The best and brightest go to the United States. At least that’s the adage heard in many news organizations when assignments of foreign correspondents are considered. Not always do things work this way, but this reflects accurately the fact that an assignment to Washington, D.C. or New York is considered one of the more prestigious reporting jobs in the business. Sometimes foreign news organizations use such assignments to lure talented reporters from competing newspapers or TV stations, offering them what some refer to as the foreign correspondent’s version of the "American dream." Considering the heavyweight power of the story’s political, economic and cultural dimensions, for this assignment to be much sought after should come as no surprise.
The unique mix of opportunity, talent, money, ambition, ethnicity and boundless freedom makes this destination attractive and repulsive, irresistible and revolting at the same time. As soon as a news organization can afford to send its own correspondent to report from this place that feeds the fascination and inspires the dreams of its readers, viewers and listeners around the globe, it will. Simply put, America is just a great story.
As a young journalist I felt its pull, and I took my first step by attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After graduation, my other fascination — with the then-Soviet Union — then drew me there during the Brezhnev era, where I reported for seven years before I received a Nieman in the mid-1980’s. That gave me another chance to dive into American politics, culture and lifestyle, but only briefly since I returned to Denmark, my homeland, when the fellowship ended. It wasn’t until 1990 that I fulfilled my American dream by becoming Washington bureau chief of TV2 Denmark and opened the station’s first bureau there.
The Tug of the Road
My ongoing fascination with America is matched by Stephen Hess’s fascination with foreign correspondents in America, which he writes about in his recent book, "Through Their Eyes: Foreign Correspondents in the United States." Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at The Brookings Institution and professor of media at George Washington University, has written a book that examines the work of foreign correspondents in the United States. Based on surveys and statistics, his study shows with almost anthropological accuracy who the foreign correspondents are, what they report, and how they work. With anti-Americanism on the rise, Americans need to understand what foreigners know and think about them. Of course, foreign correspondents influence their audience’s perceptions, so learning more about how they do their jobs can help Americans understand better what people in the rest of the world think about them and their country and why.
For a journalist, America is the land of endless opportunity. The only limitation is your own energy, imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. After working under the constraints of the Soviet Union’s paranoia and totalitarianism, America felt like a huge smorgasbord. With no more handlers and minders and no detailed application forms to fill out before going somewhere, I was free to pick and choose among a magnitude of stories, issues and angles.
One of my challenges became deciding what stories would be most interesting for viewers in Denmark. Another was figuring out how to accommodate my editors’ demand for solid coverage of breaking news — mostly political and international stories — while also pursuing my interest in working on more feature stories. With breaking news, the sad fact is that foreign news organizations compete with U.S. reporters in a game they can never win. No foreign news organization has the access, sources or resources to enable them to operate in the same league as domestic journalists. Not even seasoned foreign correspondents can penetrate the walls surrounding the most important political U.S. institutions. Forget about it: Foreigners have no clout, because those who wield power do not care about constituencies other than their own. In most cases, foreign journalists borrow ("lift"), rewrite (or plagiarize) what U.S. papers and networks have produced on any given story. With pressure from the home office, they have no other choice. When I see a Danish newspaper with four or five bylines of a Washington-based correspondent, I know exactly what happened and how the stories were produced/reproduced.
Aside from struggling with editors to leave Washington to report, correspondents face financial constraints. Travel is expensive, especially for a TV crew, and editors do not like the risk of having their correspondent be away when a big story breaks in the capital.
However, these feature stories actually provide more value than the material borrowed from the U.S. news media by showing aspects of "regular" lives outside the Beltway. A trip I made to a nuclear missile base in South Dakota, where I spoke with members of the local community, served as the backdrop for a piece I did about disarmament. This same kind of personal, local engagement happened in a story I did on snake handlers in West Virginia and about a mega-church in Houston, about baseball as the national pastime and a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan in Maryland. I sent home stories about a machine-gun shoot in Kentucky, Japanese cowboy apprentices at a cattle ranch in Montana, and David Duke campaigning in Louisiana, as well as a documentary I did about the tragedy of gun violence. Each of these stories had at its core people who lived far away from the center of political and economic power but whose cultural and social circumstances proved to be of great interest to our viewers overseas.
The greatest tension I feel in my job — and the one most difficult to resolve — is the pull between the massively covered hard-news story (and my editor’s expectation that I be there to cover it) and the original story, produced and reported independently. It is with the latter that I believe foreign correspondents can do as fine a job in journalism as their American peers.
In his book, Hess writes about the borrowed and shared material, but in my view he is too easy on the correspondents. Though he observes that much anti-Americanism pops up in foreign reporting from the United States (the fact is it’s a lot), he doesn’t fully explore how and why this happens, a circumstance that at times is related to the borrowing that goes on. Often a foreign correspondent will "lift" the essence of a story from an American media source without attribution and very often directly translate into their audience’s language entire sections of an article. Then, to personalize and conceal the origins of the story, the correspondent will put down his stakes by "sexing up" the material with some critical or sarcastic remarks, thereby claiming ownership and copyright. Usually such comments convey an anti-American attitude. It is a disgraceful practice and far more common than one would think from reading Hess’s account.
Danish newspapers, like other European news organizations, reported in detail about the scandals involving reporters at The New York Times, USA Today, and The New Republic who made-up or plagiarized information in their stories. But none reported that the award-winning Washington correspondent of a leading Danish newspaper, on the first anniversary of 9/11, had lifted huge portions of a brilliant article from Esquire magazine with headline, anecdotes and tone without a shadow of an attribution. That was shameful, but it was definitely not an exceptional case.
With the Internet, access to the content of U.S. newspapers, radio and television is global. Because of the time difference, sometimes editors and other journalists will have seen the U.S. news reports before the correspondents do. This makes it even more ridiculous for foreign publications to use their correspondents to cover what goes on in this country in the traditional manner. Writers back home could rewrite news copy as quickly and as well as the distant correspondent. In today’s global media environment, those who are based in foreign lands ought to provide analysis and background to help readers and viewers understand better the news reporting that is available in many places. This is true even on electronic media with live reporting from a news scene; once the facts are known, what a foreign correspondent can best provide is context.
If this strategy were followed — and I believe changes in the habits and patterns of news usage will lead to it being pursued — then a correspondent’s time and the company’s resources could be devoted to stories that few other news reporters are going to tell. When the choice is between second-rate, recycled news that most foreign correspondents now file and fresh, evocative reporting delivered by people who share with the audience a cultural background and framework, the one that delivers value to the news organization and viewers and readers should be apparent. That’s where the future competitive edge in foreign coverage will be.
Most U.S. assignments for foreign correspondents last four years. By the time they are headed home, most correspondents realize they are only now getting a real feel for the vast archipelago of diverse cultures, traditions, values and languages. They’ve followed a political cycle with campaigns, conventions and elections, traveled to the different parts of the country, and are now able to distinguish between the prejudice they brought with them and the realities they encounter. They’ve overcome their initial cultural shock and developed an understanding of some of the paradoxes and absurdities, the greed and the generosity, the openness and the bigotry, and the beauty and the achievements of this complicated, multilayered society that is like no other country. This is when they begin to see America as the ongoing social and cultural experiment that it is.
It is a shame that this is just when correspondents usually go home to take advantage of what their time in the United States will have done, in most cases, to promote their careers. As they reflect on their time here, many correspondents consider these years as among the more gratifying and challenging of their professional lives. Many embrace the memories of their American dream but sometimes, back home, they will think wistfully of all the stories they never got to report and all the borrowing they were forced to do.
Samuel Rachlin, a 1985 Nieman Fellow, was Washington bureau chief for Danish TV2 in the early 1990’s, then he worked for the World Bank for several years before resuming his career in journalism. While continuing to live in Washington, D.C. he reported on Russia from 1998 to 2001, commuting to Moscow, then anchored the business and finance news for TV2 for the next four years in Copenhagen. Since 2005, he has been a roving correspondent for TV2, covering Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, and occasionally the United States.