That’s a job a local reporter simply can’t do as well as an American, Kugel says—or at least as intuitively. “My friends here in Brazil, in the Brazilian press, are going to be reading my stories,” Kugel says. “And in a lot of cases, they’re going to be saying, ‘That’s not a story. What are you talking about? That’s something we’ve known forever—it’s just basic.’” But to American audiences, the basic facts of Brazilian life can be—are—a story, Kugel believes. He points to a piece he wrote that explores a choice Brazilians are faced with at the gas station every day: whether to fuel their cars with regular gasoline, or with ethanol. “To Brazilians, that’s like choosing between Diet Coke and regular Coke or something,” Kugel says, “but for us, the idea of having to go to a gas station and calculate the prices and decide which kind of fuel to fill your tank with is a foreign thought. It’s such a non-story to Brazilians, but I think it will be a very interesting story to Americans, who think of ethanol cars as a far-off, distant, futuristic thing.”
American journalists also understand the layer of mistrust that has slowly seeped into the spaces between Americans and their media. Many Americans approach even the most straightforwardly narrated news story, Michael Goldfarb points out, with skepticism. He describes a common reaction to his work: “God, that was an interesting story. But, tell me, what was it really like?”
What they mean, Goldfarb says, is: Beyond the basic facts, what was it like to be there and bear witness?
“That,” he says, “is the kind of reporting that we hope to do.”
Back to Bylines
There was a time when foreign correspondents—David Halberstam, Vincent Sheean, Ernie Pyle—transcended their publications, rather than the other way around. It was their glamour, to be sure, and their breezy sense of adventure, that made them attractive to audiences. But it was also their writing. Foreign reporting lends itself particularly well to the craft element of journalism, to rendering art in the service of information. (Consider how many canonical authors of fiction—Hemingway, Greene, Garcia Marquez—started their writing careers as foreign correspondents.) Audiences may want, on the one hand, quick-hit takes on the news occurring in other countries, but they also want to be led through that news and those countries guided by a trusted scout. We read Halberstam and Sheean and Pyle not for their pith or their balance, but because we want to know what Halberstam and Sheean and Pyle, personally and particularly, have to say about where they’ve been.
As foreign coverage has moved, broadly, toward news and away from analysis, however, shorter takes, bylined by nobody in particular, have become increasingly common. There are exceptions to this, of course: The New York Times’s international section, for example, has produced deeply reported and quite remarkable stories, their authors prominently featured; so have NPR and many other organizations. And one need only say the name “Dexter Filkins” to stop a sweeping no-more-name-branded-correspondents argument in its tracks. Still, in terms of most Americans’ news consumption—and to the extent that journalism is a product as much as a practice, it’s that metric upon which we can measure journalism’s job performance—international news has taken on a decidedly impersonal cast. And detachment easily veers into apathy.