Interview with Glenn Frankel: Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryszard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over the course of three or four-year tour of duty in Africa or the Middle East to give a well-rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work, and some of my colleagues have done great work, but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like it’s one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on, and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon. We write about the war and we leave, and we write about the conflict, but we never write about the actors, the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the breadbasket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather, but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system, and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn, given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom, so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here.’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self-critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble—and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble—that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big newsgathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.