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300 foreign correspondents overseas. And 3,000 in Washington DC?

I’ve been thinking a lot about foreign correspondents and the need for reporting from other nations since writing about Jill Carroll’s paper a few days back. I had a stimulating conversation with Brendan Greeley, producer for Radio Open Source, on the topic, and wish I weren’t on an airplane tonight while that show is airing. Having tea with my friend Abe McLaughlin this afternoon, he mentioned that, of the two hundred fifty foreign correspondents, one hundred are employed by the Wall Street Journal. I wondered about the geographical distribution of that hundred and the other reporters – would we find a huge concentration of journalists in Iraq and Israel? Would we find any in Africa other than in Cairo and Jo’burg?

In other words, it’s been a hot topic for me lately.

So I was pretty excited when a meeting I had last week in DC included a tour of the Voice of America newsroom. And my eyes basically fell out of my head when the colleague I was visiting told me that roughly 3,000 people work in that building to produce content for Voice of America.

Three thousand. And let’s break that down a bit to understand just how extraordinary a figure that is. The VOA Persian service employs roughly a hundred people in its newsroom, producing web, radio and video content. The Mandarin Chinese service has a similarly sized team. But walking through the adjoining newsrooms, it looked like the team building the Pashto and Dari sites was at least two dozen people. And exploring the VOA website, they’ve got substantial content in Kinyarwanda, Hausa and Ndebele, just to name a few.

Cynical jerk that I am, I asked my host, “How often does the CIA and military intelligence poach your staff?” The answer – they don’t. The VOA, he tells me, is shielded by the US State Department and allowed to make editorial decisions without political considerations. (He admits that, as people understand that they work for the US government, it’s hard to get perfect editorial neutrality.) And VOA, he says, pays better than military intelligence.

As I looked at the hundred journalists producing Persian television, I wondered whether there wasn’t some way to invert the process and improve the abysmal coverage of Iran on American television. It doesn’t quite work that way, of course – VOA covers global news from an American perspective, then translates into forty four local languages. Other projects like Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe do much more detailed reporting in their respective parts of the world, covering stories that wouldn’t otherwise make it into the local press. But VOA certainly reports on more Nigerian stories in a week of their Shona service than we’ll see in a year on CNN – couldn’t we export some of this content back into English and back onto my TV?

The reason we don’t do this, of course, is the fear that government-produced news would be uncritical of our leaders and cucoon us in patriotic images, bureacratic doublespeak and ceaseless drumbeats of fear of our enemies, real and imagined. Of course, we’ve managed to create media almost that myopic via the good ol’ fashioned free market. And Americans who long to hear reporters ask our politicians just one difficult question end up turning to the BBC… Britain’s state-supported broadcaster. Maybe we ought to rethink this just a bit…

Rebecca MacKinnon points out that one possible solution to the foreign correspondent crisis is to steer away from the idea of “foreign”, tacking towards the idea of “glocal” – global stories with a local connection. What could be a better resource for this than bilingual journalists living and working in DC with connections to their home communities? Who’s going to do a better job of reporting on Somalia in the USA than the Somali reporters covering their country in their native language for an audience in Somalia?

I’m paying for these three thousands reporters, dammit. I want to read this stuff. My resolution for the next month is to follow the English to Africa service (which, alas, doesn’t seem to have an RSS feed) to see whether any frustration I have with a pro-American tone trumps the pleasure of encountering stories I don’t see in other places in the US media. Would love to know what you think if any of you try a similar experiment in this, or in other regions.

6 thoughts on “300 foreign correspondents overseas. And 3,000 in Washington DC?”

  1. I use these guys (VOA news services) often to get news about important events taking place around the world. You are right about using the Voice Of America as a source for a story can cater to the fears and prejuidices many people have about U.S. government-sponsored news and information.

    What is funny about that is that the BBC News and other government-sponsored news networks (ZDF and ARD in Germany for example) is gobbled-up as unbiased, no-strings-attached fact by their respective audiences worldwide. Go figure…

    You sure that the VOA (State Department) is paying better than the CIA and the Pentagon news services? How much better? Are they hiring?

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  3. VOA is damn good, but most Americans will never know. It’s against the law for VOA to broadcast inside the United States, so an American would have to listen via shortwave, listen abroad or download it from the Internet. Considering the average American probably hasn’t heard of VOA, that’ll make it tough.

    I see the reasoning behind it. Some are worried about a slip toward state-controlled media (NPR and PBS kind of get away with it with the way they’re structured/funded). There’s only one commercial TV station in the United States owned by a government entity — and that’s KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo. It’s owned by the University of Missouri and still owns it because it was grandfathered in after the law was passed.

    The cutting back of foreign correspondents is pretty depressing. I’m in the newspaper biz — and still pretty young — but each time I see more overseas jobs cut (not to mention overall jobs cut, which is becoming more and more of a trend), I start to wonder what’s keeping me in the industry.

    That’s when I realize reporting is the only thing I’m halfway qualified at…

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