Ask The Post

Keith Richburg
Foreign Editor
Wednesday, June 29, 2005; 12:00 PM

This Week: Foreign Editor Keith Richburg was online Wednesday, June 29 at Noon ET to field your questions about The Post's coverage of foreign news.

A transcript follows.


Silver Spring, Md.: I greatly enjoyed your dispatches from the Tour de France last summer. Did you enjoy the experience? Will you have a reporter covering stages this year?

Keith Richburg: I absolutely loved covering the Tour; as a cyclist myself here in D.C. now, it was one of the best parts of living in Paris. And, yes, we will be covering the key stages this year, but unfortunately it won't be me. This should be an exciting race -- it's unclear whether Lance Armstrong can dominate the way he did in the past, and there are a lot of younger cyclists thinking it's their turn. But I wouldn't count Lance out -- he's a true champion.


Mobile, Ala.: How receptive are the other editors to giving prominence in the paper to foreign coverage, particularly international news not concerning Iraq?

Keith Richburg: We are all very receptive to international, non-Iraq news, and one thing I personally strive for every day is a balance of foreign stories in the paper. Just today, for example, we had two foreign front-page stories,

Keith Richburg: We fronted a story out of Canada on the gay marriage law, and on continuing fighting in Afghanistan claiming more American military lives. We also have a daily "World In Brief" column for shorter items when we don't have space to run a full story.


Juneau, Alaska: What's been the reaction in Italy on the abduction?

Also do you sense that American credibility can fall any farther in foreign countries?

Keith Richburg: Well, referring to the rendition case, this is just one more incident that is bound to stoke anti-American sentiment, following the shooting death of the Iraqi intelligence agent and the wounding of the freed Italian hostage.

Your second question is a loaded one --can American credibility fall further? Well, I suppose it can always fall further, and it really does vary country to country. America's esteem is not as low in, say, Britain and Poland as in France and Spain, to name a few. But overall, there is a certain reservoir of goodwill in many countries.


Washington, D.C.: The Post does an amazing job of spanning the globe. That said, obviously a couple of people can't cover all of, say, South America. You do sometimes run AP, Reuters, and LA Times articles. But there are thousands of other news sources around there, many of which take report as responsibly and reliably as the Post - the Financial Times, Ha'aretz, Le Monde, Liberation, Sydney Morning Herald, El Pais, Die Welt, and many more I'm sure I've never heard of. Not to mention the Chicago Tribune, Philly Inquirer, and a dozen or so other U.S. papers that don't compete with The Post. Why doesn't The Post run articles from sources like these? Obviously, in some cases they would have to be translated and context added for D.C. area readers, but I think opening yourself up to such possibilities could immeasurably improve and expand the view of the world that Post readers get.

Keith Richburg: Good question, which I'm not sure I can answer completely, since I'm fairly new in this job. But we can only run stories from other publications if we have some kind of agreement with those publications. We do have an agreement with the LA Times -- we share a news service. As for running stories from foreign, non-English publications, that would seem more problematic in a deadline situation, and then you may not get the same point of view you need for a U.S. audience.


Mobile, Ala.: What do you make of the number of Post female correspondents in dangerous areas? Does it signify a changing trend or a one-time coincidence?

Keith Richburg: That's partly a coincidence -- we just happen to have a lot of very talented women correspondents, and they are willing to go anywhere, even to war zones. We have a really diverse and representative foreign staff.


Washington, D.C.: Keith,

If The Post let Foreign have two more bureaus where would you put them?

In other words, if you had more resources, what parts of the world would you like to see better covered?

Keith Richburg: Great question. And a tough one to answer. I'd love to have one more bureau to cover Central America, especially given the large Central American community right here in the Washington area. And I'd love to have an extra person in Africa, so we could get to areas of the continent that we now don't often get to.


Laurel, Md.: In international debate of the U.S. war in Iraq, Bush's decision to attack is generally criticized. Have you heard an argument claiming that IF Bush had not attacked and left Hussein in power the fortunes of Iraqi citizens would have been better? Even with the removal of sanctions and the death of Saddam, would a sanction-free Iraq with one of Saddam's sons in charge have been a BETTER outcome for the typical Iraqi citizen?

Keith Richburg: You got me--I've never heard anyone argue that Iraq would be better off with Saddam in charge. I think the criticism from overseas is that, first, this was not sold as a war to help the Iraqi people become better off, but as a war to rid the world of a threat of weapons of mass destruction -- and we all know now that none were found. The second criticism is that the Bush administration acted outside international norms by invading without explicit U.N. approval, by bypassing its oldest military alliance, NATO, and against the advice of some of its longtime allies.

I suppose if the only criteria were whether the country is better off without a dictator in charge, then one could make the case for invading lots of countries.


East Lansing, Mich.: Does The Post have any reporters stationed in the Darfur area of Africa? I have not seen many recent Post articles about the calamity that is supposed to be occurring there.

Keith Richburg: Hi, to a fellow Michigander.

Our East Africa correspondent has spent more time in Darfur than perhaps anyone else, and produced some ground-breaking journalism. She's been away on a much-needed vacation break, but is back in Kenya and on the way back to Southern Sudan in a few days.


Lyme, Conn.: There are 2,000 African Union troops protecting about two million people from threats of violence and death. Why hasn't the Bush administration agreed to provide assistance to prevent further acts of genocide?

Keith Richburg: That's a great question for the Bush administration, and for our White House and Pentagon reporters next time they are on line. I might venture to suggest that perhaps the U.S. military already feels itself stretched, with ongoing operations now in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Academics and politicians alike agree that Africa as a continent is increasingly becoming a global focal point. I'm curious to know how many foreign correspondents The Post has on the ground in "hot spot" countries such as Burundi, DRC, Liberia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Thanks.

Keith Richburg: We now have two correspondents in Africa -- one based in Kenya, the other in South Africa. I'd love to add a third some day. I'm not sure now the academics define Africa as a "global focal point" however.


Arlington, Va.: Just curious... why do the bylines of your international reporters carry the tag: "Washington Post Foreign Service", while every other Post reporter's byline just says "Washington Post Staff Writer"? Why the distinction?

Keith Richburg: It's tradition. When our staff reporters go overseas, they join what we proudly call our "foreign service," which comes with a set your of duty. They also become "correspondents" in the great tradition, as opposed to "staff writer." And in general they are given the title "bureau chief" since they are also running an office overseas.


Washington, D.C.: This question concerns Express, a publication of The Post. I've noticed that the majority of news stories in the Express, including foreign news, are culled from AP releases. Would you like to see more The Post's foreign correspondents' reports in the Express?

Keith Richburg: So far The Post editors have decided they do not want Washington Post copy to appear in Express, since we don't want to start giving away our journalism in a free newspaper that will compete with the Post. Of course everything we publish is available free online.


Washington, D.C.: The Russian Federation is going to withdraw its military forces from Georgia. Do you foresee a similar decision regarding the Russian forces in the Republic of Moldova? How can the international community help the Russian Federation to meet its international commitments?

Keith Richburg: The short answer is: who knows: One thing I've learned over the years is never try to predict what will happen in the future.

I think the idea of the Europeans, among others, is to continue to engage Russia, through the NATO-Russia Council, the G-8, and other multilateral institutions.


Waco, Tex.: I just checked, although there were numerous warnings and raises in terror threat levels in 2003 and 2004, there has not been a single warning (other than cyber) since August of 2004.

If Tom Ridge claimed he didn't understand half the time why the administration insisted on raising it, and there were definite peaks during the run up to the Iraq invasion and during the election, one can assume they could be politically motivated.

My question is, why is the media not asking why there have been no warnings since August of 2004? Either the threats never existed back then, they are gone now, or they are being hidden to make it look like the Iraq invasion made us safer at home ?

Keith Richburg: Well, I'm the foreign editor, and that question would be better directed at my colleagues on the national side, who cover national affairs. I personally would hope that something as serious as the threat warning system were not being manipulated for political purposes.


Mobile, Ala.: Do you have another book coming out? And is there any chance that it would roll as many heads as the last one?

Keith Richburg: I hope so -- on both counts!! Alabama is talking about "Out Of America," which -- I don't mind shamelessly plugging -- you can still find on

Thanks, Alabama.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Regarding your response:

Keith Richburg:

We now have two correspondents in Africa -- one based in Kenya, the other in South Africa. I'd love to add a third some day. I'm not sure now the academics define Africa as a "global focal point" however.

I'm amazed there are only two correspondents for 53 countries! If you're in need of a third, I'd be happy to take the job. Any idea if The Post would take on grad student as a summer hire for overseas work?

Keith Richburg: Send me your clips and resume!

As I said, I'd love to have more correspondents, but we have to be realistic, too. We have two reporters in China, and that's to cover 1.2 billion people. And one in India, to cover another 900,000 people. We can't, obviously, cover 53 countries, and we don't try to. But I think we do a pretty good job on the big stories.


Tampa, Fla.: No question; just congratulations on your assignment; a long way from Manila. Stan Schrager

Keith Richburg: Hey, Stan, greeting

Manila was my first full time foreign posting as a bureau chief -- and in many ways still my favorite. We were there for some exciting times!


Mobile, Ala.: How often do your reporters check in with you? How do you keep track of the ones who aren't always near an Internet connection and does The Post equip them with cool gadgets to help them file their stories?

Keith Richburg: Hey, Mobile,

We've got lots of cool gadgets -- satellite telephones, Thurayas, etc. Keeping in touch is not the problem it used to be when I started doing this gig, way back in the stone age. But it is costly.

We are in regular touch with our correspondents, but not necessarily daily; it varies, really -- some like to call in a lot, and others only call in once a week or so. But we keep in touch through an internal email-like system.


Menominee, Mich.:

Your reply to Laurel, Md. brought up a thought.

Recently, the venerable Helen Thomas once said, "I have covered many Presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, but President Bush is the FIRST President that I have seen that actually WANTS war (emphasis, mine)."

Given recent revelations about the 8 DSMs and testimony from former Bush insiders, that would seem to be the case.

What are YOUR thoughts on Ms. Thomas' comments?

Keith Richburg: Wow, that's a loaded question that would require political commentary on my part. So forgive me if I pass.


Chicago, Ill.: You were a foreign correspondent for as long as I've been reading The Post. What's it like to return to Washington after so many years abroad and how is it being an editor? Do you miss being out on the front lines?

Keith Richburg: I've been a correspondent since 1986, so, yes, it's quite a transition to come back to an office job. So far, so good. It's actually rewarding in a different way to help shape stories that get into the paper. And while I do hope to do some writing, for the moment I'm concentrating on how to help the correspondents out there now on the front lines.

Boy, real estate prices have sure shot up since I've been away!


Washington, D.C.: Did race ever pose an issue for you reporting in some countries? Similarly, do you think about the gender of a reporter you send to, say, the Middle East?

Keith Richburg: Good question. No, race was never really an issue -- in most circumstances, people know they are talking to a Washington Post correspondent, and so race, age, gender, etc doesn't really matter. In cases where it has come up, it often came up in a positive way -- some people in certain circumstances thinking you might bring a different empathy to their story. And we send women to the Middle East, and it has not presented any major problems or obstacles.


Eastern North America: I was a bit dismayed that so many news outlets immediately bought into the DoD terminology of "Southwest Asia" when the U-2 crashed in the UAE last week. Part of the problem was that there was clearly an effort to obfuscate where the crash took place, so the media had no choice of what to say initially. Still, I wonder if there was any skepticism or criticism about this effort in your newsroom or elsewhere that you have heard about. Personally, I don't appreciate hearing that "host nation sensitivities" are the reason for such obfuscation when the event takes places in a country with an authoritarian regime. What about the American taxpayer who pays for everything and has a right to know what is being done in his/her name? In this age of the Internet and satellite TV, I have a hard time understanding what goes through the minds of DoD public affairs people.

Keith Richburg: Well, we always try for full transparency when we can, but of course without violating any requirements for operational secrecy or security. There are often tough calls on how much to disclose every day, and these things are usually decided after considered deliberation. Beyond that, I can't say much about that specific case as I wasn't involved in it.


Paris, France: Hi Keith,

Having been on the road for more 20 years, did you suffer any culture shock in returning to the United States?

Keith Richburg: Well, not so much shock -- after all, I typically came back to the U.S. once or twice a year during my time away. But some things take getting used to. Like how huge the portions are in restaurants. How restaurants really don't want to serve you dinner after 11 PM. How car-dependant it is here. Just to name a few examples.


Paris, France: Hi Keith,

Now that you're at a desk every day, do you miss life on the road?

Keith Richburg: Well, I've only been here for about seven weeks, so it still feels a bit like an extended road trip -- and I haven't gone stir crazy yet. But I do hope to continue traveling, except the next trips will be for fun, without the notebook and computer. Now that will feel different.

How's Paris doing without me?


Paris, France: Keith,

You've had numerous foreign postings around the world before settling in D.C. as the Foreign Editor. I'm curious to know which particular story you covered that has moved you the most and which has changed your outlook on life? And what would you say is the most important attribute a foreign correspondent should have?

Keith Richburg: Bonjour, encore, Paris.

Those are two very good questions. I'm not sure I can name a single story or event I've covered that has moved me the most, but I can name a few; the famine in Somalia stands out, as does the genocide followed by the cholera epidemic in Rwanda and neighboring Goma, Zaire. The Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, also stands out as a dramatic story, happening as it did on European soil and affecting the election result there.

For a correspondent, the attributes most useful are, of course, an innate curiosity; interest in seeing and understanding new things; and on top of that a love of travel and writing.


Your City, and State: Personally, I'd like to be a Washington Post correspondent, but with an "Indochine" angle and Catherine Deneuve lolling in the background. That's what it's like on the foreign desk, right?

Keith Richburg: You guessed it! How on earth did you figure this out? Hold on, the waiter is bringing my gin and tonic...


Munich, Germany: Continuing in the vein of Chevy Chase, where exactly are your offices in Europe? I've been living in Europe for almost twenty years and I think that I could add some insight to your journalistic efforts. If I wanted to submit an article to The Washington Post on Foreign Affairs, how should I proceed?

And my last question: Have you thought of comparing the incursion of the French Secret Service and the sinking of the Greenpeace Warrior in New Zealand with the current dilemma in Italy with the CIA? The people of New Zealand found it difficult to say a good word about the French for while, and I presume that the same will apply to Americans in Italy for the time being.

Keith Richburg: In Europe, we have bureaus in London, Paris (my last job), Berlin, Rome and Moscow. That's a lot. We are in a bit of a summer slowdown, with a lot of movement and vacations, but starting in the fall, we will have a total of seven people in those five bureaus.

If you'd like to submit an op-ed piece from Europe, you'd need to talk to our editorial page folks across the aisle; Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl run that shop.

As for the French Rainbow Warrior story, I remember it well. I'm not sure Italians will make the comparison, though.


Toronto, Canada: Do you think Bush government is showing double standard when it comes to helping to promote democracy and freedom, vis-a-vis communist China. The largest trade partner, which if you go by what his policy statement should not have been on the government list of encouraging trade, if they really believed promoting democracy.

Keith Richburg: Well, part of our job over the next four years will be testing the administration's stated new goal of putting democracy and liberty at the heart of its foreign policy agenda -- and that will mean not just as it makes difficult choices regarding China, but also in Central Asia and the Middle East.


Escalante, Utah: Hi, Keith. Congratulations on the new position! Is it time to look back on the last few years and write a new book?

Keith Richburg: I definitely want to write more books, and perhaps a look back over the years is one angle. Thanks for the idea.


Washington, D.C.: What advice do you have for young would-be foreign correspondents? Is it as wonderful/miserable as it's made out to be? Should you know a foreign language before you even apply for a job in the field?

Keith Richburg: It's even more wonderful -- and often more miserable -- than it's made out to be. It's the best job in the world, but can also mean long stretches alone and away from friends and family.

You don't need to know a language, but of course that would be an obvious asset. In some cases, we send our outgoing correspondents for language training before they head out.

Advice? Learn the basics first of writing and reporting, and read, read, read.


Mesa, Ariz.: I heard (not sure if this is true) that some of the foreign correspondents are married to each other. How do they meet when they are in different countries all the time? Can foreign correspondents only relate to other foreign correspondents?

Keith Richburg: Yes, we on our staff have several married couples, but they actually met and married back here in the newsroom (okay, they met here and married in church or at the courthouse). We have married couples now posted to Indonesia, France and soon in London. We get two for the price of one, in a way, and they get to enjoy the foreign experience together. Other correspondents have spouses or partners who are stringers or freelancers for other publications, which means they can travel together.


Mobile, Ala.: Regarding confidential sources: Is it as much of an issue in foreign coverage as when covering the United States? How does our government compare with that of foreign governments in terms of press access?

Keith Richburg: Believe it or not, the U.S. government is incredibly open and accessible compared to many others, which have no tradition of openness and nothing comparable to our Freedom Of Information Act.

In many countries, even simply calling the police for crime statistics is considered outrageous. And spokesmen for presidents and prime ministers routinely speak only "off the record" or not for attribution. Diplomats, too -- most are not allowed to have their names appear in print. So much of the reporting is done with anonymous sources or background sources.


Washington, D.C.: Hi,

Thanks for the opportunity to pose questions. You might choose to not answer this question because it is not directly about foreign affairs. I would like to know whether as a black American in journalism you feel that you have had to work harder than your peers to be recognized. Are there still race-specific challenges to being a foreign affairs journalist in the U.S.? Or abroad? Would you have any special advice for minorities interested in a career as foreign correspondents? Thanks much.

Keith Richburg: Thanks for the question. And no, I personally have not encountered obstacles to advancement here at The Washington Post -- but keep in mind, I have been at The Post since I was a summer intern the summer of 1978. I can't speak for other publications, only The Post, but here you will find one of the most diverse newsrooms in America.

Overseas, as I said in answer to a previous question, I never found being a black American a negative, and in some circumstance it was actually a positive.

I strongly encourage minority journalists to consider a career overseas -- or even a single foreign posting. I would like to see more minorities thinking internationally and taking advantage, as I did, of the opportunity to travel and see the world -- and in the process maybe also learn a little more about America.


Keith Richburg: Thanks to everyone for the great questions -- especially from lovely Paris and Mobile, Alabama. (I think I know who you are, Andrea). I'm available any time to talk about foreign reporting, what we do, or anything else. Some people mentioned my book, "Out Of America," and this wasn't the forum to talk about that, but I am available, too, for any talk on that.

Cheers, everyone.


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