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