Chapter Three: Cultural Bridges

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Hard as it was at the time, television anchors in New York should not have cried on camera when the towers fell. That was a time for hard questions from clear-eyed professionals. A stricken nation needed a calm assessment of reality to prevent exactly what occurred: a degradation of the Constitution and blind-fury reactions that ultimately did far more damage than a dramatic but one-time terrorist attack.

At work, reporters are not Americans, or Slovenes, or Buddhists, or Freemasons, or vegetarians. Judges face a similar challenge of suppressing bias. But they can weigh only the evidence put in front of them. If necessary, they can recuse themselves. Reporters on a story must do the work of police investigators and attorneys as well as the judge. And no one else can sit in to replace them on the bench.

Forget that unattainable goal of objectivity. Think instead of fair and balanced. Fox News branders arrogated that phrase to themselves for a reason. That is what journalists are supposed to be. It says that all sides (there are rarely only two) are given consideration. Any judgment, implied or explicit, is based on an honest evaluation of observable facts.

This evenhanded approach is fundamental to any reporting beyond borders. I hammer away at the phrase, cultural bridges, for a particular purpose. Bridges run in two directions. Correspon dents might report back to a single newspaper or a global network. If they get it right, their dispatches resonate on both sides of any bridge. Faraway readers form an accurate picture, and people can recognize themselves.

Americans and Europeans tend to regard “foreign reporting” as a one-way lens focused mainly on an ill-defined, often obstreperous “Third World.” That leaves out half of the picture. Consider, for instance, Vaiju Naravane of The Hindu, who looks back from her base in Paris.

Her profile of France’s new urban poor was headlined, “A Lingering Aftertaste of Grease and Detergent.” One woman she visited made her coffee but had no hot water to wash the cups. Poverty is not about geography. When Vaiju wrote about Gypsies, the Rom, she added a key element that Western reporters often miss: they are tribal nomads from Orissa and elsewhere in India, and their wanderings say much about how migrations define the world.

“I am completely mad,” Vaiju told me, with a happy laugh. She studied with Irish-American nuns in the Himalayas and then went to Macalester College in Minnesota before returning to India to study journalism and political science. She outraged her Brahmin family by marrying a Sikh, whom she divorced to marry a Frenchman. After yet another marriage, to an Italian, she settled down with a French intellectual who thinks as freely as she does.

She worked for the Times of India but switched to The Hindu, still owned by the family that founded it in 1878 to rankle the British. It circulates 1.4 million copies a day across India, nearly as many as The New York Times and Washington Post combined, and staffs 17 foreign bureaus. N. Ram, the director and editor-in-chief, Oxford-educated with a Columbia journalism degree, is often out on the street reporting. The Hindu hires 30 to 50 graduates each year from its own journalism college. Its secret to success is delivering serious news to a society that wants it.

For readers anywhere in the world, papers like The Hindu (www.thehindu.com) are just a few keystrokes away. They are a rich source for the texture and revealing detail missing from generic reporting.

“When I write about Pakistan, I have to get into the politics and economics,” Vaiju said, “but in the Balkans, for instance, India has no strategist interests. I write about the women, the children, and their lives. Human beings are much more interesting than bombs.”

Vaiju is not really mad. Thoughtful and thorough, she teaches journalism at France’s prestigious university, Sciences Po. She is a stickler for context and accuracy. “You can’t talk about the Poles if you don’t know about the First Kingdom or the Second Kingdom and all of that,” she said. “If you mention the Geneva Convention, you better have read it. You have to go primary sources and study documents for yourself.”

Like correspondents everywhere, she worries that too many unseasoned neophytes are getting news wrong. Without resident reporters, she said, “you don’t get the vision of a person you’ve come to trust, a professionally trained person whose job it is to observe and to tell.”

Hard-eyed reporters such as Vaiju offer a reality check for Americans who care about cultural bridges. She admires much about the United States but sees repeated echoes of jingoism she felt during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980.

“Somebody mistook me for an Iranian in a restaurant and started hollering at me, insulting me,” she said. “I was utterly shocked. This was part of America’s arrogance, ignorance, and emptiness. They tend to project all world ills onto others.” It would help, she concluded, if more Americans paid closer attention to other peoples’ reality.

 

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