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BOOK REVIEW: Notes from a foreign scribe

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 29, 2010

LITTLE BUNCH OF MADMEN: ELEMENTS OF GLOBAL REPORTING
By Mort Rosenblum
de.Mo Design Limited, $12, 264 pages

Beyond the miasma of texting and blogging and tweeting, there is the real world of journalism as Mort Rosenblum lived it and now recalls it.

They were perhaps not that many in number, those who earned the title of foreign correspondent, but they were there. And that is what really matters, according to Mr. Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune and Associated Press veteran who covered the foreign fields of seven continents for almost half a century.

As he puts it, "Anyone in our wired world can add scope and detail to distant stories. Yet anyone can also get things wrong at the speed of light. Journalism is a craft with essential skills, a vocation of bedrock principles and ethics. To report, you have to be there."

At a time when the printed word and how to use it is dismissed and drowned by the juggernaut of the Internet, Mr. Rosenblum offers a reminder not only of the days when foreign correspondents were the elite of the press corps, but of what they had to learn and endure to do their job the way it should be done. They knew their sources because they were real, cultivated over years, forming a solid base to a story and not filched from a filament of fleeting gossip.

Leaning on the darkest of humor, the author suggests that as a correspondent's field guide, "nothing surpasses 'Scoop,' that painfully accurate but hilarious spoof Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1937 after covering Ethiopia. It is the perfect manual on how not to be a foreign correspondent."

Typewriters have gone the way of quills and cables, the author acknowledges, but the tools did not change what counted in journalism. The best reporters had a "sort of mission to get it right," Mr. Rosenblum asserts.

With an Internet browser and fingers, he notes, anyone could chime in with an opinion, informed or not. But no one could get at truth secondhand. "Being there is just the beginning," warns the author, adding, "Google is only a start. Without a clear idea of players, issues and wider context, reporters are no more than stenographers who cannot help being misled by sources and getting it wrong."

A good reporter, according to the author, is "defined by the ability to move in close, to listen carefully and then to step back to tell the world something new that it needs to know. ... It is all about the message." And he insists that no one can listen carefully "while stabbing at buttons and fussing with settings. In Darfur, people are likely to stare mutely at your gadgetry. ... in Denmark, they are more prone to laugh at your awkward antics."

In this tersely told book, which should be a primer for those who still want to enter journalism, Mr. Rosenblum recounts the lifestyle of the "little madmen" with whom he lived and worked. In the heyday of the 1960s, he recalls, when television correspondents joined the pack on the road, it was a case of hunting together.

The early-wave TV journalists traveled with a camera operator and a sound engineer, shipping off film in mesh bags and joining the print newsmen for dinner. But by 1990, the complexities of television journalism had reached the point where a single crew could number more than 50 on big stories, when, as he puts it, "you added accountants with kangaroo belts stuffed with money and gofers who ordered the souvenir T-shirts."

"Today," he observes gloomily, "the old pack is a crazed free-for-all for a multi-national mob. Freelancers and stringers with flip cameras jostle for front rank space at news conferences with television crews that seem to have been hired for sheer size."

Mr. Rosenblum waxes bleakly eloquent on the topic of how war coverage has changed since the first Gulf War. He asserts that traditional news organizations cover war from three essential vantage points that he dubs "big picture, soda straw and free range."

Big picture is the "obvious and inevitable" portrayal of dramatic events at choreographed news conferences in the journalistic bubble of Washington, with "misleading imagery to engage a wider public."

Soda-straw reporting involves a close-up look, reminiscent of the memorable combat writing of Ernie Pyle in World War II. The author cautions, however, that there are few reporters with that kind of skill as well as the ability to know when they are being conned. Free-range reporting is, he asserts, the most difficult to do and the most difficult for readers to evaluate because it involves what the Pentagon in the first Gulf War called "unilaterals." These are the journalists who find action as it happens, staying long enough to talk to people and returning to headquarters to demand answers to what they know to be crucial questions.

Mr. Rosenblum reports on how the first Gulf War, with its "doctrine of overwhelming force," rewrote the rules. He quotes Col. David H. Hackworth, a much decorated officer who wrote for Newsweek in 1991 that he had "more guns pointed at me by Americans who were into controlling the press than in my years of actual combat."

The author, who also clashed with overbearing military authority, charged bitterly that to them, reporting on the state of mind of the soldiers instead of accepting "patriotic puffery" meant a journalist was "not on the team." He recalled how Christiane Amanpour, when starting out with CNN, complained, "If we happen to stumble across news, we can't use it because it has to be cleared. Now suddenly we are the enemy."

Yet Mr. Rosenblum seems to think there is still hope for those who seek a journalistic career despite the current era in which you "point your phone anywhere" to reach a global audience. And he repeatedly returns to his basic concept of journalism, that "for all the wondrous potential of new tools and techniques, what counts is getting close to the story."

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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