There may be a professional foreign-affairs reporter who believes that events in his field have a neat beginning, middle and end, but I haven't met one.
There may be also be a reporter who has avoided writing or broadcasting about at least one foreign-policy matter as though it were conclusive - the end of the story - out I haven't met that person either.
The latter statement goes a long way toward explaining the wide gap between the American public's perception of foreign affairs and the reality of foreign affairs today. The former statement continues to offer the hope that the gap can be closed.
There is immense pressure working against that hope. Most Americans are conditioned by their nation's history to believe that any problem can be solved. Failure to produce a speedy solution, no matter how complex situation, is usually regarded as an admission of error, the result of inept policy or worse. The frontier was conquered and the land shaped to our needs, after all, and thus all problems should be equally susceptible to the ax and the bulldozer.
It doesn't seem to matter that our daily lives contradict such tidy certainties, or that virtually all of us eventually learn that nothing is permanent, whether good or bad. What we want from our government at home and abroad is at least the pretense of quick success and lasting answers.
Many politicians are eager to feed that appetite. It happens to be one that is extraordinarily tempting to the policy-maker as well. A "success" today, no matter how cosmetic or temporary, gives the government time and room to maneuver tomorrow.
It is against that background that another, equally insatiable appetite should be examined for clues as to why the public is confused about foreign-policy realities. I am speaking here of the daily news cycle. It requires "new" news twice a day and definite, compact assessments every evening. Most reporters worth their salt resist its demands; hardly any reporter consistently escapes them. The forms and conventions of daily journalism often presents as solid an obstacle to public comprehension as any conscious policy of governmental news management could erect in this open society.
How many "breakthroughs" have been heralded by how many reporters about how many negotiations that eventually went nowhere? How many "final" settlements have been proclaimed only to evaporate in weeks or months? Or, conversely, how many talks have "collapsed" one day only to be revived, apparently miraculously, the next?
Just a few months ago reporters covering talks in Tanzania between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, British Foreign Secretary David Owen and leaders of the Rhodesian Patriotic Front managed to use the words "stalemate," "breakdown" and "success" in three turns of the news cycle. Months later, the search for peace in that torn area goes on.
Bad or misleading stories are, as often as not, based on bad information provided to reporters. They must contend with everything from evasive press secretaries to self-serving statements from virtually everyone in any international forum. That said, however, it is time for reporters and editors-along with publishers and station managers-to rethink the way foreign-affairs news is too often covered and presented.
A starting point for the reevaluation process would be the truism, which happens to be true, that continuity is the rule in foreign policy and process the essential ingredient. Today's succeess leads to new problems tomorrow. There are no final solutions in diplomacy. A goose may awaken to a new world every day. Journalism should not.
A second stage along the way would be a close look by editors, publishers and producers at what I modestly call Carter's Law of Foreign Affairs Reporting. Briefly put, it is this: The hotter the lead, the more prophetic or predictive the information, the more leery of the story the news desk should be. Nothing is as simple as some reports make it appear; nothing is so complex that the complexity should be ignored for the sake of 90 seconds of punchy impact.
Finally, the gatekeepers of the news in this country should trust their foreign correspondents more and give them the space and time to prove that the trust is well-founded. Instead of forcing journalists to duplicate every piece of transient, if colorful, fluff turned up by someone else, give them their heads-or replaced them with those better qualified. Don't allow Greshem's-Law to operate on the tube and on the page: the incomplete, but sexy stories driving out the solid, thorough ones.
The United States is deeply involved in the world. Its people deserve to know and understand what their government and other governments are doing, why they are doing it and what it means. Governments have their own inherent, obvious reasons for wanting to shape the news, a fact of life not worth more than a passing glance.
Journalism should not contribute to the misunderstanding and misperception that abound simply because "that is the way things have always been done."