Henry Champ, television journalist, dies at 75
By Adam Bernstein,
Henry Champ, who grew up on the Canadian prairie and became a distinguished broadcast journalist covering the Vietnam War and Washington and European politics, and whose interview with a fugitive terrorist sparked debate about the role of a free press, died Sept. 23 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. He was 75.
He died of complications from lung cancer, said his wife, Washington Post journalist Karen DeYoung.
Mr. Champ was a District resident and, since 2008, held the ceremonial job of chancellor of Brandon University in Manitoba. “Eleven months of bad weather, and one month of good skating,” he often quipped of Manitoba, the central Canadian province where he was raised.
With his chiseled features and arched eyebrows, Mr. Champ epitomized the foreign correspondent with a taste for hazard zones and a handsome wardrobe of trench coats and flak jackets. In a career spanning four decades, Mr. Champ cultivated a salty, common-man persona that connected with viewers. He once described himself as a proud Canadian but “not one of those who runs around with a beaver tattooed on my butt.”
After a brief stint as a sports reporter in Manitoba, Mr. Champ rose to prominence with the Canadian network CTV. He was among the first Canadian journalists in communist China when the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1970, and he was one of the last correspondents to leave Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975.
He covered the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and Innsbruck, Austria, and served as host and correspondent for “W5,” a CTV news magazine show similar in format to “60 Minutes.” His reports ranged from the alleged mishandling of Canadian foreign aid for Haiti to police brutality in Toronto.
Like Canadian-born TV journalists Morley Safer and Peter Jennings, Mr. Champ was eventually lured to work in the United States. He joined NBC News in 1982 and was a correspondent in Frankfurt, Warsaw, London and Washington.
In the 1980s, he covered bloody conflicts in Central America and Northern Ireland, accompanied mujaheddin fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and reported on both sides of the war between Iran and Iraq.
Mr. Champ drew significant attention for his 1986 interview with fugitive Palestine Liberation Front leader Mohammed Zaidan, better known as Abu Abbas.
Abbas, who called President Ronald Reagan “enemy No. 1” in the interview, was charged in the United States as the mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast. The hijackers shot a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer, and threw him overboard. The Reagan administration offered a $250,000 bounty for Abbas.
In exchange for the interview, NBC had to promise not to disclose Abbas’s whereabouts. The terms raised moral and legal questions, and NBC was denounced by the head of the State Department’s counterterrorism unit for essentially allowing Abbas to spew propaganda.
Lawrence Grossman, then the president of NBC News, defended the “newsmaker” interview, saying that “an informed public is better than an ignorant one.” Officials at other networks, including ABC and CNN, applauded the interview as a scoop that helped make the public better informed. Media writers weighed in on whether the interview was worth the price, considering that the newsiest aspect of the story — Abbas’s location — went unaddressed. (It was later revealed that the interview took place in Algeria.) It took NBC News personnel two months to arrange a meeting with Abbas.
Abbas died in U.S. custody in Iraq a year after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Reflecting on the controversy in 2007, Mr. Champ wrote: “It always seemed to me that most people felt NBC had done a decent journalistic job in tracking down Abbas, that we elicited a confession from those involved and showed them for the thugs they were. . . . The NBC debate overshadowed the stories about American failures in the Mideast or screw-ups chasing terrorists.
“The truth,” he added, “was any tinpot government security service would have been able to track a four-person television crew leaving Heathrow Airport for the Middle East.”
Stephen Henry Champ was born in Brandon on July 12, 1937, to a farming family. After attending what was then Brandon College, he served in the Canadian army and entered journalism as a sports reporter for the Brandon Sun newspaper.
His first marriage, to Sarah Smith, ended in divorce. Besides DeYoung, whom he married in 1985, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Abby Armstrong of Bayfield, Ontario, Marylee Barratt of Queensland, Australia, and Adam Champ of Hamilton, Ontario; two children from his second marriage, Kathleen Champ of Leesburg, Fla., and Jesse Champ of Washington; a sister; and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Champ helped cover the Pentagon and Capitol Hill before leaving NBC, citing low morale that he blamed on the corporate bosses at General Electric. He was outspoken in his disillusionment with NBC’s news judgment, which he criticized for its emphasis on show business personalities and lurid crime.
“Television is becoming frothy,” he told the Canadian Press news agency in 1993. “The American networks have sent more crews to cover the Michael Jackson tour by an exponential figure of 10 than they have to investigate NAFTA,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
At the time, Mr. Champ was among a notable exodus of Canadian-born television reporters — including Brian Stewart and the brothers Arthur and Peter Kent — from NBC. They all returned to broadcasting jobs in Canada.
Mr. Champ became co-anchor of the “CBC Morning News” from Halifax on the Canadian Broadcast Corp. and later was Washington correspondent for the news network CBC Newsworld before he retired in 2008 after the election of President Obama. He continued to write online columns on American politics for CBC News.
In 2009, Mr. Champ received the highest honor from Canada’s association of electronic journalists.
In Washington, Mr. Champ helped in 2008 to launch the annual baseball tournament for public and private high school teams now called the D.C. High School Baseball Classic and played at Nationals Park. He also established relationships with high school coaches and guidance counselors to recruit poor but academically promising District students to attend Brandon University instead of more expensive American schools.