The Limits of the Parachute  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006

The Limits of the Parachute   

Many news organizations rushed reporters from far-flung locales to the Middle East when fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah. But there’s no substitute for coverage by correspondents based in a region and knowledgeable about its history and culture.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


Mohamad Bazzi was in his Beirut apartment having breakfast and thumbing through a newspaper when a friend called with a shocker: Hezbollah guerrillas had made a daring raid into Israel, kidnapping two soldiers. In retaliation, Israeli tanks and commandos were heading toward south Lebanon.

All hell was breaking loose and Newsday's Middle East bureau chief was in the perfect position to cover a major story.

As far as Bazzi knew, only one other American journalist, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, was in Beirut when fighting erupted. Of the two television networks with bureaus in the Lebanese capital, CNN's Brent Sadler was on vacation and NBC's Richard Engel was on assignment in Gaza. By nightfall, Hassan Fatah of the New York Times had made his way to the city from his base in Dubai. Other than that, "I am not sure if there were any other U.S. correspondents here that day," Bazzi recalled in an e-mail interview.

By luck, Fox News Channel's Rome correspondent, Greg Burke, happened to be in Beirut on another assignment when hostilities ignited. But the point was clear: On July 12, American journalists had a meager presence in Lebanon, a country that long has been a tinderbox in the region. A handful staffed bureaus in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Cairo. The mad scramble was on to redeploy reporter power to the Middle East.

As Israeli warplanes bombed Hezbollah strongholds and Katyusha rockets tore into Israeli neighborhoods, foreign editors sent urgent messages via cell phone and BlackBerry. Correspondents were pressed into duty from far-flung outposts in China, India and Africa. An overtaxed foreign press corps, thinned to the bone by two decades of budget cuts and staff reductions and exhausted by years of dangerous duty in Iraq, was being called upon to reinforce the small band of correspondents on the ground as violence escalated.

ABC News' David Wright was fresh out of a dentist's chair in London, his home base, when he was summoned to Beirut. The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, Edward Cody, who had a story datelined out of Tibet a few days earlier, headed back to his old digs in Lebanon. McClatchy, which took over Knight Ridder's foreign bureaus when it purchased the company earlier this year, moved reporters from Nairobi, Cairo and Fort Worth to Lebanon and shifted correspondents from Berlin and Miami to Israel, where they joined the chain's Jerusalem bureau chief.

Fox News Channel brought in Amy Kellogg, who was on assignment in Mumbai, India. The Los Angeles Times sent Rone Tempest, a state reporter who had experience in the Middle East. Then-Baltimore Sun Foreign Editor Robert Ruby flew to Jerusalem so his bureau chief there could take a long-planned family vacation.

Getting to the scene was a challenge. The Beirut airport had been bombed early in the fighting and no longer was operating, the Lebanese coast was blockaded, and main roads were targeted by Israeli warplanes to keep shipments of weapons out of Hezbollah's reach. Some journalists flew into Damascus and braved treacherous back routes into Lebanon or reported from safer havens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

While the newcomers struggled with logistics, Newsday's Bazzi was methodically going about gathering news on a beat he had cultivated for three-and-a-half years. During those first chaotic hours, he monitored Lebanese TV and Arab satellite stations as details trickled out. He worked the phone to reach sources within the Lebanese government and contacted local reporters to find out what they were hearing from insiders.

Bazzi learned that a Cabinet meeting had been scheduled for that afternoon, the perfect place to corral top Lebanese politicians who, even if they would not speak for attribution, might provide valuable insight into the turmoil. By 4 p.m. Beirut time — 9 a.m. in New York — he was on the telephone with Newsday Foreign Editor Roy Gutman. The paper would use the wires for breaking news; Bazzi would provide context, perspective and analysis of the fast-moving events.

An Arabic speaker of Lebanese American descent, he had covered the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon for Newsday in May 2000 and the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

On July 12, Bazzi filed a story examining whether the clash could ignite a full-scale war in the Middle East, drawing heavily on his own knowledge of Hezbollah. For the July 16 paper, he wrote about how Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, was basically taking control of the country. Bazzi had read all the guerrilla leader's major speeches and monitored his pronouncements. "Those are the kinds of quick interpretative stories that you can write if you've been covering a region for years," Bazzi says. "Someone who parachutes in might not have this context in mind... They might not see how Nasrallah changed his terminology or demeanor."

For a foreign editor, it was nirvana. "Bazzi knew very well what he was seeing; he put his finger on it immediately — that Hezbollah had taken over the state and was acting as if, in fact, it was the state. That was the big picture, and he reported it on day one and day two," Gutman says. "This is a case of a living, breathing correspondent who watches everything and knows everything. He's not duplicating anyone else. This is the moment when you need depth of knowledge, not only about what's happening on the surface, but what underlies the conflict. You don't get it by dropping in."

Gutman won't be as fortunate next year. Newsday's Middle East bureau is scheduled to close next spring, part of a reorganization by the paper's corporate owner, the Tribune Co. The Islamabad bureau, the last remaining of the newspaper's six, also will shut down. The Baltimore Sun, another Tribune paper, will lose its remaining foreign bureaus in Moscow and Johannesburg over the next 18 months. The Sun's Beijing and London bureaus were closed in late 2005. Its Jerusalem bureau is slated to become part of Tribune's network of foreign outposts.

Both Newsday and the Sun have a proud history of international reporting. Ruby, who left the Sun in late August to join the Pew Research Center, calls the bureau closings a "sad development" for the newspaper. "There's a real virtue in numbers, and I'm not talking about on the balance sheet. I'm talking about people in the field," Ruby says. "Whatever newspaper chains might say, news is handled quite differently in newsrooms if it's written by our man or woman in the field."

Locally based and well-connected correspondents like Bazzi are a disappearing breed. Instead, many news organizations have turned to crisis-driven and episodic reporting — fast in and fast out, leaving little room for such important elements as context, cultural perspective or in-depth analysis. That became obvious during the frenzied migration of correspondents to the Middle East in July.

There's no doubt cutting back on overseas coverage and shuttering bureaus saves money. But will there be a price to pay for this penny- pinching by media conglomerates? Ted Koppel, the former anchor of ABC's "Nightline," certainly thinks so.

On April 20, Koppel stood at a podium at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City to receive the Overseas Press Club of America's President's Award for his distinguished career in broadcast journalism. In his keynote address he scolded those who beef up profits at the expense of foreign news.

In a somber tone, Koppel warned, "We are in the early stages of what the Pentagon these days is calling 'the long war.' There is no end in sight. Our enemies are recruiting and planning and preparing all over the world, and we are closing our foreign bureaus down." Television news, he said, has devolved into essentially what the public would like it to be, and "the public, we are told, does not much care for foreign news. That's not just a shame, that's a travesty, and a dangerous one."

During an interview in August, Koppel expounded on how consultants, accountants and demographers drive what Americans see on television. He is passionate about the watering down of foreign news. "The approach now is, 'Well, don't worry about it. When something happens, we can take a jet and we can access satellites and we'll have it for you in 24 hours.' Have what?" he asks.

"You'll have the aftereffects. You'll have the result of what you should have been telling America about for the last six months. You'll have the crisis after it breaks. You're no longer a warning system. That's the great role American foreign correspondents have played for years," Koppel says, adding, "The security of the United States is the larger issue."

An August 10 Washington Post column by Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, underscored those concerns. Holbrooke laid out a scenario he believes could pose the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. "[W]e must be ready for unexpected problems that will test us; they could come in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan or even Somalia — but one thing seems sure: They will come," the former diplomat predicted.

The timing for more shutdowns of foreign bureaus couldn't be worse. Five years ago, Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, posed a pivotal question during a speech at the University of Nebraska: "Why have local newspapers and television news broadcasts become so indifferent to international news during an era when ethnic conflicts have killed millions and globalization has touched nearly every American community?"

Giles believes that newsroom agendas have to change from a tunnel-vision commitment to local news toward a more encompassing worldview. "It's true, not many newspapers have their own people in the field anymore, but we do have access to some extraordinarily informative wire service stories that could inform readers on critical issues," Giles says. "Yet they are the ones that tend to get cut."

News managers interviewed for this story seem resigned to the fact that robust overseas bureaus are largely artifacts of a bygone era, like typewriters and rotary phones. Instead, with a few exceptions, foreign news has entered a phase of crisis journalism — the flood-the-zone, event-driven coverage Americans witnessed during July's Middle East crisis. The audience has little or no history before the story breaks into headlines; there has been no foreshadowing. (This is precisely what has happened in Afghanistan, where the American press corps has dwindled dramatically while conditions continue to worsen — see "The Forgotten War," August/September.)

This approach results in a shorter media attention span. When the shooting ends, reporters scatter as quickly as they came. "We'll pull our journalistic shock troops out, and we'll redeploy them somewhere else because we only have a handful," Koppel says.

On August 20, CNN's "Reliable Sources" examined the topic of whether correspondents would cut and run from Israel and Lebanon or stay to report about unresolved issues. At the time, the dramatic emergence of a suspect in the decade-old murder of JonBenet Ramsey was devouring headlines and airtime. "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz called the JonBenet story "one of the biggest media frenzies in modern history."

When CNN anchor Jim Clancy joined the program from Lebanon, he chided Kurtz for leading his show with the Ramsey story. Kurtz retorted, "We led with JonBenet because it is utterly dominating the news media in the last four days. Is it the most important story going on in the world? I would be hard-pressed to argue that."

The new twist in the Ramsey mystery was not to blame for the media slowdown in the Middle East, says Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network news. The fighting was dying down, diplomacy was kicking in and peace was breaking out well before the arrest of John Mark Karr in Thailand.

"The story had peaked already," says Tyndall, whose numbers bear out Koppel's prediction of a fickle press. Network airtime for the Israel-Lebanon fighting was at a high July 17–21 with 193 minutes. Two weeks later, it had fallen to 69 minutes, but still ranked as top story of the week. By August 14–18, the JonBenet story had top billing with 42 minutes on the air; the United Nations ceasefire and many unresolved issues between Israel and Hezbollah received 39 minutes.

Timing might have been a factor in the media frenzy over the Karr arrest, which surfaced after a summer of grim news from wars on several fronts, including Iraq and Afghanistan. "Basically, it was sort of 'You've eaten your broccoli, it's now time for some dessert.' That was the mood of the JonBenet coverage," says Tyndall.

Declining overseas coverage and mothballed foreign bureaus are hardly new developments (see "Goodbye, World," November 1998 and "Bureau of Missing Bureaus," October/November 2003). Still, they remain hard to accept for veteran correspondents.

From 1989 to 1994, Roy Gutman was European bureau chief for Newsday, covering some of the biggest stories of the day: the collapse of communism in Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first democratic elections in the former Soviet Bloc. When Yugoslavia imploded, he reported a stunning series of stories on Serb atrocities in Bosnia. For that work, he was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1993 as well as the George Polk Award for foreign reporting.

His strength, Gutman says, was building a solid knowledge base and becoming intimately acquainted with the territory he covered. "You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis like [the Middle East] is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context," says Gutman, who is 62.

"I have great respect for the big papers and how they cover the world, but I think there is a vital place for midsize papers [like Newsday] to do things their own way and tailor their reporting to their publics," Gutman says. "The real test is: What is the journalism that comes out of this?" He cites Newsday's August 2005 award-winning series "Nepal: A country on the brink" as an example.

Anthony Shadid, 37, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting out of Iraq, is a younger version of Gutman. The two think alike about the serious role overseas reporters play in world affairs.

Shadid, the Washington Post's Middle East correspondent, has spent the bulk of his career in the region, starting with the Associated Press in Cairo in 1995. When the shooting started in July, he postponed a trip to Boston to take his 5-year-old daughter camping. He was the only Post correspondent in Beirut until Ed Cody arrived from Beijing later that week.

Once Cody, a seasoned Middle East reporter, was in place, Shadid headed to the port city of Tyre, closer to the action. He began filing detailed accounts of those who were suffering at the hands of the combatants. "I try to keep my reporting as close to the ground as possible," Shadid said by telephone from a seaside hotel 10 miles from the Israeli border. It was early August, and he could hear bombs blasting in the distance as he talked about making the voice of the people the focus of his reporting.

Shadid rattled off the names of news organizations that had rushed personnel to Tyre. The New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and the AP all had correspondents staying at Hotel Al-Fanar, where he had a room for $35 a night. Like Gutman, he sees value in knowing the geopolitical terrain. In late July, Shadid headed over treacherous roads, braving attacks by Israeli warplanes, to the hard-hit town of Bint Jbeil.

"When I got there, I wasn't sure what I was going to write about, then, all of a sudden, people started crawling out of the wreckage. It was an unbelievable moment. I stood there staring, then I started interviewing a couple of them. Getting out into the field is the best option," says Shadid, who is Lebanese American and speaks Arabic. He led his page-one story out of Bint Jbeil with a single sentence: "The ghosts climbed out of the rubble in this southern town Monday."

Even such bastions of foreign news as the New York Times and NPR felt the crush of simultaneous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. How did major media organizations cope?

NPR performed sleight of hand on July 12 by shifting Ivan Watson from his post in Istanbul to Lebanon. Jackie Northam, NPR's national security correspondent in Washington, D.C., headed to Beirut. Mike Schuster, a foreign policy correspondent based in the U.S., flew to Israel.

NPR's strong commitment to foreign news is largely audience driven, says Deputy Foreign Editor Ted Clark. "There is an appetite for it. Focus groups of our listeners show that international news is one of the top two or three reasons why they tune in." NPR maintains 16 bureaus, each staffed by one reporter, and is about to open another.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe closed its Baghdad bureau and moved two reporters from Iraq to Israel, which turned out to be a stroke of luck when the fighting started in July. "Iraq was expensive. We were able to maintain a full bureau with two people for three years, but our resources were stretched thin," says Foreign Editor James Smith, who plans to keep two of his five foreign correspondents in the Middle East. As for the future, "There is no prospect of growing the foreign desk" at the Globe, he says.

The New York Times' overseas staff remains flush with talent. On July 12, the paper had two reporters in the Jerusalem bureau and immediately moved its Dubai-based correspondent to Beirut. Craig Smith, based in Paris, headed to Gaza, while Jad Mouawad, a business reporter in New York who was vacationing in France, flew to Lebanon. As the fighting continued, reporter power continued to flow in. "We have a wonderfully large staff, and when this stuff happens, we borrow from other places," says Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner. The paper has about 40 full-time foreign correspondents in the field at any given time plus a network of stringers.

But even the Times has its limitations. By mid-August, when news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's illness emerged, Bronner found himself hoping, "Please, Castro, don't die now." (See "Cuba Countdown," page 48.) He says, "It's been a great ride, the kinds of stories we live for, but I wouldn't mind it slowing down a bit." Throughout it all, the Times has maintained its four-person bureau in Baghdad.

No one has had more experience juggling staff than the AP. With the multiple conflicts of recent years, "it has become more normal for correspondents to spend part of their time away from regular beats and doing frontline duty in different conflicts," says the wire service's international editor, John Daniszewski. He considers his global staff of more than 500, including AP's television staff and its photographers, to be a luxury. "But with what is going on today, there is no one who's not busy or who has time on his or her hands."

When fighting erupted in the Middle East, CNN dispatched some of its marquee names to the scene, among them anchors Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and senior correspondent Nic Robertson. Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman headed to the Gaza Strip; London-based correspondent Aneesh Raman moved to Damascus. With bureaus in Jerusalem and Beirut, CNN had 18 correspondents in the region.

Other networks made do with smaller rosters. John Stack, vice president for newsgathering at Fox News Channel, has no illusions of competing with CNN's boots-on-the-ground presence. "We aren't as big as our competitors, but we have a very good team of people in the Jerusalem bureau, and we fortified it immediately after hostilities broke out," says Stack, who brought in one correspondent from India. "We made our investment in our operation in Israel and the surrounding area, and it paid off in this story," Stack says. He sent his high-profile anchor Shepard Smith to head coverage.

Operating on the fly isn't always just a by-product of cost-cutting, says Paul Slavin, ABC News' senior vice president. It's a matter of reallocating resources, he says. His network is spending more overseas than ever, says Slavin, but "we have been big believers in trying to keep our brick-and-mortar facilities to a minimum... The next terrorist attack may be in Kinshasa [Congo]. I don't have a correspondent there, and I don't believe there is a news organization anywhere in the world that can legitimately have hard resources everywhere. It's a matter of picking and choosing."

Rome Hartman, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," believes that although networks are operating with slimmer foreign staffs, modern technology helps fill the gaps. He points to the differences between the Vietnam War, in which film had to be shipped to the United States by air, and the up-to-the-minute coverage in Iraq. "It's rare that you have stories this big, with this kind of dominance, one after another," he says. "But, really, that is what our bureaus and our correspondents do. We juggle stories and find the balance between breaking news and enterprise. That's what news organizations are built for... It's what we're trained for."

Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. "Look, I don't care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you've never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on," says Koppel, who is now managing editor of the Discovery Channel. "You don't have sources, you don't have the background, you don't have the context."

Koppel's words ring true for Donatella Lorch. The veteran overseas reporter once lived the life of a parachutist. In the late 1990s, she spent two years working for NBC News based in London. During that time, Lorch was sent to Russia, the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia and the Balkans. "You feel like you are climbing an insurmountable wall. You face a lack of knowledge, lack of time, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure to perform. It's a huge difference from living in a region and having troves of information," says Lorch, who covered the first Persian Gulf War for the New York Times and is now freelancing.

Over the years Lawrence Pintak, who covered the Middle East for CBS News in the 1980s, has observed foreign reporting from his post as a professor in Cairo. Despite their best efforts, correspondents inexperienced in a region usually come up short, he says.

"Journalists are trained to be quick studies. We know how to parachute in, hit the ground running and come up with some semblance of information and some basic components of the story. But often, the history, the nuance, the culture, much of that is lacking," says Pintak, who directs a broadcast journalism program at the American University in Cairo.

He spotted the difference in recent Middle East coverage. Pintak praised veterans such as CNN's Robertson and Amanpour and NBC's Martin Fletcher, who have experience in the Middle East. The newcomers, says Pintak, tended to spend more time relating hearsay and dwelling on personal experiences.

"There was endless reporting of, 'This just happened. A rocket came over. We barely got missed.' There was too much 'I, I, I" about what the reporter was doing," Pintak says. The more experienced journalists "had an intrinsic depth of knowledge they could draw on. There clearly was a difference."

During interviews for this story, news managers across the board agreed that overseas reporting remains a vital function of the Fourth Estate. They also said financial restrictions are more severe than ever. But there are a few bright spots. Earlier this year, NBC opened a Beirut bureau staffed by correspondent Richard Engel, who made a name for himself in Iraq (see The Beat, August/September). The AP announced the opening of a full-time television bureau in North Korea, making it the first Western news organization to have a permanent presence in the highly secretive nation. And NPR is interviewing applicants for a new bureau in Kabul.

Though not ideal, media managers have found ways to stretch paltry budgets. In Iraq and Afghanistan, news organizations have hired local reporters and provided on-the-job training in Western-style journalism. There is a greater emphasis on building networks of contract workers and tapping into local media outlets and organizations.

"Everybody finds a way to get [foreign] news without spending as much as they did in the past," says Sig Christenson, military affairs writer for the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters and Editors. "If we have a real shooting war in Iran, people will spend the money."

In the November 1998 issue of AJR, former CNN and AP correspondent Peter Arnett wrote about vanishing foreign news in a piece titled "Goodbye World." In it he asked: "So how is it that Americans have never been less informed about what's going on in the rest of the world?" He then answered his own question: "Because we, the media, have stopped telling them."

Foreign coverage is again at a crossroads. Editors will cut more bureaus and trim more overseas staff if that is what is demanded of them. There's still time to reverse the trend: Maybe media moguls and their stockholders would magnanimously agree to settle for a few dollars less if it meant a clearer understanding of a complex and dangerous world.

But don't bet heavily on it.

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