As Jefferson said, ignorant nations aren't free

Mort Rosenblum
UA Department of Journalism

By Mort Rosenblum

PARIS – I finally lost it the other day when a TV newscaster mentioned in passing that two Dutch journalists were killed trying to cover Russia's march through Georgia.

Then in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing noted that U.S. officers in Iraq vetted samples of his reporting before accepting him for an "embed" (that word!).

In a tinderbox world, we Americans must pick a leader to do the right thing. But, having blinded ourselves to reality, how exactly do we know what that is?

For all our wondrous new tools, a basic point has not changed since journalists chipped their dispatches into stone: You can't cover real news without seeing it first hand, or at least getting near enough to smell its breath.

Reporters must regularly bet their lives, like those barely noticed Dutchmen, and a boss has to cough up at least $250,000 a year, for each, to keep them on the road.

But bosses see a new reality: Many Americans want "news" in line with their own prejudices, and they want it free. So seasoned reporters who get up close compete equally with untested amateurs who guess at a distance.

News organizations hire eager but untrained people to provide words – "content" – so they can cut back on costly correspondents who once demanded access and answers.

The result? Five years into calamitous war that more real reporters could have prevented, we let official hired hands decide who gets to see what troops do in our name.

Jefferson was right: no nation can be both ignorant and free.

Plenty of skilled, gutsy correspondents are still out there. But in a big world, most cluster around a few stories. Consider the numbers.

In 2002, a Harvard study found, American newspapers kept only 188 correspondents abroad. In 2006, despite war in Iraq and all the rest, the number fell to 141.

One hundred times that many "reporters" covered the Democrats' set-piece melodrama in Denver. In 2008, as Russia looms, China eats our lunch, lots of people hate us, and our planet runs out of food, water, and oil, foreign correspondents are even fewer.

The Washington Post is closing its bureau in Paris, the capital of a brand-name nuclear power which currently speaks for a European Union of nearly 500 million people and a bigger economy than America's.

The Associated Press is supposed to take up the slack. But AP has slashed travel budgets and deploys unseasoned reporters, even interns, to replace foreign correspondents.

Numbers are only part of it. Just being there means little without background knowledge, sources, languages, and time to dig. Pretending to be there means even less.

Tight budgets force many reporters to stay at their desks and work by phone. After all, if the story is in Delhi and you're in London, both places are foreign.

Some of those omnipresent TV stars are remarkably good. Others are not. Either way, parachuting in when it is too late and rushing off to fresh drama is show biz.

These days, independent journalists travel cheap and report on the Web. As with local reporters hired to replace proven veterans, some are excellent. But how do we know until we can assess their skill and credibility?

Frustrated old pros are creating alternative outlets to dig out vital news. Some of these are non-profit; others build public interest into their balance sheets.

This may well be the future. For now, we badly need what we are losing fast: "mainstream" purveyors that prove themselves over time and follow news before it breaks.

Was Russia's ton of bricks on Georgia a surprise? Not to anyone who had been paying attention. Coverage counts most when it is early enough for us react in time.

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It may soon be too late for the mainstream. A new breed of managers does not get it. For reporters willing to face what is out there, it is not about the paycheck.

When AP sent me to a Congo uprising in 1967, I was 24 and scared witless. At the end of 2004, a lot of war and peace later, I left my job in disgust.

Like most colleagues, I'd always hated getting shot at, being flung into stinking cells, or barfing amoebas all night. But we had chosen a calling that meant something.

We got paid, and some stories were pretty pleasant, but when the phone rang before dawn there was always that knot in the stomach: Oh, God, where now?

Whatever the story, old pals shared risks, exchanged sources, and at night got happily drunk. Our editors, and the publishers who paid our bills, were like family back home. A "herogram" from New York was better than a raise.

It is very different now.

Each year, I find it harder to tell my students that it is still worth it. But, of course, it still is. With the world as it is these days, no job is more important to all of us, whether new management dweebs get it or not.

Should we just dispense with foreign news, as some suggest? Right. And let's just hop on skis, shut our eyes tight, and hurtle down Everest.

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So what is an ill-informed nation to do?

It is pointless to blame "the media," which is only a bunch of companies seeking profit by giving customers what they seem to want – the American way. Some are extremely good and capable of getting better.

Nor can we appeal to executives' better nature. For most, that greater-good concept is over. It's about money, how to earn more while spending less.

But that is part of the answer.

Solid research shows the demand for comprehensive foreign news is far greater – among young and old alike -- than most of us realize.

If managers can be shown there is profit in actually covering the world, rather than simply claiming to do it, things might change. Write letters; go viral on the Web; organize action committees.

When a paper does cover foreign news, pay for it. One-third the price of a Starbucks coffee is a bargain. It may be free online, but then who buys gas up the Khyber Pass?

And if a paper ignores the world, shun it and tell the owners and everyone else why.

When you find professionals who break the mold – doing up-close reporting that you find to be credible and enlightening – get behind them.

Truth in packaging: I edit a new journal, Dispatches, with photographer Gary Knight. Along with a site, it offers texture and backdrop to help readers make sense of world news that matters. But a quarterly can only supplement the essential: day-to-day reporting on developing crises before they overwhelm us.

The constant argument is that Americans are too busy, too consumed with workaday lives to worry about countries they can't find on a map.

But as I watched Barack Obama barnburn at a stadium in Denver, after days spent following the Beijing Olympics, this reasoning seemed beyond laughable.

Almost anyone in Colorado can tell you the yardage, early history, and jockstrap size of every Bronco on the team. I once went to Denver during playoffs and found half-pound supplements in both dailies.

If the average American knew one-twentieth about world affairs as he, or she, does about sports, we wouldn't need an army. But in sports, a game is over when it's over. In the real world we shape for our kids, the game never stops.

True, much of the American mind has closed down, or turned toward things within its own line of sight. But much has not. We need people out there watching now.

The Internet, a wonderful tool, supplies insight and background from everywhere. Yet, essentially, it is a fancier version of those first smudgy printed pages, a means of delivery but not itself a source.

Without someone to go get the story, Gutenberg could not report it back then. Neither can Google now.

Remember a simple mantra: If we're not there, you're not there.

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