVicar in Bosnia around 1993 with Col. Bob Stewart, the former United Nations commander in the country.
Courtesy of Sheila MacVicar

What conflict was the most traumatizing to report on?

I think, in the words of some family members, my body count got a little high. After the wars of the '90s and Rwanda, making the turn to the post-9/11 era, and the carnage of Iraq and now Syria – places where I had too many friends and colleagues die, where I saw too many people die – that was not something I was trained to deal with; something else I’d like to change.

What was it like being a female foreign correspondent?

I never thought of war reportage as a macho business. I was terrified the entire time I was in Sarajevo, even though I spent weeks at a time there, over and over again. There were very few moments when I was in or around combat when I was not very scared. And in a way, because I could admit I was scared, people around me could also admit that they were scared. And that made it easier in a way.

What was a time you were really scared?

Face down in an open field on the border between Rwanda and then-Zaire, caught in the middle of a firefight, as terrified of snakes as bullets.

Do you think being a woman impacted your reporting?

To this day, I’m not really good at identifying what kind of plane that is or what kind of gun that is. And I’m not particularly interested. I’ve mostly been on the pointy end of what comes out. What I am more interested in, and this is where I think women do make a difference as editors and correspondents and producers, is that I‘m interested in what is happening to the people living there. I’m interested in what is happening to their lives.

How will your new foreign affairs show Compass captivate American audiences?

I think people everywhere engage with great stories and with human stories. That's what we are about. The themes may be large and "important," but we tell them with human scale. And I think that Americans, like most people, engage when they understand how something affects them, their future or their childrens' future. We're not going to be wonky.

How do you see Compass being different, or filling a hole?

You know, in my career, I've seen huge news organizations whittle down their overseas operations to bare bones. Sure some of that made cost-saving sense. But it also cost capacity, experience and understanding. We're going to take one subject an episode and dive in deep. And we are so lucky to have the time to tell more nuanced and complex stories in a thoughtful, provocative and engaging way.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

You know, I started out by saying "don’t." But I have a daughter graduating this spring from journalism school, and so clearly she is not taking my advice. The business has changed. The work and the way we work has changed. But there are still amazing stories to be told. And if you are drawn to telling stories, to telling the stories of peoples’ lives, then this is the business. And I still want to tell stories.

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