Ignoring the rest of the world
Nationally syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs commentator for more than four decades. Notable world figures she has interviewed over the years include Saddam Hussein, Anwar Sadat, Moammar Gadhafi and the Ayatollah Khomeni.
Geyer, 78, now based in Washington, D.C., spoke to the Trib regarding the significant decline in recent years in American foreign reporting.
Q: Foreign reporting has become sort of a lost art these days. How bad is that for American journalism?
A: It's a tragic thing for American journalism. At the (now-defunct Chicago) Daily News, where I was bred, we had a superb foreign service. There were foreign correspondents who could foresee the trends, foresee the problems. We had incident after incident of foreign correspondents being extraordinarily prescient about their areas of the world, and now that's virtually gone. The mammoth papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times still have foreign correspondents. But other papers — the Los Angeles Times (and) the Dallas Morning News, for example — either have none or very, very few. (Many newspapers) now just have people who parachute in (to places) for one story.
Q: Doesn't that obviously invite less thorough coverage because the reporters who parachute in can't really cultivate the quality sources they could if they lived in the areas they are covering?
A: While these parachutists are good reporters, they can't do it as well (as full-time foreign correspondents). They're not really in a country long enough to dig into the culture. When you utilize freelancers, you sort of take what you can get at the time. It's not an organized, systematized, structured approach to covering the Middle East or Europe or Latin America or Asia.
Q: The vast majority of Americans didn't know what al-Qaida was until 9/11, and that was largely because no (news outlet) was really paying attention to what was going on in Afghanistan. Is the dearth of foreign reporting these days a danger to America? Are we ignoring the world at our peril?
A: Absolutely. Virtually no one was covering Afghanistan after the Soviets left. We had no one there in the '90s telling us what was happening. When we actually went into Afghanistan (after 9/11), people were amazed as to the hostility of the people. But if we had had people over there (earlier), they would have seen the turn toward Islamic fundamentalism.
Q: Do you think in-depth foreign coverage is gone for good?
A: I may be a foolish optimist. This is a shifting time in journalism where very little foreign correspondence is being done except for perhaps two papers in the country. But I believe that eventually people will rethink what is going on. Some wise editors around the country will decide to fight the good fight and tell people what is really at stake here.
Q: Given the industry's financially precarious position, why are you optimistic that will happen?
A: I think that any sane, thinking person would agree that it's insanity for a country that deems itself the greatest power and civilization on Earth today not to take even minimal steps to know the world. That just doesn't make sense.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org).