I was startled recently by a passage in a Foreign Service Journal interview with former State Department Director General W. Robert Pearson. Three aspects of the interview caught my attention. It was astonishingly out of touch with developments in the media world, it seemed oblivious to the core competence of foreign service political reporting, and it was eerily reminiscent of an I’m-your-new-boss talk by Joseph Duffy, the Bill Clinton-appointed Director who presided over the demise of USIA. Here’s the passage:
FSJ: Generally, is there less reporting and analysis out of embassies today, so that you can focus more on outreach?
WRP: The news is transmitted almost as it happens nowadays. And there is no requirement at all in embassies any more to report if [news is] carried back by media instantly. In many cases there are other things that don’t have to be reported, either: trends and things that are reported commercially or on line or easily with the slightest bit of research. So embassies are going to end up doing more in-depth reflection on trends and [U.S.] interests and providing “value added” that isn’t going to be available from some other source. In order to do that, people in embassies are going to have to go out and get sources and information and insights that are not simply replicas of what you could research on the keyboard by Googling the item.
This is such a confusing statement. What Pearson proposes as innovative is precisely what good Embassy reporting and analysis has always been—anything but lazy regurgitation of easy-to-find sources. So what’s going on here?
THE PRIVATE SECTOR REPORTERS AREN'T THERE ANYMORE!
Actually Pearson is absolutely right about just one thing. Reportage moves fast these days. But there’s less and less depth to the news flying back and forth electronically. There’s much less of it, too, from anywhere, which means that even lowly embassy “spot reporting” would be hard to outsource, assuming that would be a good idea in the first place, which it isn’t.
Reading between the lines, I gather that the State Department, under the pretext of eliminating redundancy, wants to slash its personnel costs and hopes to find economies by reducing the need for reporting officers abroad. In the process, “outreach,” a current buzz word, will be increased. Unfortunately the media are way ahead of the bureaucrats when it comes to suicidal cost cutting. Here’s a sampling of major staff reductions in the newsrooms of America’s premier media houses.
The State of the Media’s “Annual Report on American Journalism” for 2005 reported that
the ominous announcements gathered steam as the year went on. The New York Times would cut nearly 60 people from its newsroom, the Los Angeles Times 85; Knight Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News cut 16%, the Philadelphia Inquirer 15%—and that after cutting another 15% only five years earlier....Time...cut 205 people....Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering....On the Web, the Internet-only sites that have tried to produce orignial content (among them Slate and Salon) have struggled financially, while those thriving rely almost entirely on the work of others.
Now let’s look at the reporter-axing already proposed or underway for 2006. The Washington Post has announced it will cut 80 jobs or 9% of its newsroom. The Denver Post will be reducing its newsroom staff by 25. The New York Times will cut 45 newsroom employees and its sister paper the Boston Globe will slash 35.
More directly relevant to Pearson’s expectation that embassies can be relieved of some reporting responsibilities, more brutal staff reductions are compromising news gathering abroad. The Tribune Company, which owns Newsday, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times is “restructuring its foreign bureaus, moving to have reporters write for its entire chain and curbing a tradition of each paper staffing an international post.” That’s fewer bodies collecting news, which means less competition. Inevitably quality as well as quantity will decline. Worse yet, in light of current events, consider the bureaus about to be sacrificed. In two years bureaus in Beirut (!) and Islamabad (!) will be closed. Bureaus in South Africa and Moscow (!) will also shut down. Time, meanwhile, has laid off bureau chiefs in Beijing, Seoul, Jerusalem and Moscow—and the London operation will be severely cut. Furthermore, reports the International Herald Tribune, although
editors at Newsweek, Time and BusinessWeek emphasize their commitment to international coverage,...staff reductions...and the outright closure of BusinessWeek's international print edition will almost certainly reduce the amount of news and analysis of global affairs.
So much for relying on the print press. But TV is not filling the gap. Already in 2001 Scotti Williston was writing an article entitled “Global News and the Vanishing American Foreign Correspondent”:
Until recent years, American television news was global news....The networks had correspondents posted around the world, on the ground in Cairo, Nairobi, Paris, Moscow and elsewhere. They were people who knew the region, knew the people, knew the history of the stories they covered. When I was CBS Cairo bureau chief in the late 1970s and early 80s, CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 mini foreign bureaus, and stringers in 44 countries....Paris is gone, Frankfurt is gone, Cairo, Rome, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Beirut, Cyprus, all gone...The feeling now at the networks is that you can fly someone in, get information from the local newspaper and wire services, and the presence of the foreign correspondent speaking to the camera will suffice...The correspondent might not even go to the location where the story is happening....[I]nstead of American network news being global coverage providers, the networks now get their foreign news from local services around the world.Does anyone at the State Department (aside from the budget butchers) really believe that this kind of coverage is sufficient to keep US foreign policy shapers adequately informed of what’s happening on a day to day basis, even in those increasingly fewer parts of the world that get covered at all?
By 2003, Lucinda Freeman, writing in the American Journalism Review saw a faint glimmer of hope for good reportage in the video world: CNN had managed to sustain itself, not because of its unprofitable US operations, but because CNN International has a huge and lucrative global audience. Freeman also pointed to the solo minicam work of ABC newsman Mike Lee. “We’re transitioning to a new paradigm,” she suggested. Once the paradigm has established itself, she predicted, international news would blossom again. Three years later there's still no sign of renaissance.
It's good news that the weekly Economist plans to beef up its foreign reportage and make a push to increase its US circulation. Actually, everyone I know who cares about international news already subscribes to the Economist, not Time or Newsweek or the US News, which long ago cease to be serious news magazines.
But do we want the State Department to rely on a British publication to provide the baseline reporting that feeds into US foreign policy development? I don’t think so. The State Department needs political reporting that’s timely, accurate—and keyed to US interests, a dedication to which is the core competency that Pearson seems incomprehensibly to have overlooked.
Meanwhile, economic reporting is also going down the drain so far as the mainstream media is concerned. The killing of BusinessWeek's international edition has already been mentioned. The Financial Times (also British, unfortunately, but a mainstay for many in the US) may be laying off 50 people as a result of the integration of its print and online operations, and the Wall Street Journal’s corporate owners have announced a “news strategy” that, the paper’s unions fear, is another name for staff reductions. These organizational changes, according to the NYT on July 14, will affect the Journal, MarketWatch, Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal Online and Dow Jones Newswires. The proposed elimination of overlapping responsibilities will result in fewer voices and less diversity in the delivery and analysis of economic and financial news. These changes may improve the corporation’s bottom line, but less has never been better in the news world.
THE WEB DOESN'T HAVE THE NATIONAL INTEREST IN MIND
Pearson also seems to believe that quick and easy searches on the miraculous world wide web will compensate for diminished reporting from US embassies and consulates. I’ll have to quash that hope for salvation through outsourcing, too.
I love Google, but frequent users know that the limitations of internet research are enormous. First of all, much of importance slips through the cracks. Second, a web search does not produce an authoritative annotated bibliography. The wheat and chaff are drearily (sometimes uproariously) intermixed. If you don’t start out as an expert in a subject, you are in for lots of hard work and you will be making judgement calls for which you may be unequipped. Any foreign service officer who has done media or spot reporting from the field knows how much time it takes to craft a terse but thorough and reliable document. Seems silly, doesn’t it—to have someone on the red corridor and someone else on the yellow corridor and someone in another building frantically googling, when a single timely communique from post, copied to all relevant recipients, could do the trick, efficiently, from the point of view of US policy needs.
US policy needs. This is the crux. Many private organizations and individuals are churning out reports, monographs, books, thousands, even millions of words, on global issues and foreign policy. Think tanks. Academics. Investment counselors. Corporate security providers. You name it. But all such sources have particularistic perspectives. Ideological slants, Commercial interests. Cultural assumptions. Sectarian loyalties. Much of their output is useful, but all is more or less intentionally biased from inception to data selection to final form. (Consider the “evidence” for going to war in Iraq.) Above all, such materials have not been generated to serve the needs of the country as a whole.
National interest, then, is the baseline “value added” that’s crucial to political reporting, the reason why the superficially attractive kind of outsourcing Mr. Pearson hopes to rely on couldn’t serve the country well, even if a plethora of such reportage existed outside his poignant wishful thinking. A competent reporting officer is thinking explicitly of the national interest when he or she decides what to include in the simplest description of current events (a protest march, the vote on a sensitive bit of legislation, the reaction to a controversial book or a film, comments about a new US policy, the elevation of x rather than y to an important post, etc.) no less than when an in-depth analysis of a particular phenomenon or trend is called for. And there’s this, too. The work on the small stuff feeds into the big stuff. If you can’t handle the small stuff, if you haven’t been paying attention to it and trying to make sense of it, you aren’t going to be ready to handle the big stuff that Mr. Pearson envisions as the sole responsibility for embassy/consulate reporting officers. Worse, Washington won’t be primed to receive the blockbuster when it comes—and Washington, as we all know, does not appreciate surprises.
This brings me to the oddly emphasized proposal for more outreach, to be enabled evidently, by reassigning at least some of the people no longer needed for that supposedly redundant reporting. The assumption that serious outreach is something new puzzles me. USIA specialized in outreach of many kinds, and good political officers have always had plenty of contacts. Surely Pearson noticed in the course of his career that solid, insightful embassy reporting has never merely summarized what already exists in the public domain—and surely he demanded professional competence of those under his supervision. Such reporting has always incorporated the fruits of diplomatic outreach of all kinds: formal negotiations and interviews, routine office calls, casual chats with activists and journalists and dissidents, the view from the window of a train or car, the perspective from the sweet shop owner or the guy selling mangoes, the questions from students or Rotary Club members after a lecture, input from Fulbright fellows and oilmen, graffiti, gossip, au courant ethnic jokes, confidences over a glass of wine or peppermint tea or during a birthday party for a contact's toddler, etc., ad infinitum, as well as any statistical data that may be available.
THE OUTSOURCING DECEPTION OR DELUSION
Pearson must also know that outsourcing, in general, has never been the magic bullet for efficiency and efficacy that its government-hating proponents promise and promise and promise. It is seldom cheaper. It is seldom better. It certainly hasn't worked well in the field of public diplomacy, as we have discovered during the Bush administration's attempts to make our presence in Iraq look good, and there is no reason to believe that political reporting can be safely contracted out either. So I’m mystified that a retired Director General should feel a need to actively promote it. Once you’re retired you’re a citizen. You don’t have to be a good soldier anymore. However, this anomaly brings me to my third aperçu.
The perplexing statement I quoted above reminds me of the talk that Joseph Duffy delivered to Washington-based employees when he assumed the directorship of USIA at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term as President. The gist of Duffy’s talk was shocking—and prophetic, as it turned out. He began with flattery, of course, the usual stroking of new subordinates, but the crux was this: although there were a few things we might usefully do, USIA wasn’t needed anymore. With the increasing popularity of the Web for circulating information and American mass media otherwise dominating world communications, a government agency “telling America’s story to the world” had become redundant.
I was there in the audience that day, and I thought at the time that Duffy’s observations were ominous. Sure enough. It was Duffy who presided over the demise of USIA. Since then the reputation of the US abroad has tanked, a result of the unfortunate policy choices of the Bush administration, of course, but exacerbated by the the failure to deploy professional public diplomats effectively.
Duffy was, of course, monumentally and tragically wrong about the extent to which the mass media, however popular at home and abroad, represented America and American interests well. Did Hollywood blockbusters, all violence and sex, represent the US comprehensively and in depth? Did hard rock and punk represent us well? How about MTV? How about TV without the M? Did “Dallas” represent the US values that would win us respect abroad?
No wonder Islamic conservatives learned to scorn American civilization. As PD budgets were slashed and slashed and slashed during those critical years, until even the cleverest restructuring of USIA couldn't compensate, there was an ever feebler countervailing voice for core American values. USIA libraries were closed or available only to elites. The English teaching centers that had put USIA officers in regular and sustained touch with multitudes of questing, ambitious, upwardly mobile people had long since been eliminated. Speakers harped on short term policy needs, ignoring long term relational considerations. Reports on public diplomacy needs were ignored. Etc. Etc. Etc.
The Bush Administration sidetracked the State Department’s South Asian and Middle East specialists after 9/11, while aggressively (and expensively) outsourcing public diplomacy on the Iraq war via the Pentagon to novice sub-contractors. The Administration also launched its war to reform the entire Middle East in a manner that ignored the expertise of our most respected and experienced military personnel. Essentially, US foreign policy was put into the hands of ideologues from the private sector—with disastrous results. Bin Laden got away. The Taliban are resurgent. No one can say the Iraq situation is looking good. And the world hates us, although the young propagandists of the Lincoln Group have got very wealthy, thanks to their Pentagon contracts.
Now, it seems, much political reporting is also to be relegated (willynilly or perhaps eventually by contract) to the private sector. Does anyone worried about America’s loss of influence (aside from the intimidation made possible by impressive weaponry) honestly believe that outsourcing will improve the US foreign policy process, even in the unlikely event that a few bucks were saved?