BG: I would say, including staffers, freelancers—a handful, maybe a dozen, maybe not even a dozen. As you know, because of cutbacks, the number of mainstream correspondents is being reduced significantly all around the world, even in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where we need them the most. One of the bitter ironies of this whole thing is that the people who are doing these cutbacks at newspapers and television networks and so forth, their argument is that it’s just too expensive to keep these guys out in the field, and certainly there are costs involved. But these same newspapers that are cutting back so drastically on their reporting staff, some of them are making close to 20 percent a year profit. If you run a business, and if you make 5 percent a year profit, or 10 percent, you’re wildly successful. That excuse just doesn’t hold water.
PM: How often did the reporters you spoke to go out on embeds?
BG: Quite often. Carlotta Gall goes out a lot. Andrew North, who has since been sent to Baghdad—who was one of the most aggressive of the correspondents I saw there—goes out frequently with American troops. The problem for many of these correspondents is that their jobs are multifaceted. On the one hand, particularly for people like Carlotta, she’s supposed to do very analytical pieces, but she’s also expected to cover breaking news as well. The same thing with Andrew but kind of in a reverse way. Andrew’s primary responsibility was to cover breaking news for BBC radio, BBC television, and BBC Web, but to really get under the skin of the place, he’s got to go out there and spend time in the field and not just rely on stringers and telephone calls to do his job, so these guys are very stretched.
PM: How important are fixers/interpreters to what Western reporters do on a daily basis?
BG: The local hires are critical, because these are really the eyes and ears for the correspondents. Western correspondents really couldn’t do their jobs very well without them. In the 1980s I knew people who drove from California down into Central America and set up shop and became journalists, and if something went awry, they were able to drive back home. That’s not the case in Afghanistan.
PM: What would you say to domestic critics who argue that reporters only cover the “bad news” in Afghanistan?
BG: I hear criticism of journalists, and there’s a lot to criticize, and I include myself in that. But I really believe that we’re out there, collectively, trying to tell people the reality of what’s happening. And when you have stories like American bombs accidentally taking out twenty people in a village, well, that’s just by definition a more urgent story than a road being built. Quite honestly, you can find those good-news stories, they’re out there, they just don’t make as much impact as those harsh news stories do.
But part of the problem is not what these men and women are reporting on, but what their editors decide to put on television, in the paper, on the radio. I think some of the editors in our country have lost the sense of their role, and their role is about more than just publishing or broadcasting only what that lowest common denominator wants to see. Part of their role is to actually set the agenda of what Americans see and read and listen to.
PM: What do you tell your students who want to be foreign correspondents?
BG: In my classes I have to be very careful about not giving them a false sense of what’s going on out there. I think being a foreign correspondent is one of the most exciting professions any man or woman—increasingly women—can choose, but the world is much different than it was when I spent a majority of my time covering conflicts. It’s a meaner place now, and where we had a certain amount of license, or immunity, actually, as Americans and as journalists, in most cases we don’t have that any more. In fact, being a journalist and being an American journalist in some parts of the world can be a liability. So the young men and women who I’m training to go out there to be correspondents, I’m trying to make them very, very aware of this.