AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2007

Retreating from the World   

The cutback in foreign coverage, and the steep price

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

I was reading the Washington Post account of Army Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell's report on the massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha when this sentence jumped out at me: "No one recommended an investigation until a Time magazine reporter began asking questions about the attack in January 2006."

In other words, despite what the report called "obvious" signs of "serious misconduct" by U.S. Marines in the November 19, 2005, episode, no one in the military seemed interested in probing the deaths of two dozen civilians --until a journalist started poking around.

Tim McGirk broke the Haditha story on Time's Web site on March 19, the day before the magazine's March 27 issue, which also included the piece, hit the newsstands (see "A Matter of Time," August/September 2006).

It was a classic example of accountability journalism.

Accountability was very important to the great David Halberstam, who died in a car accident in April. As a young reporter in Vietnam, Halberstam was simply outraged by the government's lies about the war, which bore absolutely no relationship to, as they say, the facts on the ground. As Bill Prochnau notes in his appreciation, (see "The Upside of Anger," June/July 2007) Halberstam felt it was a reporter's duty to debunk the party-line mendacity.

In fact, it was the courageous reporting by Halberstam and other excellent young reporters--Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett--that ultimately made the war's bankruptcy crystal clear.

Journalism's watchdog role has long been crucial. And it's not a mission that stops at the water's edge. Reporting on the world--and America's role in it--is a basic part of the mandate.

But it's one that's increasingly endangered.

The retreat by the television networks began long ago. In recent years many papers--the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, to name a few--have dramatically reduced their rosters of foreign correspondents.

It's a very challenging time for newspapers, as you may have noticed, with readers and advertisers migrating Webward. As they struggle to find footing in a precarious and evolving media landscape, many papers have settled on the notion that being very local is the key to survival. Nothing wrong with that. A news organization's first duty clearly is to cover its own turf.

But sometimes the local-is-everything crowd sounds awfully dismissive when it comes to foreign news, as if sending reporters to far-off lands were a frill. Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Publisher Brian Tierney summed up this view perfectly in an interview with the Washington Post: "I can get what's going on in Iraq online. What I can't get is what's happening in this region."

Now and then I run into an editor who is always eager to provide her prescription for newspapers' salvation. Her first point: They have to get rid of those foreign bureaus.

Now obviously if you have to choose between jettisoning the City Hall reporter and shutting down the Jerusalem operation, that's not a close call. Individually, many of these decisions make sense. Cumulatively, they portend a dramatic change in journalism's very role. Because covering the impact of America on the world--and the world on America--is not an expensive ego trip. It's part of the job.

As others have bowed out, it's a task that increasingly belongs largely to the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. That's hardly a perfect scenario.

For one thing, it's a big world out there, and it takes a lot of people to cover it. But there's a more pressing problem: Even those mainstays may be at risk. There's no guarantee they are in this game to stay.

Take the L.A. Times. What does rookie Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell have in mind for that army of correspondents? Are the bureaus sacrosanct? And will Zell hold on to the Times, or will he sell it to one of those L.A. billionaires who covet it? If so, what then?

And the Wall Street Journal? What happens to its foreign coverage if aggressive suitor Rupert "Fair and Balanced" Murdoch adds the Journal to his portfolio? The Journal this year won a Pulitzer for its China coverage. But as the paper's China reporters said in a letter urging the owning Bancroft family to reject his offer for parent Dow Jones, Murdoch "has a well-documented history of making editorial decisions in order to advance his business interests in China and, indeed, of sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal or political aims."

Even the New York Times, the pacesetter in international coverage, faces an assault on its ownership by investors unhappy about the stock price (see "Challenging Times," February/March 2007). Hopefully the two-tired stock system will enable the Sulzbergers to fend off its Wall Street tormentors. Because it's not likely that new owners preoccupied with profit margins would keep their hands off the foreign staff.

If the nation's news organizations continue their retreat from the world, America's citizens will pay a heavy price. "Give it a name" goes the great catchphrase from the 1995 movie "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead." OK, how about this: "abdication."