The First Draft of History
Why the decline of foreign reporting makes for worse foreign policy.
Half a century ago, the legion of foreign correspondents who would inspire a generation of successors arrived in Saigon to report on a complicated and dangerous war in Vietnam.
Unlike most journalists today, those arriving in the South Vietnamese capital didn’t stay chained to their desks. Field reporters such as Gloria Emerson of the New York Times and Peter Arnett of The Associated Press, as well as photojournalists such as Don McCullin of the Sunday Times, put on uniforms, packed some field rations, and hitched rides on U.S. military aircraft to link up with front-line units. It was that easy to cover a war. “As a correspondent, you could go out and wave down a chopper or a plane and get on and go anywhere you wanted,” said Jim Shaw, a former reporter for Stars and Stripes in Vietnam.
Their words and pictures became the stuff of legends. But first, they had to get their stories and photos back to their outlets at home—a rudimentary, low-tech process hard to imagine today. Photographers hand-carried rolls of film they shot in the field, developed them in darkrooms in Saigon, and hurried them to a plane. Reporters had to find a telex machine to transmit their copy. Not being tethered to technology—and their editors—wherever they went, they had the ability to report with freedom. Their frank reporting of a war gone wrong changed history.
Today, this kind of old-school foreign reporting has almost disappeared. That has a significance far beyond the journalist profession. Without a solid basis in deeply reported, well-sourced facts from around the globe as a counterweight to the social media-driven flood of narratives, opinion, and disinformation, it becomes ever more difficult to have an informed public debate about foreign-policy choices—in Foreign Policy or anywhere else.
By the time I arrived in war-torn Bosnia in 1992, nearly two decades after the fall of Saigon, the journalists of the Vietnam era had nearly all retired. But their old-school ways of reporting were still very much alive. It was the pre-internet era—I did not get my first CompuServe account until 1993—and we had to dictate our reports to our news organizations via satellite phones, still very much a laborious and frustrating task.
Photographers would hand their film to whoever was exiting besieged Sarajevo to take back to the Paris, Rome, or Frankfurt bureau of photo agencies such as Magnum, Sapa, and Black Star. If the film got lost on the way, their work—which often required them to risk their lives—vanished. On more than one occasion, a competitor from a rival agency “lost” the film they’d been trusted to bring out. The other option was to set up an improvised darkroom in the shattered and broken Holiday Inn on Sniper Alley, organize the chemicals needed for developing film, and pray for a miracle that the water would run for a few minutes. That did not happen often.
But as in Vietnam, working in the isolated and besieged Bosnian capital before the dawn of the internet came with advantages. Above all, it allowed foreign correspondents to do their work with few interruptions other than bombs and Serbian snipers’ bullets. There was no unwanted or unnecessary interaction with pesky editors back in London, New York, Paris, or Rome—because there was no internet, no functioning phone network, and only a few clunky, expensive satellite phones where calls cost $50 a minute. When I was dispatched, I was given a wad of cash, a medical kit, and a sleeping bag—and told to come back in a few months’ time when I had a good story. Such creative luxury and uninterrupted focus on a reporter’s work are all but unthinkable in 2021 and not just because of pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
There was a grand feeling of comradery, with bonds tightened by the heightened sense of danger. There was also innovation: Because it was unwise to send out multiple crews to film on streets targeted by snipers and heavy shelling, the Sarajevo Agency Pool was created. It was the brainchild of Martin Bell, a BBC reporter later elected as an independent to the British Parliament. He believed that the TV networks should join together and share footage rather than each putting the lives of their cameramen (and a few women) at risk. At the time, it was an earthquake in the fiercely competitive TV business.
Bosnia was the last war where reporters could work freely and with relatively unfettered access. It was dangerous—but if you had a flak jacket, a helmet, and someone’s armored car to hitch a ride in, you could report. Press cards were perfunctory. Soldiers would occasionally set up a checkpoint, but you could usually talk your way through it with a few packs of Marlboro Reds. The result was deeply reported, award-winning coverage of all aspects of the conflict, including and especially the human tragedy and resilience. The carnage in the former Yugoslavia would rage on for several more years, but we like to think that our reporting helped eventually to end it—and to shame other European countries into keeping their borders open for the refugees streaming out of Bosnia and other battle zones.
By the time the Iraq War started in March 2003, reporting from conflicts had thoroughly changed. The practice of embedding journalists with military units—and censoring their copy—had begun. Those of us already working in Baghdad before the U.S. invasion, on the other hand, worked under the watchful eyes of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Information Ministry as well as his secret police, the mukhabarat. We could not make outgoing phone calls or use the internet. Our satellite phones were sealed each evening when we left the closely monitored building where we worked and released again in the morning by one of Saddam’s lackeys.
Then came the U.S. troops—and with them, a legion of American reporters, many of whom had never before been abroad and who had little knowledge of the region or its history. I see this period as the great divide between old-school, careful, methodical journalism and often poorly sourced, sensationalized stories for ratings and clicks. It also brought out a macho side to war reporting because embedding with U.S. troops as a woman was never easy. I found it far easier to link up with rebel armies in Africa or the Middle East than to work with regular U.S. troops.
In Afghanistan, too, working with NATO troops meant conceding in some way to censorship. The form and extent would depend on the unit: To stay on a British Army forward operating base in Helmand province in 2010, for example, I had to sign a paper swearing I would not disclose sensitive material. Obviously, I would never have disclosed information that might have endangered troops, but it was the first time I had to give my word in writing. Naturally, the new strictures hindered our reporting.
Howard Besser, a scholar of digital preservation at New York University, has written extensively about this period of change in how media report from the battlefield and how governments use strategies to restrict media access. It’s driven, he says, by the fear that giving media full access means they will publish stories or images that could undermine public support for the war, which is what happened in Vietnam. “The aim of the media access restriction is to make sure that reporters disseminate news that have only success stories,” Besser wrote in 2001.
What’s more, the 24/7 news cycle had fully arrived. By the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, television journalists were on call around the clock and could no longer go out in the field to spend days reporting a story. They were, as one of my colleagues complained bitterly, “chained to the satellite dish.” Reporters such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour were the exception that proved the rule. She had made her name with stirring reports from the war in Bosnia and afterward remained one of the few who were allowed by their networks to work on in-depth reports for a few days—in addition to their regular duties of covering breaking news or whatever newsy bits were styled as such.
But it was the global financial crisis, beginning in 2008, that truly ended the era when most major media could draw on their own global network of professional journalists. Shrinking budgets affected war reporters, financial correspondents, travel writers, and much everyone else. Foreign correspondents who survived the culling found themselves increasingly pushed to produce content at a blistering pace. If they ever left their desks at all, they were sent off with less money and more talk of finding the kinds of stories that would generate traffic—regardless of the depth and quality of their reporting. Hiring freezes meant no fresh talent, and stories in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia were all but ignored.
What do we really know about the war in Syria? We certainly don’t have the depth of information we once had about wars in Bosnia and elsewhere. Independent reporters were rarely issued a visa by the Syrian government to work in regime-controlled areas. Instead, during the first years of the war, many of us crossed over the border from Turkey to reach opposition-controlled Aleppo and Idlib, but it became increasingly dangerous. In fact, the rise of the Islamic State—and the fear of being kidnapped, chained to a radiator, and then executed in an orange jumpsuit—has made some of the best foreign correspondents seek employment elsewhere. Or at least rethink how to cover a war.
The result has been a war about which the public debate has been shaped almost entirely by second- and thirdhand information, opinionating pundits, and social media. Why bother going to dangerous, expensive Aleppo when you can tweet your take from your desk in your bathrobe? Fake news and disinformation, too, came to a head during the Syrian war. Russian outlets such as RT, the cash-rich mouthpiece of the government, openly took the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Moscow supported with a brutal intervention. As Russia unleashed an army of trolls on Twitter who twisted the Syrian narrative, it was difficult even for knowledgeable people to follow events.
I came of age during what is now referred to as the golden age of journalism. Early on, I gleaned a reputation for being able to enter closed countries that other reporters could not. If there were no flights, I’d investigate boats. If there were no boats, I’d ride a horse or donkey over mountains or take a barge over rivers. (I have done all of that.) If it was forbidden to enter—say, Chechnya under Russian military occupation—then I knew something evil was happening and felt a greater urge to be there as a witness. Primary sourcing was crucial.
Today, the future of foreign reporting worries me. The great foreign bureaus that existed in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s—staffed with experts and kitted with the best equipment—have shut down one by one. They were replaced by underpaid, undertrained, and often badly treated freelancers. Journalism has fully embraced the gig economy.
So what do we need to keep quality foreign reporting—a crucial basis for our policy debates—alive? Part of the answer lies in promoting and training local reporters in the countries we cover. One organization doing just that is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, where I am a board member. Born after the war in Bosnia, the institute trains local reporters to report on conflict in their own countries. In addition, I’m leading a United Nations-sponsored program to train journalists and members of civil society from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to accurately report war crimes in their own countries. I believe this is the future of foreign correspondents, but I am concerned about objectivity. Is it ever possible to report on a war or an atrocity in your own country in an objective way? Probably not.
What also makes me somewhat hopeful is the rapidly growing area of donation-based journalism—a concept that could not have existed half a century ago because it was considered unethical to take outside funds to report. But now, it is a question of survival. Excellent organizations such as the Pulitzer Center and the Type Media Center award grants to journalists for long-term reporting projects. Then there are think tanks and universities where many reporters, myself included, have taken up fellowships as researchers so we can focus on in-depth analysis and long-form writing.
And so we carry on. Journalism—and being a foreign correspondent—is still to me the noblest of professions. We write the first draft of history, as my colleagues in Sarajevo would always remind me. Today, we are restricted by COVID-19, battered by disinformation, and deluged by Twitter, all of which work against the deep, well-sourced, and precise reporting we need to have an informed debate about international affairs and policy choices. But as the media industry changes yet again and we move toward new forms of supporting our profession’s work, I am certain that we can—and will—continue to make a difference in informing the public about the rest of the world.