Excerpt « Chapter One: Cotton Underwear

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<< Chapter One: Cotton Underwear <<

Back in the proto-technology days, when foreign correspondents spent weeks out of touch with their desks, I asked friends what advice editors had offered them as they headed out on their first assignment. Bob Sullivan, as a kid off to an ugly war taking shape in Vietnam for United Press International, went to a promising source. His foreign editor, a gravelly voiced, gray-haired legend named Walter Logan, had been everywhere. “Cotton underwear,” Logan told him. “Nylon clings in the tropics.”

That was it. The Oracle’s wisdom was limited to avoiding sweaty privates. At least Logan came up with something practical. Others’ wisdom was basically, “Keep your head down,” which is no way to watch news take shape.

Today, guidance is more vital than ever. At the extreme, it saves lives. It can mean the difference between inspired insight and getting things dead wrong. Yet it is hard to find. Fewer editors have been there themselves. Seasoned hands write great books, but not many explain the basics. Heroic memoirs come from photo, radio and TV, or the online celebrities who rocket to fame with scant real experience.

If old-style jobs are scarce, new niches abound. The world is wide open to young people curious enough to go cover it. And what other pursuit takes you to places you never imagined, shows you life at its limits, and lets you travel among exotic cultures without having to kill anyone? It is, however, a tough pursuit to learn on the job.

This is the manual I wish I’d had back in the 1960s when I was dropped into Congolese mayhem, clueless, sleepless, and scared witless. Much of the Congo spoke French, but I didn’t. My sister Jane, only half joking, cracked: “You’ll have to say the guy is dead because you don’t know the word for wounded.” With a measure of luck, I emerged intact. But my work, not to put too fine a point on it, was pathetic. Trial and error is no way to cover events that help shape the course of a planet.

This is also the primer I wish people back home could have had at hand as they puzzled over our dispatches and watched television newscasts. However good corre- spondents might be, distant readers and viewers tend to miss the point unless they understand the process of newsgathering. In a changed world, we need new frames of reference. Hardly anything now remains within boundaries. “Us” and “them” are over. The Internet removes lines that once separated domestic from foreign news. Hits come from everywhere. Post something about Brazilians or Britons in Fargo, North Dakota, and you may hear from lawyers in Rio de Janeiro or Manchester.

Reporting today must span societies, striking familiar universal chords yet explaining differences. On a recent flight with the pope, a Japanese correspondent stopped Jim Bittermann of CNN. “I’m embarrassed to ask this,” he said, “but what are the Ten Commandments?”

Parts of this book are simple tips for the road. When a grim case of Goma-guts strikes at midnight, it helps to have ample flashlight batteries and dysentery pills. Other parts are layered and complex, equally useful to readers back home. All of it applies whether the medium is words on paper, photos, or the fast-morphing panoply of multimedia.

After a few hours in the damp-rag climate of the Congo, I figured out undergarments on my own. During the years that followed, I have thought a lot about the rest of it. In short, the essence is this: Reporters must get up the road. And if possible, they should be there before the story is a story. If they’re not there, neither are we.


…to reporters worth the name, content is a swear word. Their own heroes, the people they know and work with, earn their accolades the hard way. Covering real news takes thought, effort, and intricate layers of knowledge. Early correspondents wrote out dispatches in quill pens. Photographers joined their ranks in the 1900s, and TV crews followed a few generations later. Multimedia adds fresh dimensions. Still, practitioners of all sorts can be defined by a simple term: reporters.

Robert Cox, as editor of the Buenos Aires Herald in the 1970s, was among the great reporters of our time. In an autobiography so humble that he asked his son to write it, Cox observes, “I have always believed in impersonal journalism, the reporter in a shabby raincoat that nobody notices who writes his stories without a byline.” Working just that way, typing late into the night on a battered portable, he exposed the Argentine generals’ Dirty War and the silent complicity in Washington.

Typewriters have gone the way of quills and cables, and new technologies have replaced them, but these tools do not change what really counts. The best reporters working abroad may not admit it even to themselves, but they share a calling, a sort of mission imbued with a certain perverse nobility to get it right whatever the circumstance. When a story matters, this band of brothers, and sisters, remembers over decades who reported what.

I can just hear old pals guffaw upon reading that last paragraph. Yes, I use “nobility” advisedly. Reporters also have fun on the road. They sometimes eat well and sleep in fancy places. Pay can be pretty good. Still, I cannot name any reporter I learned to respect over the years who does the job for the money.