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Old Pro, New World
By Donald Kirk
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Posted on August 22, 2010

Once upon a time in a dark age only dimly remembered, we used typewriters and ran down to the cable office with our copy, breathlessly begging and sometimes bribing operators to punch it out before all the other junk on the pile. In Jakarta in 1965, I told a guy behind the desk laboriously counting the words that he could save time by estimating the word count and then doubling it. I’d be glad to pay, but he persisted in counting. Later, I found his supervisor and put him on the payroll – the equivalent of about twenty dollars a month. He came around to my place regularly. We sipped tea. I gave him the dough. That way, all my copy got out fast to the three or four papers for which I was filing. Once I went to the room where half a dozen operators were punching away. My man smiled and said, “Mr. Kirk, everyone’s working for you.”


Nobody actually got on to my little racket at the cable office. I had to leave Indonesia, though, after The New York Times Magazine ran an enormous article by me under the headline, “Suharto Is the Name, Not Sukarno.” The article had fairly insulting observations about the transition from Sukarno to Suharto in an era remembered in the film, “The Year of Living Dangerously.” The authorities got me out by a familiar ruse – they just didn’t renew my visa. Migrating to Saigon as the U.S. troop build-up was cresting, I filed not by cable but by telex. An operator in a cubbyhole on the main square opposite the Caravelle Hotel punched out copy that was received simultaneously at the other end. When the operator wasn’t there or was busy at the other telex machine, I punched copy myself. I figured, if there was no work as a reporter, I could always get a job as a telex operator.

Those may seem like the good old days, but actually they were pretty tough. Let us not romanticize. Life got easier when papers told me to file via wire service bureaus. Both Reuters and UPI made a sideline of sending out copy for correspondents. AP did the same to a much lesser degree. I still remember the codes for filing via Reuters, “pronorlake” for the Chicago Tribune, “pronorsquare” for the New York Times, “proservob” for the Observer of London, “probosglo,” “protoronglo,” also “probello” for the Dallas Morning News etc. (A guy named Bello was or had been the owner.) At one point, free-lancing from Tokyo and Seoul, I was sending the same story to eight different papers, changing the coding and the top line of the copy to give the editor an impression of exclusivity. You just had to be sure the papers were in different circulation areas.

I left that life to join USA Today in its prototype phase in August 1982, a month before the paper began publication. The IT revolution was in its infancy. You wrote on huge computers at your desk on an ATEX program, then in widespread use. On early trips overseas for USA Today, I dictated by phone or sent stuff by fax. Telex and cable were history. People were beginning to file on laptops. Soon they were carrying Radio Shacks. USA Today stories were so brief, I figured why bother and preferred to dictate. There were a couple of decent editors there, but they had little to do with daily files. Basically the line editing at USA Today was about the most atrocious in the history of journalism, or at least in my experience. With the arrogance and omniscience born of their days in places like Westchester, Rochester, Monroe, La., and Salem, Ore., these people mangled and jumbled and distorted whatever you filed so it didn’t matter.

My “career” with USA Today ended slightly more than eight years after it had begun with the U.S. bombing of Baghdad in the Gulf War. I was on an open line from the abandoned American embassy telling someone who posed as foreign editor that missiles were hitting targets even as we spoke. He liked to consider himself aware of foreign affairs on the basis of trips as a tourist to Europe. Having never written a story with a foreign dateline, much less come close to a war, he didn’t believe me when I told him what was happening. There was no point in dealing with editors like that.

After I had left to work on a book, USA Today paid an embarrassing price for its stupidity. Editors whom I had known to be dolts built up a young reporter named Jack Kelley as if he were the most remarkable correspondent anyone had seen. It should not have taken much perception to see that a lot of his stuff was more fiction than fact, but these deskbound ignoramuses lacked the perception, the background, the intellect to figure that out. The paper even nominated him for a Pulitzer. As Jack’s stories, from Moscow to the Middle East, grew ever more absurd, someone had to investigate and reveal they were made up. The image of USA Today has never quite recovered from the Jack Kelley case, a classic in journalistic scam artistry. Jack, however, was not the worst sinner. He was a genial fellow, with a ready, ingratiating smile. Far more to blame than he were the idiots who promoted him to his great, if untrue, “exclusives” in the first place.

When I got back to reporting more or less full-time from overseas, after writing a couple of books, I discovered the rules of the game had changed. The papers for which I had once filed reams were no longer taking much if anything. They were on their way to getting rid of their few correspondents and slashing news space. A whole new genre of foreign news reporting was gaining ascendancy. With the rise of Bloomberg and Reuters financial, legions of correspondents transcribed briefings, corporate reports, luncheon speeches and product announcements. Some of them were good but the majority were glorified stenographers who rarely questioned much. The name of the game was to cultivate your contacts and repeat some company’s line.

The advent of the internet made filing infinitely easier but also carried a downside. Just about everything you wrote, when published, was visible to just about everyone else. After finishing a book, I wrote for several years for the International Herald Tribune and then, when the New York Times took over the IHT, for the Times as well. No way could you send the same story to half a dozen other papers. Ditto the Christian Science Monitor, for which I’ve been filing for the past few years. The latter, having ceased to print a daily paper, takes about as much for its website as it ever did for print, but you don’t think of sending the same story elsewhere. Not that others would be interested. The papers for which I once wrote, ranging from the Chicago Tribune, which I served as a staff correspondent for five years, to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Atlanta Constitution, Newsday, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, the Toronto Globe and Mail and a few others, were getting out of foreign news. These days, if not on life support, they’re gasping for air.


Then there are op-eds. They don’t pay a lot, but if you don’t mind expressing views about topics on which you’re supposed to be writing dispassionately for others, they’re worth a shot. Beware, though, of the ultimate indignity, the propensity of certain op-ed editors not to pay. Some of these characters think the psychic reward of sounding off on their pages is payment enough. Try asking them if they’d edit just for the thrill of making the masthead. Correspondents endure ups and downs, highs and lows. One need only do battle with the editor who thinks it’s an honor to get published for nothing to know what it’s like at the bottom of the food chain.

Don Kirk has been a journalist for more than half a century, more than half of that overseas. After covering Indonesia, 1965-1966, he spent most of the next eight years in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, covering the Tet 1968 offensive and the U.S. foray into Cambodia in May 1970 for the old Washington (D.C.) Star and the Easter 1972 offensive in Vietnam for the Chicago Tribune. As the Tribune's far east correspondent, he covered Japan and Korea and also ranged as far as the middle east for wars in Lebanon and Syria. After joining USA Today as the paper's first world editor in 1982, he returned to Lebanon two years later, covered events from the middle east to China and returned to Baghdad in late 1989 for the Gulf War and U.S. bombing. Don has had fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and Columbia University's advanced international reporting program and Fulbright scholarships in India and the Philippines. He has also written six books, contributed chapters to others and has written numerous articles for magazines and journals.

 

 

 

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