Reinventing the Foreign Correspondent

Reinventing the Foreign Correspondent

Between 1990 and 2004, three years before he died at 74, Ryszard Kapuściński gave a series of lectures around Europe. These shared a theme that suggests a late-in-life preoccupation. A half-dozen of Kapuściński’s talks were published posthumously (in 2008) as The Other, and that was his running topic during these years. “Every encounter with the Other is an enigma, an unknown quantity,” Kapuściński said in one lecture. “I would even say a mystery.”

Kapuściński’s decades abroad as Poland’s most celebrated correspondent—for a long time its only foreign correspondent—were behind him by this time. At this point, he spent his days in his Warsaw study, sifting old files and notebooks and reflecting back. And it was as if he had only then understood what it was he had been doing all those years in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America—practically all of the “non-West,” let us say. He had been breaching all the walls—brick, mud, glass, sand—that separated him from other people. Everything he had ever asked anyone had concerned the questions of difference and no-difference. Nietzsche, who surely would have loved this man, would have said he sought “the perspective of the foreign,” or was “taking off the garb of Europe”—the better to know himself.

The pithiest of Kapuściński’s presentations, three of the six Verso published, are collected as “the Viennese Lectures.” They are not the typical talk of correspondents, to put the point mildly. They are determined, even insistent explorations of the existential circumstance activated in every encounter a correspondent abroad has in the course of his or her work. Kapuściński gave these encounters, irreducible features of his profession, a history that extends back to Herodotus (whose Histories he always carried in his suitcase). From the great Greek he learned the essential lessons. There was this: “To get to know Others you must set off on a journey, go to them, show a desire to meet them.” And this: “To understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them.” And then this, an address to our moment: “The idea of equality with the Other occurs only very late on, many thousands of years after man first left traces of his presence on Earth.”

I do not think it coincidental that these observations belong to a noted foreign correspondent, as against, say, a scholar, diplomat, or emerging-markets investor. Nor that the correspondent was a Pole who spent much of his life on the border between East and West and then watched as this border—supposedly, at least in theory—was erased. Nor that Kapuściński wrote and delivered his “self-and-Other” lectures in the last years of the last century and the first years of this one. Kapuściński, as was evident to anyone who knew him, understood: Correspondents abroad, wherever they are from, operate at the rock face of our time’s essential task. This is to delete “the imaginary line that separates East from West,” as Herodotus put it—from the Earth and from our consciousness. It is to describe a world wherein old barriers are discarded, a post-Western world, a world that learns to live on differently and better now that half a millennium of Atlantic primacy passes into the past.

Regrettably enough, very few correspondents now in the field have the remotest clue as to the special responsibilities they bear in the context I briefly describe. In consequence and no surprise, few of them are any good—a judgment I may as well share straightaway. Some have good instincts, true, but these are no substitute for the thought our new and singular moment requires. The conflict between East and West re-emerges sharply even as it is fated to disappear. In what is now the West’s confrontation with the Islamic world, one would think we had reverted to the 18th century, if not earlier. The distance between self and Other seems to expand when it is supposed to shrink. In every case—on the Russian border and in Ukraine, in the Middle East, across the Pacific—most Western correspondents, and emphatically the Americans among them, hold the wrong end of the stick, making matters worse with no idea they are doing so. In the most egregious cases, one reads or watches or listens and thinks of children playing with matches.

It is always important, and especially in journalism, not to magnify the moment to any point of distortion. Correspondents have had heavy, even decisive responsibilities in the past. Staying clear of comparisons, let us say simply that what they do is now crucial. Two examples among numerous are readily at hand. Many are the prominent journalists and officials who now acknowledge that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 would probably never have occurred had the press done its job properly. As we speak, Washington has brought relations with Moscow to a dangerous pitch even as America’s provocations in Ukraine and the ever-more repressive character of the regime in Kiev go almost entirely unreported.

“The information age is actually a media age,” John Pilger, the noted Australian journalist, said in a speech delivered in London last December. “We have war by media, censorship by media, demonology by media, retribution by media—a Surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.” Most correspondents will dismiss Pilger’s list of corrupt practices and unnatural acts as the conjuring of a practitioner who has long stood outside the tent urinating in, as they say. But by any detached judgment—rare as these are now—this is an accurate rendering of an appalling reality.

During the Cold War one spoke commonly of an “EastWest crisis” or “East-West tensions.” Having lived and worked most of three decades in the non-West, I take these terms to be too narrow now. Easterners and Westerners, Northerners and Southerners, Russians and Chinese, Britons and Americans, Arabs and Africans and Latin Americans—we are all victims of a self-and-Other crisis, in my view. Name our predicament this way and (1) it defines many more zones of conflict than other descriptives and (2) it suggests this essay’s subject.

The “foreign correspondent,” that trench-coated figure stalking the globe looking but not seeing, listening but not hearing, has become an impediment to understanding—a manufacturer of confusion and disarray. This state of affairs is too dangerous now to accept, given the extraordinary disorder that engulfs us. There is too much good this figure could do were the work to be understood for its complexity and then done well. He or she, in a word, is in need of reinvention.

With notable exceptions, most correspondents I have known over many years are badly read. There are two reasons for this, I concluded long ago. One, they tend to be captives of what I used to call the 800-word imagination, an occupational hazard: They have trouble getting through anything of greater length unless it is a colleague’s tales of derring-do, invariably told in tedious first-person detail. Two, there is a pronounced prejudice in the profession against intellectual exploration. Most correspondents see no need for a framework through which to judge events. They are dedicated empiricists, as the work encourages them to be. Theory, in other words, is for complicated Continentals. Practice is all that counts. A threeyear assignment is three times 365 days, nothing more.

My intent here is not to insult but to state the case plainly, for inadequate intellectual exposure is a not-inconsiderable hurdle that must be cleared if the profession is to be rethought and remade to suit our time. The point is not to suggest that daily reports should be written as tendentious treatises or histories. It is to say correspondents can no longer do without a conceptual grasp of what it is they are doing. And there is a rich literature available to help them acquire this.

To put the point another way, a lot of people in the field admire Kapuściński’s extended reportage on Africa, Russia, or Iran. So they should: The books are exemplary of the kind of work correspondents must learn to produce. But few would be able to converse with the man who wrote The Other, a book fewer still, in all likelihood, have ever heard of. In short, the distance between Kapuściński’s reportage and the later reflections is the distance correspondents must cross if they are to answer to their era.

Kapuściński’s professional trajectory is instructive. When PAP, the Polish press agency, sent him abroad in the late 1950s, his were the first eyes it had ever laid on the outside world. He wrote in Polish his whole life, and for many years his reports reached only a Polish audience. But what he saw in the world changed him, and he let it. He began to write “for people everywhere,” as he later explained. By the 1960s, when the remembered books began to come, he inhabited that high, sparsely populated ground between journalism and literature. The work from there was celebrated in English, Spanish, and dozens of other languages. It no longer mattered that he wrote in Polish. It no longer mattered that he was a Pole. He was something else first, something larger.

We take from this life and work an essential question: Must a correspondent’s work remain always embedded in his or her culture or nationality? Must it reflect the assumptions and presumptions, the politics and political positioning— altogether the ideology, we might get away with saying—of the medium for which he or she reports? Or does the work transform the correspondent, such that he is other than an American writing for an American newspaper, or an Egyptian writing for an Egyptian newspaper, or (not infrequently the case now) an Egyptian or Brazilian reporting for American or British or French media?

The question turns into a Zen koan if one lets it, a riddle. But answer it one way or another and we either close the case or crack it open.

The readily available answer is negative, with no nuance attaching. Taking the past as a guide, if you report for an American newspaper or broadcaster you are tattooed “American” and your pieces speak in the tongue, the secret language hidden in every language. In the annals of the profession there are many cases of correspondents who cross this line either out of sympathy for the subject or gradually acquired habits of mind. This, by tradition, is called “going native” and is never tolerated. Correspondents are typically rotated out of foreign bureaus after three to five years to prevent this tendency. One draws only so close to those in whose midst one lives and works, preserving the Other as the Other.

But of all the things the 21st century has to tell us, first among the messages is that the past is only so useful as a guide to the tasks before us. This is especially so given the second half of the last century. The Cold War was the self-and-Other discourse taken to its grotesque extreme—diabolically logical and illogical all at once. In the most fundamental read it was a profound distortion in the human consciousness, embraced by a few and imposed on the rest. Anyone who understands tradition knows that imitating it does it no honor. We honor tradition by adding something new to it, and this is what correspondents working abroad must do. This is my not-readilyavailable answer to the question.

One of the people Kapuściński learned from on the journey he took after all the others were done—the travels in his Warsaw study—was a 20th century French philosopher named Emmanuel Lévinas. He is notoriously difficult but rewards those who stay with him. Lévinas used a microscope to examine all that occurs in encounters with the Other. He addressed perception, perspective, language, ethics, and, most especially, the responsibility incurred by way of all human encounters. We are not responsible merely to the Other, Lévinas asserted, but for the Other. Only in understanding this is the self-transcended and one’s humanity authentically realized. “The self is possible only through recognition of the Other,” he famously declared.

Lévinas was a phenomenologist, and I do not think it coincidental that this school of thought arose in 1920s Germany and flowered again amid the existentialist wave in post-1945 Paris. Think about these interims. They followed world wars; both were marked by intensified processes of massification. Phenomenology is the study of consciousness—the being as it perceives the world and those who live in it. Is it a wonder this discipline advanced after disastrous displays of indifference, one person to another, after identities were perversely defined, and during periods when the individual was subject to immense new systems of social organization and control?

Is it a wonder that thinkers such as Lévinas, Sartre, and many others bear consideration now? I hope not. We find everywhere a heightened awareness of the self, the Other, and the difference and distance between the two. The task of transcending this difference and distance should be clear to anyone who thinks about it. But it is not getting done. And I cannot think of any milieu wherein the failure is more evident than among the people we in the West send abroad to report back on those in the non-West, all our Others.

Correcting this failure, retrieving from something near to disgrace a profession that belongs to those in it and those they address, is a duty correspondents owe everybody. Doing it better is urgent given the frightening disorder to which they now contribute more or less everywhere. And I think the process has to begin among correspondents themselves. They need to define themselves with more thought than most have ever given the matter. Who am I by virtue of what I do? This question leads to others and so is a good place to start.

Here we borrow and simplify one of Sartre’s most familiar thoughts. The correspondent is responsible for himself or herself as an individual. He or she, no editor in the head office, determines every action. He lives among Others: This is the irreducible reality of the chosen life and work. It is the one relationship that cannot be altered other than by way of removal. The rest—who employs, the assignment’s parameters, all the expectations—are mere frame. I am trying to describe the correspondent’s essential solitude—and hence responsibility. No editor is ever there.

To understand the circumstance this way is not a choice or an idle exercise. It is to learn what it means to be truly answerable (and truly human, not a bad byproduct). Does a correspondent answer to his circumstance—O.K., his existential condition—or to the frame, which is by definition temporarily imposed? It is either/or: Failing to recognize the choice—remaining faithful to the frame—is one’s choice. Unconcealment—a word from Lévinas, the revealing of who one truly is—is inevitable.

This question of identity is very key. Answer it incorrectly and you get—no need to elaborate—what we find more or less uniformly in our daily media reports. Robert Stone, the late novelist, once described journalism’s purpose as nothing more than the confirmation of what people think they already know. Exactly. All the established prejudices, the ungrounded “facts” that are not facts, the conviction as to what has to be done next are reaffirmed. Nothing new gets done. In this essay’s terms, the self is fortified and the Other remains safely Other.

Answer correctly and a correspondent comes into an immense new freedom. The question posed earlier is perfectly clear: One is not an American or Briton or German among Others. One is simply a human being before any of that. Then comes the sudden recognition that he or she is the stranger, the foreigner, the Other. Then, as I hope is obvious, the work is top-to-bottom transformed. Method changes because purpose does. New realities are discovered and reported. Readers and viewers are properly disturbed by reports of the unfamiliar, the intractable, the not-supposed-to-be-so. The simplified takes on complexity. There is a reduction, at least, in our vast inventory of misapprehensions. The work, in short, gets done as it is supposed to.

Some years ago I taught a course on this topic at the University of Hong Kong. As so often with students, they were less interested in kind of thinking outlined here than in how to get the work done. I had to tell them repeatedly: “The method derives from the thinking and reading. They are not separate.”

Among other things they read Kapuściński’s book, and a little Lévinas, parts of Julia Kristeva’s much-noted Strangers to Ourselves, and parts of Timothy Brennan’s At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (which I will return to.) Then I had them read some of Kapuściński’s reportage, keeping the later reflections in mind. I asked them to read John Hersey’s Hiroshima—again if they already had. Herbert Matthews’s famous reports from Cuba and Martha Gellhorn’s from the Spanish Republic were in the mix. And I included some of Wilfred Burchett’s reporting of the Vietnam war—unique in this respect—from the North.

Then, question time. Did Burchett upset most people because he was a “Red” or because he forced us to see what the war looked like to those we warred against in their own country? What was it about Hiroshima that mesmerized American readers when The New Yorker published it in August 1946? Was it simply the shock of what the first atomic bomb did to a large Japanese city? Or was it more the stories of six survivors told in astonishing close-ups? Was it Hersey’s ability to make utterly concrete what the world looked like to the quintessential Other of the American imagination in the 1940s? Was it to make human and ordinary the so thoroughly dehumanized?

One theme came through all the work we read that semester. It was the need to move in more than close—the need to transcend whatever the borderline happened to be. It had been done before. The 21st century task is to make the exceptional in the 20th century the norm in the 21st, full stop.

There are a thousand practical ways at this. A brief list will give an idea of how this argument would turn out in practice:

• Forget the dreams of expatriate grandeur—a form of sequestration. Live locally.

• Ignore colleagues (usually the Americans) who roll their eyes at the word “intellectual.” Becoming one is now part of the job. You are an amateur psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist—and a rampant thief whenever you read (which is often). You steal method, too. Clifford Geertz’s “thick description,” for instance, will serve you well.

• You cover a people, not events. Value history highly—bottom-up history, “subaltern” history, as opposed to the “great man” variety.

• Understand: Your assignment is a canvas, all of a piece. When you are finished you have painted an oil. • If there is an “other side,” get there and learn it.

• Let the country and the people you cover speak through you—for themselves. Hands on now means hands off.

Two big questions arise. One will seem purely practical and one another case of thinking the problem through. But both are both, for they meet at the horizon.

To begin with, there is nothing here about media as an institution ridden with interests whether these are political, ideological, corporate, or all three (as so often.) Of what use is a brief précis of how correspondents must learn to situate themselves and understand the work if they are effectively prisoners of these interests?

To my students I must have come across as a merciless colonel, for my answer to them is my answer here: Battles must be engaged. The profession has run itself as nearly into the ground since September 11, 2001—a turning point, as argued in an earlier essay in these pages—as it has been since the worst of the Cold War period’s corruptions. Reinvention logically begins with correspondents because they are directly exposed to the world as it truly is. And the world as it truly is the agent of change. It has already begun to make correction urgent.

I describe a generation’s project. In modest respects, the best in the field have already started on it. For the rest, if they begin in 2015 it will take however many years; to begin in 2020 it will still take however many—if not more by then. Where is the argument against beginning, then? The extent to which the project seems beyond reach is exactly the extent it needs to get done.

A final point in this connection. While the poverty of substance in mainstream media is evident, so is their wealth of infrastructure. So-called alternative media (I do not like the term) have assumed a greater responsibility since 2001, but it is established media that still have the reach to gather information abroad and project it at home. In the process of doing both, in my view, it will become gradually clearer that survival—as in everybody’s—requires that correspondents become more answerable to their circumstances (as I have explained the thought) and less to prevailing expectations. Follow the line of logic, and the only alternative is very grim. We are already well on the way to becoming a nation of fantasists, out of touch with our traditional friends to say nothing of others. The media play a big part in this manufacture of ignorance.

To engage the second question I return to 1991, when I concluded a tour in Tokyo for the International Herald Tribune. A fresh-faced American named Bruce Feiler had come over to teach English—a popular diversion among recent graduates then—and he published a book just as my assignment ended. He called it Learning to Bow and gave it the enticing subtitle, Entering the Heart of Japan. Penetrating the heart of Japan, I ought to add, has been an American pastime since 1945, all who try never coming even close.

You have not heard of this book for the most obvious of reasons. It was a bubble in the froth. Feiler’s project, as the title implies, was to know Japan by surrendering to all things Japanese. A certain kind of worship always attends these sorts of undertakings (disappointment the unfailing follow-on). You learn to bow instead of extending a hand (as the Japanese would expect and respect you for). You master all the angles at which one bows in observance of two millennia’s worth of hierarchical relations, and so you got through to the heart of the matter.

Feiler qualified as what is called a cosmopolitan. And the discourse of cosmopolitanism was just flowering when Feiler wrote his book. It is a problem correspondents must address, the better to avoid putting a foot wrong as Feiler did his.

Cosmopolitanism is nothing new, but its reiteration since the Cold War’s (nominal) end has been prominent among the thinking classes. It posits our need to transcend differences (even as we honor them, somehow) and develop a globeembracing “polychromatic culture,” as Timothy Brennan, the scholar mentioned earlier, puts it. It is a question of wellmeant sentiment and “hybridity”—a favored term among the cosmos—but at the far end you get talk of world government, transnational civil society movements, and the like. I shorthand it, probably unfairly, as “one-worldism,” borrowing from the title of Wendell Willkie’s hugely popular book, One World, commissioned by F.D.R. and published in 1943.

This line of inquiry’s attractions are logical enough. The nation-state outlives its purpose, no longer expressing humanity’s aspirations. Cosmopolitanism stands—common polarity—against pernicious patriotism. It is a positive response, antidote altogether, to our self-and-Other problems.

But there is a trap door in all the good intent. It is the square in the floor Bruce Feiler fell through. Brennan, a distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota and a student and friend of the late Edward Said, located and described it over some years. Credit to him for the distinction with which I conclude.

In a word, cosmopolitanism is spongy, lacking hard edges. Adherents tend to get lost in thickets of idealism. On one hand, we know too well the cynical use the State Department and its creature, the National Endowment for Democracy, make of well-intentioned civil society people. On the other and more saliently still, cosmopolitanism creates no new ground for political expression of any real use. The net effect is acquiescence, political disarmament as the planet neoliberalizes.

Nation states and their rivalries are responsible for much of the violence and repression confronting populations in too many places, surely. But they are not going anywhere soon. In response to the cosmos’ supra-nationalism, therefore, Brennan posits a commitment to internationalism, a familiar enough idea. National institutions still constitute structures within which leverage can be exerted, voices raised, and influence brought to bear. “Good dialectical sense,” he wrote in the New left Review some years ago, “would suggest that a political form born in the epoch of colonial conquest might play some role in resisting the next stage of political hegemony.”

What does any of this have to do with the reinvention of correspondents? Much. Reporters working abroad can learn a lot from the discourse of cosmopolitanism, if partly by negative example. A corps of Bruce Feilers running foreign bureaus would be wholly counterproductive. In the context just sketched, they have to stand as internationalists. Their paradox–and their purpose, too–lies in their obligation to extend the boundaries that distinguish self from Other, while reporting back to editors,readers, viewers and listeners who live within those boundaries. It is among them that the correspondent’s voice is most usefully raised.

To explain this, let us take a final look at the questions of responsibility and answerability. If a correspondent’s responsibility is to himself or herself, this means as himself or herself. One does not achieve Kapuściński’s “equality with the Other” by surrendering selfhood. Kapuściński died a Pole, in Poland. Transcending, say, Americanness does not mean effacing it. It means remaining responsible to it, however many thousands of miles away one may live and work. Once this is understood, the rest is clear. The truly responsible correspondent answers to readers, viewers, and listeners far away, in the country to which the reporting goes. No one else. To them he owes a debt, a true accounting of what he has seen and heard, and of the Others he has encountered.

This debt is not now honored, and the lapse betrays everyone—the Russian Other and the Arab, who are not properly portrayed; readers, viewers and listeners, who are misled and so deprived of the means to judge; correspondents themselves, and the profession altogether. Gellhorn once described what occurs between reporter and reader as an honorable transaction. But she understood what correspondents now do not. This is the project: to achieve that understanding, to make the transaction honorable again.