Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009 | Last spring I was invited to speak to a journalism class at San Diego State, though in keeping with the times it is now called “communication” for the excellent reason that most of its students will never be journalists. There were about two dozen in the class, all but three of them women, and when I asked how many intended a career in journalism only two hands went up. It must be hell to teach journalism today.
Back in the days of journalism you could count on everyone in class aiming for a daily newspaper job. Maybe there were some who dreamed of working for television or magazines, but they would never admit it. Depending on where you went to school, you aspired to the big daily in your city and then it would be on to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago and then abroad as a foreign correspondent. To be a foreign correspondent was the most exotic job on a newspaper, like pastry chef in a kitchen.
Europe was crawling with Burberry and London Fog stores when I arrived there in 1965, and foreign press associations were thriving everywhere. Big city dailies in the United States had bureaus in every major capital, as did the TV networks and even radio networks like Westinghouse. The three English language news agencies, the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters, had dozens of correspondents and stringers scattered across Europe. I doubt there was ever a time in history that the American public was better informed.
When there was a war, we dropped what we were doing and rushed off to it. My job was covering the Cold War so I didn’t get to Vietnam. But I did make the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and, starting in 1968, spent four years covering the Vietnam peace talks, charade that they were. At least I had a chance to tell readers they were a charade, which Washington never would have told them.
These thoughts were prompted by a recent article in The New York Times which reported that the three U.S. television networks have closed their bureaus in Iraq. A couple of newspapers will remain, and CNN and Fox News will each keep one correspondent in Baghdad. Everyone else has decamped. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq and zero network correspondents, surely the first time since television’s invention that networks have forgotten about a war. The three evening newscasts gave one-quarter of the time to Iraq last year of what they gave it in 2007. Not hard to imagine what 2009 holds.
We know what’s happening to newspapers. You want to buy a daily cheap? Take your pick, starting in San Diego or Los Angeles. Trouble is you might end up like Lee Enterprises (including the North County Times), which bought out the Pulitzer chain three years ago and now faces default; or like the Media News Group, which bought a string of California dailies, including the San Jose Mercury News, just as the bottom fell out. Sam Zell, the Chicago realtor who bought the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, already is in bankruptcy. Like any sub-prime mortgage holder, these press lords bought properties at the top of the market and now are scrambling to stay alive.
For local coverage, online newspapers like voiceofsandiego.org are ready to take over, but who will report the news from abroad? It’s not just wars that won’t be covered. Foreign nations won’t be covered either. You want news from Paris, London, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing, Baghdad, Delhi, Tokyo? You can have The New York Times on your doorstep for $700 annually.
You don’t have to go back to Vietnam to appreciate the value of foreign reporting. Bush will be gone, but his administration, like those of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, makes a powerful case for foreign coverage.
Foreign correspondents told us about the absence of nuclear weapons in Iraq, about Abu Ghraib, about foreign reaction to Bush’s policy of “pre-emptive” war, to his rejection of the treaty on global warming and the Geneva Conventions on torture. More recently, when Washington blamed Russia for the brief but deadly war with Georgia, we learned from foreign correspondents that it was Georgia that started the war.
Foreign correspondents tell us the truth about the Middle East when Washington bends the facts to fit political self-interest; farther east, reporting from Afghanistan keeps us informed about the corruption and fragility of the Karzai government. How can the public make informed decisions about the need for U.S. troops abroad if it doesn’t know the truth about the governments we support? That was the problem of Vietnam.
The value of foreign reporting is not just being there when war breaks out, but in anticipating trouble, warning Americans of risks and dangers that government misses or purposely distorts — like Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
With the decline of the printed press, the three networks, all owned by large corporations with interests and incomes far wider than those of newspaper companies, should smell the opportunity. Instead, at the time they are most needed to keep Americans informed, they are closing down important foreign news operations.
Congress should look into this. The airwaves, owned by the public, are licensed to the networks in return for their commitment to keep the public informed. Closing down operations in a war zone does not meet that commitment.
(Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the North County Times was already part of Lee Enterprises when it acquired the Pulitzer chain. We regret the error.)
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.