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"Levey Live" archives

Q&A With Philip Bennett

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/
Bob's guest today is Philip Bennett, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news. Bennett was appointed to the job in February and has played a key role in the paper's coverage of the war in Balkans. He traveled to Yugoslavia and filed stories for the Post from Belgrade and Kosovo during the height of the conflict.

Philip Bennett
Photo/Mark Finkenstaedt
Philip Bennett joined The Post as deputy national editor for national security coverage in August of 1997. He came to the Post after more than 10 years at The Boston Globe where he was a Latin American correspondent, Metro editor and reporter and foreign editor. He is a graduate of Harvard and a native of San Francisco.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Mt. Rainier MD: The coverage of Africa has been disappointing. We seem to have more information about any other place in the world, coming from more reporters. I hear that an extra reporter has been assigned -to the entire continent!-. I feel we really need better information about these countries - before they get 'hot', not after.

Philip Bennett: We've put a lot of energy and resources into coverage of Africa, with three full time bureaus on the continent, plus our Cairo bureau, which divides its responsibilities between the Middle East and North Africa. But more importantly than assigning reporters to the region, we've tried to diversify our coverage -- away from crises -- towards the richer variety of news and trends among African nations, writing about issues such as health, education and culture. Still, events such as the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Sudan, Congo, and Sierra Leone draw a lot of our attention, as they have this week.

Bob Levey: You were recently in Kosovo, on assignment for The Post. Do any of the factions want or expect the U.S. to help rebuild--as sort of a latter-day Marshall Plan?

Philip Bennett: The Europeans have taken the lead in reconstructing Kosovo, after the United States led the deconstruction of the province during the air war. This will be an important test of Europe's commitment to bringing the southern Balkans more squarely into Western Europe. I think the big question will revolve around the reconstruction of Serbia, and the bearing that might have on the future of Slobodan Milosevic.

Bogota (Colombia): ┐How likely is a U.S. intervention in Colombia?

Philip Bennett: Colombia is an increasing source of alarm in Washington, particularly at the Pentagon. Already there is an expanding program of training and supply to the Colombian police forces, and growing enthusiasm for trying to reverse the army's disastrous performance against the rebels. But I think a wider military intervention is out of the question now, both for what it would mean in Colombia and the because of the political costs here.

Alexandria, VA: Mr. Bennett,
The Congressional Resource Service reports that since the END of Desert Storm, we've flown over 100,000 missions & spent over $7 Billion in our fight with Iraq. This year alone we've bombed Iraq more than 200 times, killing dozens of civilians. Our continuing Blockade, "sanctions," has resulted in the deaths of over 1,000,000 people in Iraq these last nine years. Coverage of all of this has been remarkably light in the Post.

Sir, when you consider that the casualties in this, our ongoing War, approach Genocidal levels - don't you think the Post should at least be paying attention?

Philip Bennett: We've written a great deal about Iraq in recent months, including sending correspondents there to report on the human cost of the U.N. sanctions regime. I'd share your view, though, that events such as the war in Kosovo tend to eclipse much of the rest of the news from abroad, even on a story like Iraq. I'd be very interested to know more about what has happened since the U.S. bombing campaign at the end of last year --- whether Iraq is reconstituting its weapons of mass destruction programs, and why there doesn't seem to be more movement at the United Nations on the sanctions issue.

Washington, DC: I understand that Milosevic's son, Marko, has opened an amusement park in Pozarevac and the President's wife, Mira Markovic, has been talking of the development of Serbia even during NATO bombing. Western media have provided varying accounts of the damage sustained during military operations. In what condition was Kosovo left? Belgrade? Will there be any efforts on behalf of Milosevic's government to ease the burden on average Yugoslav citizens and rebuild the country? Can this be done with out significant Western -US-assistance?

Philip Bennett: The most interesting theory I've heard in recent weeks for why President Milosevic decided to withdraw from Kosovo had to do with the NATO bombing of his son's disco, a place called Madona's (sic). So perhaps Mirko is searching for new sources of amusement.

Bob Levey: Now that the Baltimore Orioles have softened him up, Fidel Castro seems ready to have some sort of relationship with the U.S. What do you think The Bearded One would really like to see?

Philip Bennett: Baseball exchanges notwithstanding, there's been a 39-year rain delay in U.S.-Cuban relations that I don't see any serious signs of clearing up. There are continually fascinating wrinkles in the relationship: the Orioles games, the announcement this week that the head of the US Chamber of Commerce (!?) would be visiting Havana, the continued infatuation of some major U.S. corporations pushing to lift the U.S. embargo. But, at the same time, it's discouraging to see in the recent crackdown on the very weak internal opposition that the Cuban government continues to view any political opening as a threat. Coverage of Cuba is a fascinating area, but I'm not ready to buy season's tickets to future examples of North-South cooperation.

Washington, D.C. : I'm curious as to how the Post chooses to cover certain foreign events but not others. The other day, there was a fire in a Korean that killed 23 children. It received a small mention in world roundup. A few days later the Post ran a front page story on
the Europeans killed in a cable car crash at an observatory. Fewer were killed but it played prominently. I can't help but wonder whether you care more about Europeans than anyone else.

Philip Bennett: Let me try to make the question even tougher, recalling an earlier comment about our coverage of Africa: does our enormous coverage of Kosovo, say, mean that we care more about ethnic Albanians than about, say, Sudanese, also suffering the ravages of a war? The short answer, of course, is no. Trying to apply news judgement to events around the world is the toughest part of my job. It determines where we place our bureaus and what we put into the paper every day. There's no science to it, and the decisions often bare little relationship to what we might "care" about in, say, a moral way. We tend to focus naturally on areas where their is a direct U.S. interest, or where unfolding events are likely to affect people in this country. But those are not the only measures -- often the imagination and vision of a correspondent in the field has a huge impact of what we write about.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with today's guest, Philip Bennett, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news.

Bob Levey: Being a foreign correspondent has never been easy, but these days, I wonder how anyone can do it. Not only is it dangerous and physically strenuous, but it involves constant travel, constantly rotten working conditions, constant struggles to develop sources and cut through official lies. What does it take to be a good correspondent these days, other than a hard head and a tough hide?

Philip Bennett: In some ways, being a foreign correspondent is the closest thing I can imagine to being a modern troubadour, except that you're transmitting your stories via satellite or phone lines to an audience thousands of miles away. Foreign news follows a lot of conventions -- we try to give straight, accurate, balanced accounts of things. But personality also matters, the vision and values of individual correspondents in the field. I'd say that overall conditions have improved for correspondents abroad -- it's easier to travel and to get access to information, places, people. There are two big drawbacks today: 1) the disregard for civilians in general and the press in particular make covering wars more dangerous and 2)technology means that your editors can find you anywhere. Gone our the days of disappearing for weeks at a time on a good story.

Washington, DC: Has any aspect of a free press been able to function in Yugoslavia? [edited for space]

Philip Bennett: When I was in Belgrade during the war, I found political debate much more free-wheeling that one might have expected. Still, the government controlled media dominated the local press, presenting, most notably on television, a completely alternative reality to the events we were observing on the ground in Kosovo. As you might imagine, though, the impact of restrictions on the free local press in Serbia and elsewhere has been influence by the ubiquity of access to CNN, Sky News, and other outside sources.

Houston, TX: What sort of background do most of your reporters-columnists have? Are they former journalism majors who started from scratch, foreign affairs people who left the government, or what?

Philip Bennett: Most of our foreign correspondents started working at The Post in other sections, as Metro reporters, Feature writers, or on our large National staff. Many did not go to journalism school or major in journalism (I didn't, for example). But almost all of them have had some experience reporting and working abroad, either at The Post or at another newspaper. Although we don't require academic or other formal expertise in an area before we choose a correspondent, we expect them to acquire this. In many cases this means a year of language and other preparation before they take up their posts. Basically, our foreign posts are open to all comers; but there's great competition for the spots.

Bob Levey: How big a role do you think foreign affairs will play in the 2000 campaign? I haven't heard a syllable about it yet from Gore, Bradley, George Dubya, anyone.

Philip Bennett: In foreign policy our tendency to skate from crisis to crisis removes from public discussion many of the broader issues that are reshaping the world, such as the environment, and through movements of people, capital, goods, etc. Outside of a crisis -- and it's worth noting that not even the war in Kosovo registered as a significant political event in the United States -- it's hard now to foresee any of these larger issues will force their way into the electoral campaign.

Fairfax, VA: Phil --
How many languages do you speak? Have you learned on-the-fly as you work, and have you gotten fluent -more than tourist level- in any?


Philip Bennett: I also speak Spanish, which I learned over ten years as a correspondent in Latin America. Each of our correspondents should speak the language of the country where he or she is based. Many of our correspondents are extraordinary linguists; two speak more than five languages each. Others, especially those who cover wide areas, become extraordinarily skilled in finding people who can help them, and in improvised sign languages. Each and every one knows how to say "Don't shoot" in a variety of tongues.

Bob Levey: The Russians perplex me (as usual). What's going on inside the former Evil Empire? What role does Russia want in the Balkans?

Philip Bennett: Russia has become a more baffling, challenging, worrisome story than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Clearly the country is still in the process of a great, chaotic transformation, and it is carrying with it a lot of the baggage from the old era. Although this sometimes expresses itself in unpredictable ways (the dash of Russian troops to Pristina), the forces behind them have become a routine feature of Russian government. In other words, our forecast is for continued unpredictability. Getting behind that is a lot of what our correspondents in Russia -- David Hoffman, Dan Williams, and Sharon LaFraniere -- spend their time on.

Washington, DC: The Post is to be commended for its commitment to international news. It should cover immigration more thoroughly, however. How do current immigration trends compare to historic immigration, such as out of Ireland and Scandinavia?

Philip Bennett: Immigration is great story that crosses institutional boundaries here at the paper -- it's an international, national, and local story. I'd like to see us do more to tie these elements together; that is, to examine immigration more sharply and deeply across the bridge of experience that connects where immigrants are coming from to where they (we) are here. As for trends, although the percentage of immigrants as part of the population was greater at the start of the century, the absolute numbers are greater today.

Bob Levey: Israeli Prime Minister Barak visits Washington on Thursday. President Clinton already sees him as a more sympathetic leader than Netanyahu. How does Capitol Hill see him? Can Barak expect the same level of aid from the Hill that Israel has always gotten?

Philip Bennett: We've already started to see the trappings of a new era of good feelings accompanying Barak's trip here this week: two meetings with President Clinton, private weekend at Camp David. In short, a much warmer embrace than ever occurred between Clinton and Netanyahu. But the future of this relationship is now firmly tied to progress in the peace process, which despite encouraging signs is still many moves off. In others words, now comes the hard part.

Bob Levey: That'll do it for today. Thanks to our guest, Philip Bennett. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, July 20, at the same time, when our guest will be Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Our scheduled guest for July 27 is D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Don't forget "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our weekly no-holds-barred show. It appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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