As I sit down to write this the United States is considering new military strikes against Iraq, Pope John Paul II is calling for freedom in Cuba, and the country is obsessed with the question of whether or not President Bill Clinton had sex with a 21-yearold White House intern.
Sex in high places will trump any other story. But it seems almost everything trumps serious foreign policy reporting in the post-Cold War world.
How reporters get their editors and readers to care about foreign affairs is one of the important issues raised by Daniel Schorr. However, I believe that if we choose our stories correctly we have a far wider audience than just the subscribers to Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Schorr, ever vigilant in the struggle against press censorship, also raises very serious questions about the U.S. government’s continuing efforts to co-opt and control national security reporting.
I saw it during the Gulf War. I helped set up the pool system (I still think I should have my head shaved for it) and then watched the system do everything it could to keep me and my colleagues away from the war.
Beyond my personal frustration, and the bad journalism, I think the Pentagon did a dangerous disservice to our country. Having seen a video game, rather than a real war, Americans have apparently decided that wars can and should be casualty-free, or not fought at all. Those unrealistic standards have seriously hobbled the White House’s willingness to take even necessary risks in Bosnia. We will see how it plays out in Iraq in weeks to come.
We also have to be on guard against the more subtle co-opting of reporting in Washington. In 1993 I got a phone call from the office of then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. Would I come to lunch in Mr. Lake’s office on Saturday to talk about Haiti? When I asked if the session would be on the record or off, his secretary told me that I didn’t understand. Lake was having in a group of Haiti experts to talk to him about their idea—and I couldn’t write about it at all.
I said no thank you. But it wasn’t easy.
Guarantee of Access
Here are all the counter arguments I rehearsed before begging off: 1would have learned a lot had I gone. It would have guaranteed me future access to Lake. And maybe I could have done some good for my country. In the end I decided, what seems obvious from a distance: that there was no way I could write about a policy after I’d even faintly helped to craft it.
What makes it even more complicated is that I’m still not sure whether I was invited to be co-opted or because they really thought I might know something. Those scenes and those dilemmas are repeated over and over again every week in Washington. That is probably the best reason -why a foreign affairs reporter should get out of Washington whenever she can.
Will anyone read what we write?
With readers who think they’ve seen it all on CNN, reporters have to do more than just provide the facts. They have to illustrate their stories "with well-focused on-the-ground narratives and reinforce them with serious news analysis and well-reasoned projections of likely developments to come. CNN can tell us what just happened on a second-by-second basis. For those of us in the less-than-instant news business, the challenge is making sense of it before our readers turn off from sensory overload.
One of the biggest dangers for foreign affairs reporters is falling into diplospeak or globaloney: talking like our sources rather than our readers. It’s not just a language problem, it can be intellectually crippling.
Accept their catch phrases and you accept their assumptions.
Take the new taboo "nation building." Ever since Somalia Congress has forbidden, and the White House forsworn, nation building. But what does nation building mean? Does it mean rebuilding roads? Or escorting refugees or arresting war criminals?
In Haiti the White House and Pentagon decided it meant no repairs to Haiti’s crippled infrastructure, even though without them Haiti’s economy couldn’t begin to work. In Bosnia they’re still debating the refugee and war criminal issues. Meanwhile, what really went wrong in Somalia was the attempt to rebuild a failed society—and to do it without heavy artillery or casualties.
Some of the most challenging stories are those that test the assumptions and prejudices of American foreign policy-making on the ground. Is the United States doing enough in Bosnia to ever get out? To make the story work, the reporter has to be able to follow it from Washington (what’s the policy? why is it crafted that way?and how have politics shaped those choices?) to Bosnia (how is it working? and what might work better?) and back to Washington (why can’t they see or do what’s necessary?) To do that one also has to have a tolerant editor and a good travel budget—both rarities.
Other good stories look at the assumptions and prejudices of the broader public. Take another favorite taboo: The United Nations. I did a profile a couple of years ago about a young Army private who was being court martialed for refusing to wear a blue beret when his unit shipped out to Macedonia. One of the neatest things about that story was that it was hotter than hot on talk radio but almost no one in the mainstream press was paying any attention. It also got me out of Washington and into some tiny Texas towns to hear what real folks thought and feared about the UN and America’s place in the world.
And as much as the phrase makes me panic, there is a lot worth writing about the global economy. It’s easy to explain how most-favored-nation status for China will affect the supply of Tickle-me Elmos. The real challenge is explaining how the Korean market crash may affect your job.
Even with shrinking budgets, there are still good stories about money worth pursuing.
The Wall Street Journal did a story last year about two U.S.-government funded Harvard advisers who were writing the rules for Russia’s new financial markets. The Agency for International Development had discovered that the wife of one and the girlfriend of the other were simultaneously investing in the same Russian markets. This was a story you didn’t have to care about foreign affairs or stock markets to appreciate. How could two such smart guys make such questionable choices? If we also managed to sneak in some useful information about Russia’s political development and American foreign aid, all the better.
Lots of Work to Do
Even without the evil empire, there are still plenty of scoundrels and bad guys for the determined reporter to ferret out. One of the stories I’d most like to read would try to figure out who in Russia is helping Iran develop a ballistic missile capability. Is it a secret government policy, lax scientific agencies or shady business interests?
Drugs, raping the environment, misusing government funds, terrorism, proliferation, human rights abuses, are all compelling stories with or without the Cold War.
The Washington Post’s reconstruction of Bosnia’s Srebrenica massacre, reported on the ground and in Washington, told an incredible tale about man’s continuing capacity for brutality and civilized governments’ continued willingness to look the other way.
If we write it right I still believe folks will care.
Carla Anne Robbins, Nieman Fellow 1990, is a diplomatic correspondent at The Wall Street journal, where she gets to write both from Washington and abroad. She is married to Guy Gugliotta, 1983 Nieman Fellow, and they have a daughter, Annie.