Death of the American foreign correspondent

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Who wants to graduate from J-school, toss some things in a suitcase and set off for a career covering the far reaches of the earth? Who would eschew the comforts of a desk in a midsize American city for the mountain trails of Viet Nam, the opium dens of Egypt, the crowded factories of China? Who wants to conduct interviews in another language, knock back brew with the locals, learn the yuan-to-dollar conversion by heart?

No one, turns out. At least, no Americans.

A piece in the Washington Post this weekend by Pamela Constable notes:

Between 2002 and 2006, the number of foreign-based newspaper correspondents shrank from 188 to 141 (excluding the Wall Street Journal, which publishes Asian and European editions). The Baltimore Sun, which had correspondents from Mexico to Beijing when I went to work there in 1978, now has none. Newsday, which once had half a dozen foreign bureaus, is about to shut down its last one, in Pakistan. Only four U.S. papers — the Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Washington Post — still keep a stable of foreign correspondents.

(A correction posted online reads: “The article should have included the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and McClatchy newspapers among those still maintaining foreign bureaus.”)

Constable laments this turn of affairs, not just for the loss to American readers but to American journalists’ careers.

As a young reporter, I devoured the work of famous foreign correspondents and yearned to follow in their footsteps as they chronicled human travails and endeavors: the flight into exile, the search for work, the upheaval of war, the pilgrimage of faith. Joe Lelyveld, accompanying black workers on their daily bus commute into a South African city. Michael Herr, following a psychedelic trail of tears through the jungles of Vietnam. Freya Stark in the 1930s, following the great frankincense road: “On its stream of padding feet the riches of Asia travelled; along its slow continuous thread the Arabian empires rose and fell.” Some may call this highbrow tourism, but I agree with the late Polish correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski: There is something more valuable and more enduring than facts.

Matt Rees, a former Jerusalem correspondent for TIME, tells Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman that the resulting quality of reportage turns readers and viewers off.

Despite the big commitment to Iraq, Rees contends that the questionable quality of some reporting contributed to Americans’ disillusionment with the coverage. “It was clearly news, but we don’t do anything interesting,” Rees said. “The public gets to a point where people say, ‘I’m sick of watching the coverage of Iraq. I know I’m not getting the real story.'”

But that’s only part of the story. As my colleague Bobby Ghosh pointed out in a speech to Asian employees at Time Inc. recently, the remaining foreign correspdents for U.S. media outlets are, for the most part, not American. He told of being asked to join a panel before U.S. military brass while he was Baghdad bureau chief. The brass folded their arms over their chests and asked the assembled journalists how they could consider their coverage “patriotic.” The panel looked at each other. None of them—distinguished journalists from the New York Times, ABC and TIME—were American. Not a one.

It’s not just that American news organizations are cutting back on their overseas bureaus. It’s that American journalists don’t want to go abroad.

Hemingway would weep. Bobby wouldn’t. He doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, this trend toward foreign coverage being conducted by foreigners. “We are international,” shrugs Bobby, who’s Indian. “We have a different way of seeing things. We’re comfortable overseas.”

Me, I’m of two minds. I too was once a foreign correspondent for a U.S. media outlet covering my home country. (I hold both U.S. and Japanese passports, and I was raised in Japan.) As a native, I brought unique skills to that job: cultural fluency, linguistic fluency, even a native appearance (for Bobby, that proved a far greater boon, as his looks allowed him to navigate Baghdad when no white journalist would find it safe). But I’ve worked with enough all-American foreign correspondents to know that they bring special skills, too—say, the ability to see a country with totally fresh eyes. I may not find the all-female trains in Tokyo new or interesting. An American might—as might his audience back home.

So I’m hoping the recent obituaries for the American foreign correspondent are somewhat exaggerated. I’m hoping some young bucks are growing up in Omaha or Orlando and dreaming of reporting in Oman or Okinawa. I’m hoping Hemingway lives.