National Press Club

J-School Dean/Author Portrays Colorful Past of Foreign Correspondents

September 16, 2009 | By Lorna Aldrich |

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The first “high water” mark of foreign reporting in what is now the United States was the colonial era, when Benjamin Franklin republished articles from foreign newspapers that arrived by ship, John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication, said at the Club Sept. 14 .

But Hamilton, author of " Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting," also expressed optimism about the future of foreign reporting in the United States.

His own history includes reporting from 50 countries over a long career. His appearance was jointly sponsored by the NPC International Correspondents Committee and the International Center for Journalists .

Hamilton said the history of foreign reporting was one of good and “lousy” reporters, editors and politicians. Part of his purpose, he said, was to put “headstones on the graves of those who died anonymously,” and he describe a cast of colorful characters who illustrated both categories of contributors, most notoriously Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune .

He termed the period between World Wars I and II the second high water mark of foreign reporting, despite a common view that it was an era of American isolationism. Individuals, he said, went abroad as freelancers who could publish in a large number of outlets. They could live cheaply overseas; he cited as an example that Edgar Snow, the chronicler of China, could sell one article to the Saturday Evening Post and live for a year in Beijing on the proceeds. In contrast to the present, he noted, citizens of other countries liked Americans, so they could move around safely. Also in contrast to the present, he added, the foreign correspondents were independent and could seek stories rather than respond to assignments from editors.

For the future he saw both traditional and new kinds of foreign correspondents that will look “suspiciously like the old ones.” He cited bloggers and alliances between news organizations. In contrast to the past, he noted, in an age of fast international travel, correspondents can be dispatched to cover specific stories. “Parachute journalism” can be both bad and good, he said. He cited Bloomberg News as an example of an organization that has added reporting, offsetting the foreign correspondents who have been subtracted from traditional newspapers.

In response to a question, he agreed that there would be more use of foreign citizens to report on their own countries and that this trend was already evident. The upside of the trend, he said, is that foreign reporters know the ins and outs of their own countries, are possibly safer than Americans would be and can move about more easily. The downside of the trend, he added, is that they may introduce their own slant to events. Also, he said, because the copy is relatively inexpensive, editors may have less incentive to use it.

On the use of citizen journalists using social media, Hamilton said there will be more. It is part of a trend, he said, of instant reporting, with “I think” replacing “I know." What is being lost, he said, is going out to find stories. The current challenge is the need to subsidize fact and news gathering, he said.