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    Q&A With Robert J. McCartney

    "Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and to key Washington Post reporters and editors.

    May 18, 1999

    Bob Levey
    Bob Levey
    Craig Cola/
    Bob's guest today was The Washington Post's newly appointed Foreign Editor, Robert J. McCartney.

    Robert J. McCartney
    Robert J. McCartney
    McCartney joined The Post in 1982 as an assistant editor on the foreign desk. He was appointed Mexico City bureau chief the following year, covering Mexico and Central America for three years. He left for Bonn, Germany in 1986, becoming The Post's Central European correspondent, a position he held for nearly four years. In 1990 he became The Post's Wall Street correspondent, followed by a return to Washington as the paper's Local Business Editor. In May 1994, McCartney was appointed the newspaper's national security editor, supervising coverage of the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, United Nations and of foreign policy and defense news in Congress and the White House.

    McCartney, who became The Post's Foreign Editor in March 1999, grew up in Montgomery County, attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and was graduated from Amherst College in 1975.

    Here is a transcript of today's discussion:

    B-town, MD: To a fellow Baron alum - who, in your opinion, will be held most accountable for the -to-date- failed policy in Kosovo; the foreign policy "experts", or the military brass who seem to be lacking the latter?

    Robert J. McCartney: Personally, I think Clinton and his national security team will be held most accountable for the results of the Kosovo policy. Normally the president and his direct advisers are the ones who take the credit, or the blame. Also, in this case, the Pentagon and CIA made clear pretty early that they had reservations about the planning. One caveat: A lot of blame is being spread now on the European allies, and on the NATO command structure, for making it harder to carry out efficient military operations.

    Arlington, Va.: We keep hearing that papers are devoting less and less to the coverage of international news. In your opinion, how does The Post's commitment to foreign news stack up against that of other major dailies, like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times? And what are some of the changes you plan to make?

    Robert J. McCartney: The Post is unquestionably in the top tier of U.S. (and world) newspapers in its commitment to covering international news. It has more than 25 foreign correspondents based around the world, a significant number of part-time "stringers," and a large amount of space in the paper dedicated each day to covering foreign news. While the New York Times does have more correspondents and space for foreign coverage (and so does the LA Times, I think), the Post is close behind them. We don't plan any major changes in foreign coverage in the near future, because we think the international coverage has been quite good. We have some plans for new initiatives, but it's too early to discuss them now in this kind of forum.

    Bob Levey: We've worried for two months now about domestic reaction in the United States to the air strikes. But what about domestic reaction in other NATO countries? Is there some pro and some con the way there is in the U.S.?

    Robert J. McCartney: The domestic reaction in other NATO countries to the bombing of Yugoslavia is very important and will become even more important in coming weeks. Two key European allies -- Germany and Italy -- are facing significant popular pressure to seek a peace settlement with Belgrade. The public opinion there, interestingly enough, is running exactly counter to public opinion in Britain, where the government is under pressure to take a more aggressive tack, and plan openly to send combat ground forces if necessary. These contradictory strains in European public opinion -- combined of course with trends in the United States -- are likely to be a critical factor in coming weeks in determining whether NATO opts for a diplomatic settlement or escalates by invading Kosovo.

    Silver Spring, MD: How many languages do you speak--and is being multilingual a prerequisite for being a foreign correspondent-editor?

    Robert J. McCartney: I have learned French, Spanish, Italian and German, and at one time or another been fluent or at least nearly fluent in each of them. As I learn a new one, I tend to forget big chunks of the old ones, so they're all a bit rusty now. But I can still read a newspaper in Spanish or Italian, and carry on conversations in those fairly readily. My French and German are weaker right now. It's very helpful to know foreign languages to be a foreign correspondent; it's virtually a necessity in some countries. It's not that important to speak foreign languages in being an editor in the sense that most of my dealings now are with our own Post correspondents and other editors, and conducted in English.

    Crofton, Maryland: I have been reading several Western European newspapers for the last few years, and what impresses me is how really superficial is their coverage of the United States. They seem to focus almost entirely on events occurring at the national level, i.e., Washington, with almost no news coming from the other regions. What they do report on is usually something of a catastrophic nature, i.e., hurricanes, tornadoes, executions, Littleton, etc. If you couple this coverage with the ubiquitousness of American movies and their equally skewed portrayal of life in this country, I'd say that Europeans -and the rest of the world, for that matter- are getting a rather biased view of this country. What's your take on this? And are we equally guilty with our own coverage of other nations?

    Robert J. McCartney: We read European coverage of the United States, and find the coverage superficial and one-sided. The Europeans read our coverage of them, and find it equally ill-informed and prejudiced. When I lived overseas, I was constantly frustrated by what I saw as biased viewpoints about the United States. But it's nearly unavoidable in journalism that the reporter views another culture through the prism of his or her own culture and society. So, for instance, a European journalist -- writing for a European audience astonished that the United States permits such widespread gun ownership -- is likely to interpret the Littleton tragedy, or other violence in U.S. society, in large part in terms of America's "love affair with guns" or "the violent frontier tradition." We see the same emphasis in American coverage of Littleton, but it's even greater in Europe. Likewise, when American correspondents write about, say, Italy (a country where I worked for several years), there's likely to be much more coverage of the pope than of domestic Italian politics. Why? Because there are a lot of Roman Catholic readers in the United States who care about the pope, and not so many Americans care about how many seats the Socialists get in the cabinet. The Italian citizen living in the United States looks at the coverage here and says, "all the Americans care about in my country is the Vatican."

    Bob Levey: That was a super piece on A-1 this morning--about how America's image is suffering around the world because of the bombing in the Balkans. In the past, the U.S. has tried to counteract such ill will through the Agency for International Development and Voice of America. Can those kinds of efforts still work?

    Robert J. McCartney: Foreign aid, Voice of America and similar efforts certainly can help to encourage good will toward America around the world. But my impression is that the damage to the United States's reputation from the Kosovo conflict is going to be pretty significant, unless NATO can accomplish its goals fairly quickly. If that happened, then the United States and the rest of NATO could say: we set out to accomplish a humanitarian goal, helping the ethnic Albanians, and accomplished it efficiently and effectively. There would still be grumbling, but a positive result would diminish the ill will. A prolonged campaign, without success, will hurt America's image abroad considerably.

    Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with today's guest, Robert J. McCartney, foreign editor of The Washington Post.

    Kensington, MD: This entire bombing campaign, no matter its humanitarian motivation, seems to have been poorly conceived and--certainly with the bombing of the "invisible" Chinese embassy--poorly executed. Many journalists have reported that the Clinton White House has never even had a contingency plan for what would happen if the Serbs didn't cave in because of the bombing. Which they haven't. Doesn't this entire campaign strike you as a quagmire, further evidence of President Clinton's ineptitude?

    Robert J. McCartney: The Post has reported that Clinton did not have a specific plan for what to do if the bombing campaign, by itself, did not force the Serbs to cave in. There is evidence that Clinton's advisers, especially secretary of state Albright, were convinced that Yugoslav president Milosevic would back down quickly once the bombing began. In that sense, there clearly was a miscalculation. It's hard to predict whether this will become a quagmire. I think there are several possibilities: 1) Milosevic can't stand the punishment from the air war, and essentially surrenders to most of NATO's demands on Kosovo. This is what the White House hopes, of course, and it could happen. But so far there are few indications it's headed that way. 2) NATO and Yugoslavia cut a diplomatic settlement that only gives NATO some of what it wants, and basically there's peace built on a sellout of the ethnic Albanians. This would be a big setback for the United States and NATO, although the disappointment and humiliation would be offset by fact that there was no need to invade Kosovo and incur significant casualties. 3) After prolonged aerial bombardment, without Serbian surrender or a diplomatic settlement, NATO invades Kosovo and drives out Serb forces. This would guarantee NATO achieves its goals, but so far Clinton has shown no appetite for it, and there's considerable resistance to the idea among key European allies especially Italy and Germany.

    Fairfax, VA: Robert -
    I have several friends of foreign extraction - diplomatic staff, recent immigrants to the US - who have complained about the biased -and sometimes plain wrong!- reporting of Washington Post foreign reporters.

    What is the Post doing to ensure that its long-distance staff aren't projecting American habits onto foreign events, while they must also strive to make them comprehensible to the Post's primarily American readership?


    Robert J. McCartney: This is an important issue, and one we wrestle with all the time. Of course we do everything we can to ensure accuracy in our reporting. When people call attention to apparent mistakes, we investigate and run corrections when we've erred. Striking the right balance between "projecting American habits" onto foreign events, and making them comprehensible to mostly American readers, is a real challenge. It's practically impossible -- given our space constraints, and the need to make the news accessible -- to cover a foreign country in enough detail, and with enough nuance, to satisfy a citizen of that country or someone very well acquainted with it. Our goal is to do enough reporting, and be smart and sophisticated enough in our writing, so that our stories are accessible to the average reader, and compelling to the expert.

    Arlington, VA: What do you think are the most under-reported areas of the world as far as Americans are concerned? My general guess would be South America except for drug problems.

    Robert J. McCartney: I'd say the most under reported areas of the world are probably South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Recognizing this, The Post has deliberately added correspondents to try to rectify this. Several years ago we added a correspondent in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, so we now have three in sub-Saharan Africa together with our correspondents in Kenya and South Africa. And just recently we decided to open a bureau in Rio de Janeiro, raising our correspondents covering Latin America to five (in four bureaus). The other bureaus are in Argentina, Mexico (two correspondents) and Miami (covering the Caribbean, Central America and some countries in northern South America).

    Beltsville, MD: Rather than continue -or even start- all the bombing and killing of combatants and some civilians, why don't we just go in and spirit Milesovic out, bring him here and deal with him personally? If we really believe he is the nut behind the wheel of ethnic cleansing, perhaps he should be unscrewed personally.
    If the CIA couldn't do it, we could use Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sean Connery or Harrison Ford.
    Your thoughts?

    Robert J. McCartney: I'm sure Willis, Gere, Connery or Ford would be happy to volunteer to parachute into Belgrade, kidnap Milosevic, and fly out in a commandeered helicopter to nearby Croatia, where they'd be greeted by Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan or Gwyneth Paltrow on the tarmac. That would solve the problem in a jiffy. Seriously, there's a 1970s-era policy barring the CIA or other U.S. government agencies from trying to kill foreign leaders. Remember that time the U.S. bombed Qaddafi's tent? The administration went out of its way to say it wasn't targeting him, personally. And when NATO hit Milosevic's residence several weeks ago, the alliance emphasized it did so because the building was a military command and control post. In the current crisis, though, there's an interesting twist. Milosevic is personally at risk because of the possibility that he could be indicted for war crimes by the international tribunal in the Netherlands. So there is a way to get at him personally, even if we don't have George Lucas write the script.

    Bob Levey: Way back when, becoming a foreign correspondent was every young reporter's dream--you know, the trench coat, the passport with a zillion exotic stamps in it. Is this still a hot career choice, or would more reporters prefer to become editors or (ahem) columnists?

    Robert J. McCartney: Many young journalists still want to be foreign correspondents. It's largely the allure of company-paid travel, and the fact that foreign correspondents almost always have big stories to cover. Few young people show up applying for jobs with us wanting to be editors. That seems to be an acquired taste, which grows over time -- for SOME of us, anyway. Many do want to be columnists, presumably so they can impose, er, share their opinions with the multitudes.

    Washington, DC: Do foreign correspondents have a special challenge to help readers understand why they should care about what's happening elsewhere in the world. For example, today's paper had a big story on the elections in Guatemala. Why should I, living comfortably in the Beltway - with no obvious connection to Guatemala - care to read this story? How do you get readers to want to read World News? Or is that even the foreign correspondents' concern-responsibility?

    Robert J. McCartney: Ouch. You've just reminded me that we forgot what we call the "so what" paragraph in this morning's Guatemala story. We strive to include in all foreign stories (except really short ones) something that tells people why they should care. This is also sometimes called the "nut" graf. This morning's Guatemala story should have said: because the result of this referendum is a setback for the peace process, there is renewed likelihood of violence and instability in Guatemala. That's of concern because it's a region fairly close to the United States, and one with which we have trade ties, and one that is a source of considerable numbers of immigrants. I think this was implicit in the story, to some extent. But it should have been made explicit.

    Bob Levey: That's all for today. Many thanks to our guest, Washington Post foreign editor Robert J. McCartney. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest will be Isiah (Ike) Leggett, chairman of the Montgomery County Council and author of one of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the United States. Don't forget the Friday anything-goes version of our show, "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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