By Pamela Constable
Sunday, February 18, 2007
When I think back on the most momentous events of my professional life, they include scenes of both devastation and deliverance. The boulevards of Manila, flooded with peaceful demonstrators chanting for Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to abandon power. The slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where a joyful, gyrating mob of slum-dwellers is celebrating the election of populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. The highlands of Guatemala or Peru, where grave sites conceal the victims of atrocity.
If the Boston Globe had not sent me abroad as a foreign correspondent in 1983, and allowed me to spend a decade in Latin America and other regions of the world, I would never have been able to witness these historic changes -- and bring them alive to readers back home. Even then, the Globe was one of only a handful of American newspapers willing to invest in the luxury of its own foreign staff, and I was keenly aware of how privileged I was to do all this while drawing a steady paycheck.
Today, Americans' need to understand the struggles of distant peoples is greater than ever. Our troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we did not know enough about when we invaded them and that we are still trying to fathom. We have been victimized by foreign terrorists, yet we still cannot imagine why anyone would hate us. Our economy is intimately linked to global markets, our population is nearly 20 percent foreign-born, and our lives are directly affected by borderless scourges such as global warming and AIDS. Knowing about the world is not a luxury; it is an urgent necessity.
But instead of stepping up coverage of international affairs, American newspapers and television networks are steadily cutting back. The Globe, which stunned the journalism world last month by announcing that it would shut down its last three foreign bureaus, is the most recent example.
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.
It takes a lot of money to maintain an office in a foreign capital. A typical newspaper bureau overseas costs at least $250,000 a year, according to foreign editors, and a large, security-conscious news operation in a city such as Baghdad can hemorrhage four times that.
But today many readers are switching to other information sources -- including Web sites and even blogs -- that have left newspapers struggling to survive. Many family-owned papers have been acquired by corporations that see foreign coverage as an indulgence they can't afford.
In an effort to cut costs, newspapers are replacing bureaus -- which require staffs and cars and family housing -- with mobile, trouble-shooting individual correspondents. The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack. Freelancers can help cover more remote or incremental stories, and newswire agencies can cover breaking news in global hot spots -- but neither is enough.
Television, meanwhile, continues to bring us instant images of the latest Baghdad market bombing or flimsy refugee shacks in Sudan's Darfur region, but its coverage of the world is increasingly selective as well as superficial.
Although more than 80 percent of the public obtains most of its foreign and national news from TV, the major networks are also closing down foreign bureaus, concentrating their resources on a few big stories such as Iraq.
In the 1980s, American TV networks each maintained about 15 foreign bureaus; today they have six or fewer. ABC has shut down its offices in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo; NBC closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg. 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.
In a speech at Columbia University last week, veteran TV news anchor Walter Cronkite warned that pressure by media companies to generate increasing profits is threatening our nation's values and freedom by leaving people less informed. In today's complicated world, "the need for high-quality reporting is greater than ever," he said. "It's not just the journalist's job at risk here. It's American democracy."
Even at their best, newspapers are also a limited medium. I have always been acutely aware that no matter how deeply I burrowed into a society or how many people I interviewed, I was only peeling back the most superficial layers of complex, murky worlds in which people routinely lied, every incident had a contradictory version, and no 1,500-word article could possibly do justice to the truth.
Yet newspapers can also fill an important niche between television and academe, offering an accessible way for busy people to learn about distant events and an outlet for writing that captures the essence of a time and place without polemics or pedantry. They can put events in context, explain human behavior and belief, evoke a way of life. Foreign correspondents can burrow into a society, cultivate strangers' trust, follow meandering trails and dig beneath layers of diplomatic spin and government propaganda.
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.
The best work that I produced over the years, and that resonated most with readers, were the stories that took the time and space to portray an alien world in detail. The road trip across Afghanistan during Taliban rule, where veiled women told me they finally felt safe from marauding militias. The train ride across India with a family to baptize their son in the Ganges, which they fervently believed would protect him for life. The portrait of a poor Afghan village where tiny children begged me not to destroy the family's opium poppy crop. The trial of the Pakistani man who carved up his wife's face in a jealous rage, and then told me with great satisfaction that he had avenged his family honor.
Although many people have a glamorous image of foreign correspondents, theirs is a lonely, gritty and often dangerous way of life. During my years on the road, I have landed in capitals where I knew no one, all hell was breaking loose and I had 10 hours until deadline. I have lain in sweltering hotel rooms staring at spiders, outrun drunken soldiers waving pistols, interviewed hysterical teenagers who vowed to murder all Americans, inhaled tear gas with angry mobs, gone weeks without a hot meal or shower.
I never regretted a minute of it -- and I never thought I'd be a member of a dying breed. I know that change is inevitable, that fewer people are buying our products and that the news business must adapt or sink. But putting aside my nostalgia for literary nomadism, I am convinced that cutting back on first-hand reporting from abroad and substituting cheaper, simpler forms of overseas news delivery is a false economy and a grave mistake.
Don't we learn more about Islam from Anthony Shadid's wide-ranging Post interviews with thoughtful Muslims in Egypt and Turkey than from images of the latest bombing in Baghdad? Don't we identify more with Sharon LaFraniere's New York Times portraits of village customs in Malawi and Mozambique than with dry reports about the grim toll of AIDS across Africa? 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.
Even amid the broader wave of newspaper cutbacks, the announcement that the Globe was shutting down its foreign bureaus hit a special nerve among newspaper journalists. Somehow it seemed a watershed in the inexorable surrender of an honorable craft to the bottom line.
Many of us knew and admired Elizabeth Neuffer, a Globe correspondent who spent several years searching for mass killers in Rwanda and Bosnia, and later published a riveting book about her findings. Elizabeth, who died in a car accident in Iraq in 2003, 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.
Pamela Constable, a Washington Post staff writer, has reported from more than 35 countries.