- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

Dateline Beirut

Datelines may not mean much to the average reader, but they are a big deal to people in the trade. There is no substitute for being on the spot when big news breaks, and the dateline tells everyone exactly how close the reporter was able to get to the action.

A reporter cannot use a dateline on a story unless he or she was physically in the community and did some of the reporting there. Having changed planes in the city doesn’t count, though I have heard of reporters trying to get away with that.

But what do you do with a story like Israel’s war on Hezbollah, where a single article may include accounts of Israeli air strikes in Beirut and southern Lebanon, Hezbollah rocket attacks on Haifa and towns across northern Israel, and comments by politicians, generals and diplomats in Beirut, Jerusalem, Washington, New York and Brussels?

Ideally, the dateline should correspond to the action in the lead paragraph, which will be the most dramatic and significant development of the day. But the lead can change from hour to hour and, with a story as fast-breaking and complex as this, is unlikely to be the same at deadline as we expected at our morning news meeting.

The best plan then, is to assign the main story in the morning to the reporter who seems best positioned to have the lead at day’s end, and then stick with his or her dateline wherever that may be.

The war began on July 12 with the kidnapping of two soldiers on Israel’s northern border into southern Lebanon, followed by a wave of Israeli air strikes against bridges and other infrastructure across southern Lebanon.

Dateline Tel Aviv

Our regular Israel correspondent, Joshua Mitnick, was on vacation in the United States and unavailable on that day. But we were perfectly happy to call on freelancer Mitchell Prothero in Beirut, thinking a Lebanese dateline would look better anyway.

By the time we reached Mr. Prothero, he had already been deep into southern Lebanon, going as far as he could drive before being stopped by the bombing of bridges. He sent us what he had, and we filled in the rest from wire agencies and other sources — with proper attribution. The story ran with Mr. Prothero’s byline and a very sexy Nabatiya, Lebanon, dateline.

We did the same the next day before losing the services of Mr. Prothero, who had already contracted to work exclusively for five days for a German news magazine. That was fine because Mr. Mitnick got home to Tel Aviv on Sunday and took over the story.

The Tel Aviv dateline worked well enough for Monday’s paper, with the lead being Hezbollah rocket strikes on the Israeli city of Haifa. Likewise on Tuesday, when the lead was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in Jerusalem, spelling out Israel’s terms for ending the war.

By the following day, Mr. Mitnick was on the road in northern Israel and not in position to contribute much to the main story; we instead used a wire agency story datelined from Beirut, where an Israeli air strike had hit a Lebanese military base.

For the next two days, Mr. Mitnick was writing the main story from datelines in northern Israel, while the lead action involved lethal border skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. Mr. Mitnick then returned home to Tel Aviv, where his wife had been alone for three days with their baby.

The other big story was the evacuation of Americans from Beirut to Cyprus. We still had not been able to get our own reporter to Beirut, but we did have a regular contributor, Andrew Borowiec, in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia.

As long as all the action was in Beirut, we included it in our main roundup, with descriptions from the wire agencies of Americans milling around on the docks and helicopters carrying the first few dozen to depart. But as soon as the Orient Queen landed in Cyprus Wednesday night with 1,000 American evacuees, we switched the dateline to Larnaca and got our reporter’s byline on the story.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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