Another casualty: newspapers' foreign coverage

December 05, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- 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 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, print reporters got the trends right.

In a sign of the times, 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. 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.)

At a time when the country is obsessed with Iraq, 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 as they search for synergy with the Web, foreign coverage is the first casualty.

Midsize papers such as The Sun, Newsday and The Boston Globe are shutting down foreign bureaus. 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 results of inexperience when a horde of reporters rushed to cover Israel's recent mini-war with Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The new mantra in the media industry is that midsize 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, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Yet the same economic pressures driving midsize papers to close foreign bureaus are also squeezing big papers. 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 midsize papers. Far from operating as a pack, correspondents complemented one another, 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 then-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.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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