At Large

Typewriters, Computers, Cameras, and Guns

The emergence of a new type of foreign correspondent.

By 9.17.13

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There are many peculiar aspects in the foreign correspondent business, but one of the most recent is the arrival of the attractive, youngish females who have graduate degrees -- and perhaps some sort of private income -- as local experts in odd corners of the world. They seem to have replaced the local English-speaking beat reporter eager for a foreign connection. What ever happened to the starving, stranded “stringer” who once was counted upon by the veteran correspondents who traveled from world crisis to crisis always needing some trusty to tell them where they were and why they were there?

To make all this possible in the “old days” (any time after V-J day in 1945) it has been said it was necessary to have a maximum of only two crises happening at the same time. Any more press-worthy action easily would use up the reserve of foreign correspondents capable of filing knowing stories on every new patch of critical mass. The Korean War was excellent in that regard, but then the public didn’t really follow it that closely. The Vietnam War created a great deal of assignment trouble simply because it seemed to last forever and there were so many issues popping up that also needed coverage. Then there was the part where journalistic stars clamored for a short tour of Saigon and maybe one trip into some interior village to enhance their combat “cred.”

The Congo Club that entertained and financed half a generation of up-and-coming journalists who had an acquaintance with the French language in the early 1960s provided a quick reaction force for the beginning of the U.S. involvement in ’Nam. That gave way to an eager crowd that needed only their English language skills to get along with the Israel/Arab affair of 1973. Reagan for the most part kept things in the Western Hemisphere as much as he could, and still was satisfied with the journalists of the Vietnam era and a dwindling number of WW2 graybeards.

Television of course had introduced a whole new crowd of photogenic field reporters who soon found their looks and voices were more important than their writing skills. Luckily for some, they had all three. That’s where the annual awards paid off in bonuses. On-camera nobility replaced news beats and clear descriptive writing. It was the period of Desert Storm and afterward the breakup of Yugoslavia that paved the way for a spurt of female field commentators. Great women reporters had shown their talent and courage long before, but now they actually were in demand.

Intrepid women journalists now roam all over the globe in spite of often receiving hateful treatment in the many areas of the world where misogyny is practiced as a daily routine and even sport. In the United States the competition is no longer between female and male correspondents. The real challenge is between older women and younger ones with camera appeal and sharp tongues. At the low end of the correspondent scale come the eager post-grad male journalism majors. For some reason the Iraq and Afghan War crop of military veterans has not been snatched up by the networks. Why is this? Only a sprinkling of retired generals and former admin assistants to famous NSC advisors get air time?

One of the special perks of swanning around the world on someone else’s dollar, pound, or euro is the disappearance of those special deals that could be found from street vendors pushing real gold jewelry encrusted with precious stones. Well, maybe the stones weren’t that precious. The tricks of flash plating and irradiated jewel-like glass have been well publicized and as a result only the most unknowledgeable neophyte newsie would get caught doling out hard currency for worthless baubles. But there still are a few who have been duped recently in Cairo bargain hunting in the souk and happily acquiring phony turquoise rings. In this, the new generation of practiced female journalist shoppers are far more discerning than their male counterparts.

From the standpoint of an observer, less has changed over the years than one would have expected. NATO military housing is said to have far more female-appropriate facilities than before, and that we are told can be a big plus. The arrival of the multi-million dollar a year news presenter (male or female) still turns local offices upside down. Some of these “stars” are very nice and others remain their natural pain-in-the-ass demanding selves. That will never change. There are no more long waits for the telex or impossible telephone and radio connections for nightly broadcasts from the field -- though the satellite delay is vexing.

There is something very nice about those aggressive young smart females dashing about with their backpacks and tailored safari jackets. The report is that East Africa and South Asia are still the best places to have those whipped up in a couple of days at bargain prices. Politics aside, who can complain about those beautiful blonde lawyers of Fox News sprinkled fashionably with a few ravishing brunettes? But until their foreign reporting postings reach the level of their counterpart’s local domestic experience, true equity between the male and female correspondent will not have arrived.

Everyday all over America local reporters, male and female, are out covering fires, floods, murders, car crashes, robbery, kidnapping and a hundred more breaking accident and criminal stories. Some of these on and off camera personalities along with their print comrades devote their entire career to daily news. This is the old police beat, and foreign reporting must evolve from the same type of shared experience in order to build the professionalism that grew up in foreign news coverage beginning in the late 1930s. Only then will a fair division of hard work occur between men and women in the foreign news business.

In the simplest of terms, it is essential to replace featured personalities who comment on world affairs from their standpoint of a lifetime in Washington attending press briefings and cocktail parties. Who cares what some well-coiffed, desk-bound commentator has to say -- female or male?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.