Archive for Thursday, December 7, 2006

Foreign coverage being lost

December 7, 2006

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One group of Americans who can be proud of their work in Iraq are the print media correspondents based in Baghdad.

They were maligned by the White House and Pentagon as lazy, biased or worse, but their gutsy reporting turned out to be on the mark. Unlike U.S. officials, these journalists lived outside the protected Green Zone and risked their lives daily. Even as the media were being browbeaten by Donald Rumsfeld, print reporters got the trends right.

In a sign of the times (perhaps the gullible have finally realized Fox News is Fox Spin?), I'm no longer getting reader e-mail asking me to write the "good news" about Iraq.

This gives me no cheer. It just makes me wish President Bush read newspapers (he famously told Fox News he doesn't). The president might have learned years ago that we had too few troops, no counterinsurgency strategy, and no grasp of Iraqi social dynamics. (He would have learned little of this from TV networks, which have closed most of their foreign bureaus, or even from CNN, which focuses on breaking news.)

This vindication of print media underscores an incredible irony. At a time when the country is obsessed with the Iraq story, an obsession that drove the recent elections, foreign correspondents are an endangered species. There may soon be few left to sound the alarm if future U.S. foreign ventures turn sour.

It's expensive to maintain foreign bureaus that produce serious coverage, especially in a war zone. As newspapers suffer declines in circulation and advertising and search for synergy with the Web, foreign coverage is the first casualty.

Mid-size papers such as the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, and Boston Globe are shutting down foreign bureaus. At the moment, The Philadelphia Inquirer has one bureau left, in Jerusalem. More and more papers now take their foreign news from wire services.

Some papers may send reporters on occasional foreign trips, especially to pursue local angles. But parachutists who drop briefly into a big overseas story lack foreign experience and often get the story wrong. You could see the impact of inexperience when a horde of reporters rushed to cover Israel's recent mini-war with Lebanon's Hezbollah. The reporters who understood the story were mostly those with previous experience covering the Middle East.

The new mantra in the media industry is that mid-size papers must go local, local, local to grow circulation. Readers who want more foreign news can go to the Web. As The Inquirer's publisher, Brian Tierney, told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz: "I can get what's going on in Iraq online. What I can't get is what's happening in this region."

But how long will readers be able to get substantive foreign news online? Content on the Web doesn't drop from heaven. So far, there are no Web zines that maintain correspondents abroad. If you want in-depth foreign reporting, you probably go to the Web site of one of the so-called national papers that still maintain foreign bureaus, such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

Yet the same economic pressures driving mid-size papers to close foreign bureaus are also squeezing big papers; both the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune may soon be sold. Who knows how long these papers will maintain all their foreign outposts?

Get your news from blogs? Those that comment on foreign affairs also depend on mainstream media for their information. With more newspapers closing foreign bureaus, will we soon depend on a shrinking pool of foreign correspondents to inform the whole country? Or will most Americans come to view the world through the prism of partisan bloggers who don't feel the need for facts?

Perhaps I'm being alarmist. Maybe the last Americans who want foreign news will keep the New York Times afloat, or pay some Web site to open foreign bureaus.

But look back at the coverage of the Iraq story, and you'll see that some of the bravest, most informative analysis was done by correspondents from mid-size papers. Far from operating as a pack, correspondents complemented each other, often searching out stories overlooked by their colleagues. With fewer correspondents, readers will get a narrower perspective. Would you have wanted all your Iraq WMD stories to come from ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller?

As this coverage shrinks, Americans' ability to assess government actions abroad will also shrink. As the pool of experienced foreign correspondents disappears, Web aggregators will lose their key source.

I can't believe that's what the public wants, given recent election results. If I'm right, newspaper readers will have to make their concerns known.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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