Google Groups

'How to be a Foreign Correspondent' by Alexander Cockburn


Sanjeev Mahajan Apr 6, 1991 8:20 AM
Posted in group: soc.culture.indian

The following is an article by Alexander Cockburn, a freelance journalist:
(dated May 1976)

{Begin Quote}

Resolving to consider the nature and practice of foreign newsgathering,
I originally had it in mind to center attention on CL Sulzbereger. It
seemed to me, following his intrepid, unending voyage through the capitals
of Europe, that in the end one would have a lexicon of cliches-an immense
word hoard of all the banalities any man could ever set down about foreign
affairs. It seemed to me that CL had become the Mariner 10 of journalism,
a typewriter rushing through the vastness of space, pulsing back its twice
weekly message. Perhaps one day the typewriter will fall silent - perhaps it
already has - but through a time lag across the light years the messages
will still come, datelined Vienna, or Paris, or Rome - and one will
feel that although the man himself is departed, his column will adorn
The New York Tiimes op-ed page forever.

        The ground he covers is tremendous. The old files bear witness to
his prodigious energies. Here he is in Israel talking to 'a most authoritative
Israeli official' ('I found some interest in both Cairo and Tel Aviv when
I propeosed the Raifa-Port Suez line which was the actual frontier between
Egypt and Ottoman Turkey at the start of World War I...'); now in Italy
('Italy may be heading towards a Chilean solution ... opening to the left
... nor does much time remain...'); then briefly back to London ('Democracy
need not always abide by what seems to be old-fashioned majority rule')
before setting off for Athens and Istanbul ('There is a widespread fear that
anarchy and a massive disaster are looming').

        Late in 1971, we find him briefly in Vienna, pondering the hundredth
anniversary of Stanley's discovery of Livingstone: 'During Stanley's
leisurely era, a taste for lonely adventure and for unbridled literary
composition were esential. ...In those nostalgic days the roving reporter
was a kind of verbal aristocrat. Boldness of spirit, elegance of style
and frequently astonishing knowledge were assets he combined to prepare
literary reports for an audience that depended on newspapers for immediate
understanding of the spacious world about it.' It is a poignant cry.

        CL is the summation, the platnic ideal of what foreign reporting
is all about, which is to fire volley after volley of cliche into the
densely packed prejudices of his readers. There are no surprises in his
work. NATO is always in crisis. There is and always has been an opening
to the left in Italy. HE NEVER DEVIATES INTO PARADOX. His work is a
constant affirmation of received beliefs.

        CL Sulzberger is much too experienced a hand to avoid the obvious
whenever he has a chance to grapple with it. We find him in Nairobi, face
to face with the course of events on the dark continent and sure enough,
we find that 'Africans are accustomed to dwelling in tribal societies and
respect authority. ... The greatest question for the next generation of
leaders is: Can nation-states in the future be maintained over disintegrating
thrust of ancient tribalism?' This is expert stuff, fulfilling THE FIRST
LAW OF ALL JOURNALISM, WHICH IS TO CONFIRM EXISTING PREJUDICE, RATHER THAN
CONTRADICT IT.

        So, armed with Sulzberger's Maxim, Never Shun the Obvious, let us
see how the foreign correspondent should address himself to the world.

        There are certain blank areas one should simply keep clear of.
Australia and New Zealand for example: vast territories covered with sheep.
Nothing of any interest has ever been written about New Zealand, and
indeed very little is known about it. In Australia, if it becomes absolutely
necessary to go there, one can touch on (a) convict heritage of the
inhabitants, (b) tendency of prime ministers to drown themselves,
(c) philistine nature of Australians - see (a) above - and (d) erosion
of Great Barrier Reef. Do not get into discussions of the Japanese invasion
and Australian race laws, or even the future of the Australian Labor Party.

        Moving north a little we find ourselves nearing New Guinea. This
is simple stuff: headhunters FACE TO FACE with 20th century. Interview
a worried district officer. Speak of the MENACE OF THE MODERN WORLD for
these simple, yet unpredictable tribes which are ususally coated with
white clay. Are oil companies about to exploit assets which some
geologists speculate may EQUAL THOSE OF THE MIDDLE EAST?

        Indonesia, first of all, is a TEEMING ARCHIPELAGO. It is still
shaking itself free of the confused yet charismatic leadership of Sukarno.
There was a massacre, but THE WOUNDS ARE HEALING (or, the schisms still
run deep and MUCH BITTERNESS REMAINS). There are CONTRASTS. Wealth COEXISTS
UNEASILY with desperate poverty. There are Moslems (a growth subject).
The students may be becoming discontented with the rule of the generals.
There is much U.S. investment, which so far has done little to adjust
the STARK CONTRAST between rich and poor.

        Now we are in Malaysia, where one of the few successful examples
of counter-insurgency occurred. Under the wise leadership of Sir Robert
Thompson, the Chinese Communists were routed. Relative contentment prevails.
Hurry on to Singapore and stay at the Raffles Hotel. Interview Harry Lee;
ask him why he has jailed all his political opponents. Singapore is a FAST
GROWING ECONOMIC CENTER. It has a powerful class of Chines businessmen
whose sympathies may well lie with Singapore's POWERFUL NEIGHBOR TO THE
NORTH.

        We are now into South East Asia proper. Some simple rules for
a complex subject: Analyses of Laotian, Thai, Combodian or Burmese politics
are strictly for professionals or addicts. speak of the TIMELESS RHYTHMS
OF THE COUNTRYSIDE wherever possible. Never underestimate the Buddhists.
Always REVISIT places ('For Lon Tho, a simple peasant, the life has not
changed ...'). Be careful about Burma. Most people cannot remember whether
it was Siam and has become Thailand, or whether it is now part of Malaysia
and should be called Sri Lanka.

        Past now, to Hong Kong, a TIME BOMB, but also a LISTENING POST.
HIDEOUS contrasts between rich and poor. Highest suicide rate in the
world. It teems. Avoid Macao, which is for gamblers only and is SEEDY
and RUNDOWN. Go straight to China. A few simple rules: ALWAYS get
an interview with Chou En Lai. He is civilized, but a DEDICATED REVOLUTIONARY.
He has an UNCANNY COMMAND FOR DETAIL.

        Be careful about China. It may have peaked as a growth subject.
But it is still quite safe to be favorable about it.
        
        Japan. You can be much more racist about the Japanese than most
other people, e.g. they only copy - albeit superbly - Western inventions.
Fearful pollution. No street maps. Wrokers are intensely loyal to their
companies. (Ignore labor militancy). Tanaka is DYNAMIC  but BESET BY
PROBLEMS. (The proper adjectivial adornment for leaders is a vast
and complex subject. If he is one of OUR dictators then use words like
DYNAMIC, STRONG MAN, ABLE. He LAUGHS a great deal, is always ON THE MOVE,
IN A HURRY. He BRUSHES IMPATIENTLY ASIDE questions about franchise and
civil liberties: 'my people are not yet ready for these amenities you
in the West feel free to enjoy ...' If, on the other hand, he is one
of their dictators, then use words like UNSTABLE, BROODING, ERRATIC,
BLOODTHIRSTY, INDOLENT. He seldom ventures out of his palace unless under
HEAVY GUARD. He is rumored to be AILING. Oddly enough he is CHARISMATIC.
At the moment it is particularly dangerous to use adjectives about
Arab leaders. Stick to general concepts in this case, like CONVERTED TO
WESTERN WAYS or DEEPLY RELIGIOUS.) Back to Japan. What about militarism?
What about Soy sauce? Stress unease about Western intentions.

        Let us quicken the pace a little, for there is much ground to
be covered, and the presses are waiting. Up and away we go, past Phillipines,
where Marcos is brushing questions impatiently aside, ever intent on
DRAGGING HIS COUNTRY INTO THE 20TH CENTURY and on PUTTING AN END TO
CORRUPTION; past Tahiti (where syphilis is RIFE) and down into our
all-purpose Latin american country.

        It seems to SYMBOLIZE the problems of a YOUNG CONTINENT, still
SCARRED BY ITS CONQUISTDOR HERIITAGE. An IMPOVERISHED INDIAN POPULATION
has little say in the fortunes of a republic scarred by RAMPANT AND
SOARING INFLATION, presided over by an AGING-DICTATOR, backed by a junta.
Young officers in the air force are plotting an ill-fated but bloody coup
which is deplored by thoughtful but troubled intellectuals, uneasily
aware of their great neighbor to the north which they view with mixed
emotions. The country has LONG DEMOCRATIC TRADITIONS which have been
RELUCTANTLY ABANDONED. ARMED WITH A NEWFOUND SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY the
CATHOLIC HEIRARCHY is pressing for a return to CHERISHED DEMOCRATIC
NORMS. SHANTY TOWNS sprawl. Roads cleave the fast receding jungle which
itself is squeezed between the LONG SPINE OF THE ANDES and the superb
beaches, playground of a NEWLY AFFLUENT MIDDLE CLASS. The ROMANTIC
APPEAL of Castro can nowhere be sensed. There is, on the other hand,
ABUNDANT EVIDENCE of American investment, though the SEASONED BUSINESSMEN
view the future with caution. For though the country CRAVES STRONG
GOVERNMENT, they NOTE the growing power of the trade Union movement
and SEETHING discontent among the students. The university is closed.

        Away we go again, high over Canada, conscious as always of its
NEIGHBOR TO THE SOUTH, over Iceland covered with GEYSERS and surrounded
by FISH, and down towards Europe.

        General features are immediately apparent. There is a crisis in the
COMMON MARKET: a crisis in RELATIONS WITH THE U.S.; a crisis in NATO;
a huge IMMIGRANT LABORING POPULATION. But we relax at once for we are
in London where the CIVILIZED PACE OF LIFE be observed. CLASS DISTINCTIONS
are as SUBTLE BUT AS EMPHATIC AS EVER, even though SMILING POLICEMEN
constantly pause to give us street directions. The city is stuffed with
theaters. We are, however, perturbed by the state of the British industry,
DISRUPTED BY STRIKES, prey to the demands of a POWERFUL TRADE UNION
MOVEMENT which is supported by INDOLENT WORKERS. It is clear, as we
observe the TOLERANT AFFECTION in which the Royal family is held,
that BRITAIN HAS LOST AN EMPIREBUT NOT YET FOUND A ROLE and that
THOUGHTFUL BRITONS still believe the U.S. to be Britain's best friend,
and that in the EEC Britain may prove a VALUABLE COUNTERWEIGHT to
French designs.

        Spain is afflicted by THE BASQUE PROBLEM. With its abundant population
of SMALL FARMERS and mutinous workers, France seems still enslaved by
the heritage of Descartes and de Gaulle. There's a lot of GALLIC LOGIC
around. The buildings are very clean, but the small markets of rural
France seem to be fast disappearing in the face of American-style
enterprises. On the whole we leave with a sense of optimism, for it
seems that GAULLIST ILLUSIONS OF GRANDEUR are a thing of the past, even
though fervent belief in the destiny and CIVILIZING MISSION OF LA
FRANCE remain.

        Belgium has a language problem, too, as Walloons battle it
out with Flems. But Brussels is a soulless city of international
insititutions so we pass it on to Germany. At once we are conscious
of the dilemma. Has the country finally EXORCISED THE NIGHTMARE OF
HITKER, or does the NEW INTEREST IN HITLER presage a return to ugly
passions of the 'thirties. All Germans work extremely hard, leading
to CONSTANT TRADING SURPLUSES and frequent REVALUATION OF THE MARK.

        Italy is a nightmare. VENICE IS STINKING; workers are constantly
on strike; neo-Fascism is gaining new adherents; corruption is rife and
the cabinet is in crisis. The Christian Democrats in power since 1947,
have just closed the door on the opening to the left.

        Avoid Austria, home of BRUNO KREISKY, former center of
Austro-Hungarian Empire, birthplace of Hitler, and, indeed, avoid
Scandinavia, too; even Finland, uneasily aware of its GIANT NEIGHBOR
to the east. There is little to detain zealous newsmen here. Even
the passions of Eastern Europe have died down. The OLD WOUNDS of
'56 in Hungary seem to be healing and CARDINAL MINDZENTY has left.
Poland still has its DRUNKS and its CATHOLICS and its OPENNESS TO
MODERN STRAINS IN WESTERN ART. Nowhere knows where Dubcek is. Rumania
seems still determined to STEER AND INDEPENDENT DIPLOMATIC PATH BUT SHOWS
LITTLE SIGNS OF ANY RELAXATION OF THE IRON GRIP OF THE COMMUNIST
PARTY. Bulgaria is still RUSSIA'S CLOSEST ALLY and as befits the
homeland of ROSE ATTAR is ALWAYS FIRST TO TOE THE KREMLIN LINE. Yugoslavia
is TROUBLED BY CROATS but seemingly gone are the BRAVE YEARS when Tito
defied its NEIGHBOR TO THE FAR NORTH. We can see only dim outline of
Albania, once the West's ONLY LISTENING POST TO THE IMMENSE ENIGMA OF
CHINA, now merely ENIGMATIC.

        The USSR is for the specialist, but here are a few tips. Try
(a) new cities in Siberia, (b) sturgeon poaching in the Caspian, (c)
the old men of Azerbaijan invigorated by a diet of kasha and goats'
milk, (d) pollution of Lake Baikal, (e) disappointing harvest in
the virgin lands, (f) no bath plugs in old-fashioned Victorian hotels,
(g) foreign factories on the Volga, (h) nostalgia for the years of
Stalin, (i) abiding fears of German militarism.

        A quick swing through Turkey, still HEAVING ITSELF into the
20th century, conscious of the HERITAGE OF ATATURK, its sky aglow
with the gilded minarets of Byzantium.

        Outside the COMPLEX Middle East we are mostly left with India
and Africa; the WORLD'S LARGEST DEMOCRACY AND A CONTINENT IN MANY WAYS
STILL DARK. There is much to choose from: SACRED COWS, RELIGIOUS SECTS,
THE VALE OF KASHMIR, LEGACY OF THE RAJ, THE CORRUPT CONGRESS PARTY,
JAINS, WESTERNERS IN SEARCH OF TRUTH, DUST, STARVATION on an unparalleled
scale. In Africa, the onward march of the SAHARA, KWASHIORKOR, TRIBALISM,
PRESIDENT NYERERE, SOUTH AFRICAN LABOR LAWS, GUERRILLAS IN MOZAMBIQUE,
GENOCIDE, FAMINE, STILL PROUD MASAI, ONCE PROUD TOUAREGS, and STILL
SMALL PYGMIES.

        We have done it. These are the basic rules. There are many
subtleties, of course. The proper treatment of islands merits a whole
chapter in the novice's manual (TINY, YET STRATEGICALLY VITAL; HOTLY
DISPUTED BY ITS GIANT NEIGHBORS; lying ATHWART what is POSSIBLY the
world's most crucial waterway; SEEKING TO AVOID THE TRAPS and pitfalls
of 'modern life'; THREATENED by volcanos/tidal waves/nuclear fallout).
Then again, the treatment of a deposed leader: is he UNCEREMONIOUSLY
BUNDLED INTO EXILE, STRIPPED OF HIS DUTIES, LONG RUMORED TO BE AILING
but dominated by an AMBITIOUS WIFE whom many believe to hold the
true reins of power? What about allegations of torture? Are they
BRUSQUELY DISMISSED as fabrications, or WIDELY ACCEPTED as having
some basis in fact?

        There are problems of timing: When should one leave the war-torn
scene of crisis? After the shooting has stopped; one month after that;
six months later? Should one go back ('War still rages in "peaceful"...')?

        By and large avoid the UNDERDEVELOPED or THIRD WORLD or NEWLY
EMERGING WORLD. Reprting of famine and mass starvation holds little
consistent appeal for Western readers, and unrestrained speculation
about probable number of dead (one million, two million, ten million)
merely bewilders and depresses people. Stick to main highways of
Western diplomacy and American policy. Remember that your cliche hoard
is for CONSOLATION and AFFIRMATION, never be PREMATURE in any criticism
of your nation's policy. Remember that the world turns slowly and
that almost without exception what was true about a country ten years
ago is still true today. LIFE GOES ON AS USUAL. Bear in mind Lord
Northcliffe's sage advice to journalists: 'Never lose your sense of
superficial.' Happy landings.

{End Quote}