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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

State of The American Newspaper
G.A.s for the World   

Foreign correspondents were once trained specialists who focused on specific countries or regions. Not after 9/11. They’re now likely to be dispatched to cover conflicts virtually anywhere--and national and metro reporters are frequently thrown into the mix.

Related reading:   The Foggy Bottom Beat
  Newspapers’ Overseas Press Corps

By Stephen Seplow
Stephen Seplow, a longtime editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former news editor in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, is a Philadelphia writer.      

It was in James F. Smith's office in February that I decided this story could not be written--at least not then.

Smith, the Boston Globe's foreign editor, a dedicated type-A and a sympathetic ear on the SAT phone for struggling hacks in faraway places, was doing about three things at once as he prepared to send his troops into the war in Iraq. He pointed to three cartons cluttering one corner of his not-very-spacious office. "They are the chemical and biological suits," he said. "We've ordered a dozen." They were to protect the four Globe reporters who would be embedded with various military units and some of the 10 other reporters and photographers who would work in the war zone.

I realized in Smith's office that as editors from Los Angeles to Boston prepared to cover a war that certainly would have started (and actually ended) by the time my article appeared, no story I wrote about foreign coverage could possibly be relevant by the time it went to press.

In June, taking another shot, I was sitting in the office of David E. Hoffman, the Washington Post's foreign editor. A chemical and biological suit plus a couple of flak jackets were stored in a corner. They had been returned by some of the 24 reporters and photographers the Post had in the region at the war's peak.

Between my visits to Smith and Hoffman, a new demand--and a more complex one--had been thrust on the shoulders of the nation's editors: covering a war on terrorism that could last for years and flare up in several places at once. Only two days after I left Hoffman, U.S. troops were seri-ously, and unexpectedly, reengaged in Iraq, and as I write this, two-and-a- half months after President Bush declared the war in Iraq a mission accomplished, American soldiers are being killed every day or so.

"We're just coming to grips that we have a global story," says Philip Bennett, the Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news. "With terrorism, and the U.S. diplomatic activity around the world related to terrorism, and all the other places we need to cover for readers...we're in as complex a situation as there's been since the [Post's] foreign service started."

How are newspapers coping as they try to make sense of the uncertainty in Iraq and stay in position to cover terrorism everywhere? To find out, I spoke with editors at four papers: the Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe, with medium-size rosters of foreign bureaus but a commitment to covering the world; the Chicago Tribune, with 10 bureaus, the largest number after the big four (the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal); and the Post.

If Muhammad Ali were answering the question I posed, he might say they are trying to float like butterflies and sting like bees. That is, they are playing to their strengths, not trying to do everything, and trying to be resourceful and clever about it.

In the process, they are subtly changing the definition of "foreign correspondent," at least in the short run.

Correspondents, says Bennett, are "getting a global fluency they didn't need during the Cold War. So if you're in Jakarta, you need to know what's going on in Pakistan." Because of that, he adds, "Foreign bureaus have become less tied to the geography of their home base than to issues, and those issues, not just terrorism, can take you all over the map."

Thus, the life I knew as a foreign correspondent, and the life most foreign reporters have known, is relatively placid compared with the existence of correspondents today. When I was in Moscow after the Soviet collapse, my assignment was the former Soviet Union--and nothing else. I covered stories in Ukraine and Estonia, but if events were unfolding in Berlin or Belfast, forget about it.

Now, Moscow correspondents, Rome correspondents, Johannesburg correspondents--almost all foreign correspondents--have become in effect general assignment reporters for international stories. The job requirements may not have changed--ingenuity, courage, a bit of blarney and the ability to tell a story. But the mind-set is different. Reporters need to know more about more subjects; they need to be more flexible, more agile, more prepared to lug their SAT phones and laptops to scary places they may never have thought about.

"I'm keenly aware that we need people of broad experience in anticipation of something else to come--war, terrorist attacks, military attacks," says Tim McNulty, the Chicago Tribune's associate managing editor for foreign news. "We are trying to grow a staff that can be nimble and smart about what they are going into....

"You can't just send a business correspondent to Beijing. He may wind up in Afghanistan or East Timor. You don't try to tailor an assignment to a correspondent's particular interest. You have to have someone who is far-ranging."

Robert Ruby, the soft-spoken foreign editor of the Baltimore Sun, puts it this way: "Being Moscow bureau chief now means something different for a medium-size paper like the Sun. It almost guarantees you the opportunity to do some war coverage."

David Filipov, a reporter in Moscow since 1992 and the Globe's bureau chief there since 1996, agrees: "Instead of specialists, we're on the front, ready to be dropped in anywhere. It's what we're supposed to be ready to do."

If reporters have to be nimble, so, too, do their editors. For instance, all the editors I interviewed (as well as many others) were rotating reporters into Iraq for stints ranging from three weeks to three months. Many of those reporters--although certainly not all--are moving in and out of established foreign bureaus. That means editors have to know where best to risk vacating a bureau that they thought urgent enough to open in the first place.

Still Ruby says no, emphatically no, he is not worried about briefly "dimming the lights" in those other locales. "It's hard to think about what news stories--be they in Russia, Britain or South Africa--are going to trump Iraq or Afghanistan," he says.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who tracks international reporting, says today's shuffling of correspondents is in the tradition of the parachute journalism that has always taken place when big stories develop. The difference now, he says, "is there are more hot spots and fewer foreign correspondents." That means throwing national and metro reporters into the mix, "but you start with foreign correspondents, who have more knowledge of the world."

And it's not like there's a lot of space in any of the papers for the distinguished slice-of-life features about French wine growers or German nightlife that help explain other cultures to American readers.

All of the editors say that Iraq, the Mideast and terror-related stories have eaten up huge amounts of space. In my review of their papers for one week in June, the Post, Tribune and Sun all devoted about 65 percent of their foreign stories to those subjects; the Globe about 70 percent. (I counted stories written from Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. if they were relevant.)

Iraq, says the Globe's Smith, "has limited our ability to report as thoroughly on the rest of the world as we would like." And the Post's Bennett, with a staff of 25 reporters in 20 bureaus, acknowledges that "it's hard to generate journalism" from outside of Iraq and the Middle East.

Even so, rotating reporters has one obvious disadvantage. It makes no use of the expertise that most journalists based in Moscow or Johannesburg or wherever have made great efforts to develop.

Filipov, 40, is the perfect example. One of the few American reporters in Moscow with an M.A. in Russian (from Bryn Mawr), he speaks the language flawlessly and knows intimately Russia's history and culture. But since September 11, he has spent much of his time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan. (Poignantly, Filipov's father, Alexander, was aboard American Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles when it crashed into the World Trade Center.)

"I could focus on the minutiae of Russian existence and politics, and get to know people and all that stuff that's important for the beat," Filipov says. Of course, he's always had to be ready to get to Chechnya or some other uncomfortable place in the former Soviet Union, ready to cover conflict and work exhausting hours. But in the Middle East, he says, he has to ask interpreters to read the graffiti, and he's never completely sure if he's getting it right. "I don't know about the Iraqi culture, so I'm writing about it like a dilettante," he says.

Which is true of most of the American correspondents in the region. Very few speak Arabic, or Farsi, or Pashto.

Douglas Birch, the Sun's Moscow correspondent, is also living an assignment he never expected. Birch, a former science reporter, is not the expert Filipov is. He arrived in the Russian capital, with much still to learn, in late August 2001, three weeks before September 11. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, he was in Afghanistan.

"Suddenly," he wrote in an e-mail, "after three weeks of experience as a foreign correspondent, I was a war correspondent--or at least I was one of scores of reporters who were pretending to be."

Since then, he says, he's reported from Georgia, Turkey and Iraq. He concludes: "I have seen some amazing things and done things I never dreamed I would be doing. The not-so-good part...I don't know as much Russian as I would like. Two wars in two years have really hurt my Russian lessons."

Keith Richburg, a longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent, described his wanderings in an e-mail interview: "I came to Paris in Aug. 2000, thinking I would be writing about European issues, and immediately got sent to Israel to help with the intifada. That went on seemingly forever, and then came Sept. 11, 2001, when everything revolved around terrorism and Al Qaeda. I was shipped off to Afghanistan to cover the war in Oct. 2001, and stayed there for three months. I came back, took some vacation, then got sent to Pakistan. Then back to Israel. Then this year was Iraq."

But Richburg was no stranger to the battlefield when he went to Iraq: He had already covered wars in Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor and Cambodia.

Filipov's Russian-born wife, Anna Badkhen, who is based in Moscow for the San Francisco Chronicle, seems to be the prototypical foreign correspondent in the age of terror. While based in Moscow, her assignment has been to cover war--six in two years with the paper.

"It's interesting, it's exhausting and it comes with a very high price emotionally," she says. She sees herself as the filter between readers and the people she meets and the atrocities she sees. "A lot of things stay with me," she says. "I get the occasional depression, but it's incredibly interesting in terms of seeing people in all kinds of situations and how graceful people can be under stress."

The longest Filipov and Badkhen have been away from their two children is five weeks, she says. "It's terrifying to think, as they do in Israel, if something happens to one of us, at the least it will be OK" because the other parent is safe.

To keep the stories coming from Iraq, the Washington Post in July usually had four reporters there, although the number occasionally dropped to three. Two, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid, are there for extended periods; the others spend six to eight weeks, usually coming from other foreign bureaus, but also from the national and metro staffs. The Tribune had three, although one was getting ready to leave; the Globe had two, the Sun one.

What kinds of stories are they seeking? The Post's Bennett, using a phrase popular in the immediate post-Howell Raines days, said, "We don't flood the zone. We try to be smart, to give people the direction and the autonomy to get to the heart of the story."

As for what that heart is, Bennett says, "The U.S. view of itself is meeting up with very complex and contradictory realities. And it's in that intersection where the foreign correspondent should be standing. We've had mixed success. We've failed more than we've succeeded in capturing that."

Adds Hoffman: "We don't want to become distracted by incremental developments."

As an example of getting to the story's core, Hoffman points to a page-one piece on June 10 with a Tikrit dateline, in which William Booth (based in Los Angeles) reported from Tikrit and Daniel Williams (based in Rome) reported from Fallujah and Ramadi. They were given more than two columns to describe how attacks against Americans were growing more sophisticated. The details in the story showed the reporters had been on the scene when some of the attacks took place.

Hoffman mentions a story Shadid wrote in late June. Shadid, perhaps the most consistently informative reporter in Iraq, largely concentrates on the Muslim world.

"The old man's words were slurred, a mumble that comes with age and having no teeth," started the story from Najaf. "But his questions, the everyday, almost incidental reflections on how to live an upright life in an uncertain world, were unambiguous.

" 'Is it permitted to use sugar that was looted?' Abu Hussein asked, his eyes cast upward.

" 'Forbidden,' answered Sayyid Riyadh Nouri, a strapping, 33-year-old Shiite Muslim cleric and one of the leaders of what has become perhaps Iraq's first popular political movement."

The story went on to describe with lovely detail how Nouri and other followers of Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, an ayatollah slain in 1999 by Saddam Hussein's forces, are battling to become the dominant Shiite movement in filling Iraq's power chasm. The Sadr followers, Shadid explained, bring a new, more active, grassroots approach to politics than other Shiite groups, which draw stricter lines between the religious and the secular. Which brand of Shiite emerges, Shadid says, will tell much about the kind of place Iraq will become.

At the Boston Globe, Foreign Editor Smith explains his strategy succinctly: "We want the most compelling trend stories." A day later, on June 25, Ellen Barry, on loan from the metro staff, exemplified this in a piece from Baghdad. It described Iraqi reaction to reports that Saddam Hussein may have been killed when a convoy was attacked near the Syrian border.

"As far as Baghdadis are concerned, nothing has changed. Saddam Hussein is still in Belarus, or Hawaii, or in a safe house jointly owned by the CIA and KGB, or else he has actually been dead since 1989 and replaced by a body double....

"So deep is their distrust of the American authorities--and of official information in general--that many said no amount of proof would convince Iraqis that Hussein is really gone."

Then she quoted an Iraqi who lived in a neighborhood of Hussein loyalists: " 'Americans are masters of making movies. I will not believe [Hussein is dead] even if I bury him with my own hands.' "

The Globe and the Sun have the same size foreign staffs--five bureaus each--but their missions differ. During the Iraq war, for instance, Smith and the Globe insisted on having their correspondents report the main story whenever possible, in addition to filing the telling sidebar. "Typically, if it's on the front page, we want to write it," Smith says. "So you do try to do the main story almost every day when it justifies page one."

The Sun, on the other hand, is almost adamant about not using its staff to write routine daily stories. "We're prepared to go anywhere the story is good," says Sun Editor William K. Marimow. "But we want to give readers something that's customized" and unavailable elsewhere.

Part of the customizing is to write foreign stories with a Maryland angle. Thus, Jonathan Bor, a Sun medical writer, saw war duty aboard the ship USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed floating hospital based and maintained in Baltimore Harbor. It went into the Persian Gulf with a medical staff that included such specialists as trauma surgeons, psychiatrists, gynecologists and ophthalmologists.

One story began: "When the grenade ripped through his armored vehicle, and shrapnel burned into his right leg, Marine Cpl. Michael John Mead thought first of a promise he made to himself before leaving for the war: If he ever lost a limb, he would find a way not to come home. Returning in such shape would be too humiliating; but yesterday, the red-headed 20-year-old from Michigan's Upper Peninsula was sitting comfortably in a wheelchair on this floating hospital ship, his intact leg wrapped in clean white gauze."

Despite the emphasis paid to Iraq and terrorism, none of the papers has let the rest of the globe totally slip from their pages; in the week I reviewed, all had good-size pieces from elsewhere.

The Post, for instance, found room on page one just below the fold on June 21 for a Susan B. Glasser story datelined Sochi, Russia, that described the psychological toll of the war in Chechnya. It led with Sasha Yaroslavtseva, a soldier who hung himself a year ago after returning from the fighting to his home in the faded Black Sea resort.

"His death," Glasser wrote, "is one of many suicides that will never show up in the official statistics as a casualty of Russia's war in Chechnya."

On June 16 the Sun ran a page-one piece (with a full page for the jump) by John Murphy out of Bunia, Congo, explaining the human carnage of the complex, savage war that has taken the lives of about 3 million people due to fighting, disease and malnutrition.

The lead focused on Nkunda Leon, the postmaster of Bunia, who works every day, even though he has no mail and he doesn't get paid.

The June 22 Tribune featured on page one a Laurie Goering story from Nairboi, Kenya, about the tyrants who rule African countries for years on end, and the growing belief that "the big men" have to go.

And the Globe pursued follow-ups to a remarkable 16-page special section in January called "None of Them Had to Die," which described in gut-wrenching stories from five countries how 24,000 people die needlessly every day from curable diseases, controllable infections, complications in childbirth that just didn't have to happen.

All of the foreign editors I interviewed at the four papers have been foreign correspondents. They know that in some ways the last couple of years have been a great bonus for their newsrooms.

Suddenly, they have a battalion of reporters with combat experience and a background of foreign reporting in difficult places like Afghanistan and Iraq. "Coverage of these conflicts has transformed our newsroom into a different kind of place," says Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea. "There are now a lot of people around here--some are kids--who have covered wars. A few years ago we didn't have [any young reporters] like that."

Associate Managing Editor McNulty says the paper purposely chose some metro and national reporters with no foreign reporting experience to be embedded reporters, allowing them to learn in a controlled environment. Reporters with foreign experience were deployed as independent roamers.

When O'Shea assigned reporters to Baghdad during the war, he says, he tried to team an experienced reporter with one who was new to foreign reporting. "I'll take some of these kids and hook them up with a senior correspondent and give them some exposure. That gives the kids a chance to show what they can do, and we can see what they can do. And the experienced person keeps them from doing anything foolish to show how brave they are."

Of course, there is always the potential problem of getting reporters interested in their old assignments once they return home from the battlefield.

I asked Sun medical reporter Bor, 50, if any story had gotten him really excited since he returned from Iraq on April 18.

"Not like that," he replied, "not yet."

Evan Osnos, 26, a New York-based correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was one of the young reporters McNulty embedded with the Marines. He says he has not "suffered the letdown" that some others have since returning from covering combat to his normal duties. But he did note that "going as a reporter accustomed to writing about...Senate races in New Jersey and New York and then finding oneself in an amphibious assault vehicle and trying to write a newspaper story on the remaining 45 minutes of battery puts new demands on you."