Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Foreign Correspondent: The Movie's Over

The elitist assumptions behind many journalists’ self-evaluations just don’t seem to fade. After the beatings the press has taken in the public arena these past years, you’d think more in the news media would finally understand. But many within still don’t.

Though some do. After all, news media organizations are recognizing that they have to move to new models of news gathering and presentation. They are working to reorient themselves, with centering on the Internet, not on their print manifestations. Many of their employees, however, don’t get it.

Not that you can blame them. Journalists who work in traditional news media are seeing their jobs threatened (the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example just laid off 68 from its newsroom), in part because of lack of profit and the failure of their profession, but also because of the new Internet orientation.

Writing in The Washington Post this month, journalist Pamela Constable provides another lament for the ‘glory days’ of journalism or, in this particular, the foreign correspondent, arguing that:
If newspapers stop covering the world, I fear we will end up with a microscopic elite reading Foreign Affairs and a numbed nation watching terrorist bombings flash briefly among a barrage of commentary, crawls and celebrity gossip.
She’s right: the traditional news media may become simply that “barrage of commentary, crawls and celebrity gossip” (it has already you say? Oh, right! I forgot), but the alternative isn’t simply an informed elite reading Foreign Affairs, as anyone using the Internet for news already knows.

It doesn't matter to me if, as Constable says:
Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there are no network bureaus left at all in Africa, India or South America -- regions that are home to more than 2 billion people.
Sure, it was a nice life for Constable and the other foreign correspondents but I, for one, don’t miss them. And I don’t believe our public debate is limited because they are gone.

When I lived in Africa in the 1980s (I spent four years there), I would occasionally glimpse the foreign correspondents as they flitted from the five-star hotel in the capital to an ambassador’s residence or one of the few fancy restaurants “safe” for foreigners to eat in. They sat in the back of their chauffeured, air conditioned cars with their bottled water, viewing the world from a money-made cocoon. They loved occasionally going into danger, but it was a sport, something to do so that stories could be swapped back in the DC suburbs. They never (or rarely) experienced the lives of those they reported on.

Foreign correspondents have always reminded me of the people my brother and I found at the top of the embankment our family car had plunged down, rolling over before coming to rest against some trees. He and I, pre-teens, had bounced around in the back but weren’t badly hurt—just bruised. My father had a superficial cut over his eyes. It was bleeding a lot, as such cuts do, and blood had gotten over his glasses, so he was having trouble seeing. My mother, with my youngest brother on her lap (clutched to her as we toppled), couldn’t seem to get her seatbelt undone. As he tried to clean things so he could see to help our mother, our father told the two of us in the back to get out, go up to the road, and wait. The engine was smoking, and he worried about an explosion.

No one in the crowd that had gathered seemed willing to climb down the steep embankment to help, but they certainly were free with their comments. One, peering down, said that the baby was dead. Another contradicted, stating it was the woman, for sure. A third said the man was certainly a goner. It was surreal. My brother and I knew they were OK, but these people were talking about our family!

Oh, perhaps I am too harsh: a real correspondent wouldn’t have just stood there looking and commenting, but would have climbed down to the car, risking injury to get a comment from the people still “stuck” in the car. Real heroism, that!

The bio of Constable with the Post article says she has reported from 35 countries. Now, that’s insane. I haven’t been in many more than 35 countries, yet I travel frequently and have lived abroad for a total of five of my fifty-five years. The idea that she, or any other correspondent, can report intelligently from that many places is preposterous. In my four years in Africa, I lived in two places, one less than 200 kilometers from the other. Yet I had only the most tenuous grasp of life in even that small region by the time I left.

Constable gives a token nod to the “service” she and other foreign correspondents once provided (not a “service,” in my eyes, that ever really meant much), but her piece is much more about her and her friends, about the life they are losing by not being funded for flitting around anymore. Still, she tries to justify her activities by saying that she and the others:
believed in following the truth to its source, and the paper she worked for gave her the space and resources to do so. Now I fear we are witnessing the demise of the kind of journalism that permitted such quests at all.
However, the truth she was following must have been pretty evident, if she could find it in 35 different countries. Hell, I can’t even find the truth in the United States, and it’s my home country!

Even were there no replacement at hand for the foreign correspondents, I would not miss them. They did not, in my experience, often get at truth, but were frequently satisfied finding rumor and outright error. I remember listening to the BBC from Wenceslas Square in Prague the day Czechoslovakia split into two. The foreign correspondent on the air told me that a riot was in progress… right in front of me, where a couple of people were passing around clipboards with petitions on them, nothing more.

Constable says she “was keenly aware of how privileged I was.” But what was she really doing for us in return for that privilege? Very little, I’d say. Few Americans ever paid much attention to what the foreign correspondents were writing or saying… which, of course, is one reason why their bureaus have been among the first to feel the cost-saving axe.

Fortunately, today, there is a real replacement for the foreign correspondent, one that Constable ignores in her article: residents of any area of the world, who now have access to cell phones and the Internet. And, believe it or not, they can find the “truth” better than the foreign correspondents ever did.

Let’s go back to my examples: if cellphones had been available in 1960 (or OnStar, for that matter), my father could have gotten in touch with police and ambulance on his own, giving accurate information on what was happening inside of the car. In Prague, with a camera phone, I could have contacted the BBC with instant pictures of what was happening there in Wenceslas Square.

Today we, the people of the world, can provide the information that each other wants. And all that we need to get information are intelligent aggregators, people (not necessarily “on the ground”) and systems making it possible for us to find the information we want. We certainly don’t need the foreign correspondents, the putative “experts” who find the “truth.” We can get access to the real experts and real truth without them.

Which brings me to the February 27 edition of Tom Ashbrook’s radio show On Point. His guests included Kristina Borgesson, author of Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11 and John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. They were talking about the reporting on the claims that Iran is supplying explosive devices to Iraqis. One of those whose reporting they criticized was Michael Gordon, the military correspondent for the New York Times and also a guest on the show.

When he came on after Borgesson and MacArthur had spoken for a bit, Gordon complained that the attacks on him had been ad hominem. Oddly (no, I should have written “not surprisingly”) Gordon then proceeded to defend himself on what was, primarily, an ad hominem basis. He’s been to Iraq, he said, and those who criticize him have not. He knows.

Well, that may be true… and everything Gordon says might be right. But that does not change the fact that he has a tin ear for contemporary attitudes towards foreign correspondents. He did not recognize how arrogant and elitist he sounded.

He also does not understand that many of us no longer feel we need our information filtered through him or Constable or any other foreign correspondent.

When asked by MacArthur just why the Iranians would supply explosive devices to Iraqis, when the Iraqi government is made up of their co-religionists, all Gordon would do is repeat what his “sources” in the US government had told him. In other words, he could make no more sense of the situation than any of us, yet would not admit it. So, what use is he, these days?

He, and Constable, and all the others had a nice ride while it lasted—and some of them did, I must admit, do a great deal of service to the American public. But their day is over. The role of foreign correspondent is returning to the people, where it started (the first ones were simply travelers willing to write letters back to home newspapers) and where it belongs.

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