Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books on foreign reporting and journalists who risked it all

Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
By John Maxwell Hamilton
Louisiana State University Press
655 pages, $45

This tome has the heft of a doorstop and contains more than 200,000 words plus notes, but do not be deterred: Journalism’s Roving Eye is an alluring and enlightening piece of work. Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent and public servant who is currently dean at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, spurns plodding narrative in favor of an intelligent tour, full of unexpected pleasures and plums. Where else might we stumble across a reporter’s account of the Battle of New Orleans? Or the senior James Gordon Bennett’s sharp-edged view of the coronation of Queen Victoria? Or Jack Belden’s story of lying wounded and abandoned while covering the landing at Salerno in 1943?

The author includes plenty of room for offbeat characters. There is the exotic Lafcadio Hearn, who transplanted himself to Japan from New Orleans; James Keeley of the Chicago Tribune, who tracked an embezzler to the Moroccan desert; and even a cameo by Benjamin Franklin, who expended some of his prodigious energies during his tenure in London by cranking out dispatches for the audience at home. (“Although he employed at least forty-two different pseudonyms,” we read, “Franklin also knew that colonists knew he was the author. One of his regular signatures, ‘N. N’ for non nominatus, seems to have been reserved for him by other Colonial printers.”)

In his central narrative, meanwhile, Hamilton adroitly traces the rise of the correspondents’ corps from its scattered beginnings to what he calls its golden age, the time between the wars when American journalists abroad warned of the gathering world crisis, and the correspondents themselves assumed the status of ambassadors or generals. Celebrities sprang from among them: Richard Harding Davis, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow. But more to Hamilton’s taste are such figures as the brothers Paul Scott and Edgar Ansel Mowrer, and their employer, the Chicago Daily News, exemplifying as they did both enterprise and gravitas.

The later parts of the story are darker: the prolonged strains between press and military in the Vietnam War, the technical and economic changes that led to the death of almost all of the foreign news services that were once the pride of every major quality newspaper, and finally the disintegration of the very communication system that had fostered the correspondents. It is hard, at some points, to resist the sort of pessimism expressed by C. L. Sulzberger in 1969, when he noted that becoming a foreign correspondent was “like becoming a blacksmith in 1919—still an honorable and skilled profession; but the horse is doomed.” Yet Hamilton impressively makes sense of the vast changes taking place in the twenty-first century, while by no means applauding them. The book, in its scope, detail, and sheer mastery, is a major achievement.

Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places
By Terry Gould
400 pages, $25

Each year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists tabulates the imprisonment, abuse, and killings of journalists around an increasingly dangerous world. Terry Gould, a freelance investigative journalist, has gone abroad to pursue an inquiry into six such cases of murder. Of these, only one—that of Anna Politkovskaya of Russia, assassinated in October 2006 because of her persistent and unblinking coverage of the Chechen conflict—is widely known in the U.S. The Russian courts have belatedly reopened her case, and The New York Times ran an editorial about it.

And what of the five other stories? They are united by a kind of family resemblance. In each case, a reporter chose to struggle against a criminal organization so deeply entrenched it was essentially a branch of government. According to the author, all became reconciled to the probability of being killed, but refused to desist and even quarreled with those who sought to protect them. They include the combative Guillermo Bravo Vega of Colombia; the flamboyant Marlene Garcia-Esperat of the Philippines; the quasi-saint Manik Chandra Saha of Bangladesh; a pair of young Russian newspaper editors, Valery Ivanov and Alexei Sidorov; and Khalid W. Hassan, a very young Iraqi who worked for the Times< in Baghdad.

Like Politkovskaya, they all declined to take cover in face of ferocious danger. And Terry Gould has made all of them more than mere statistics. By digging so deeply into their lives, he has not only memorialized them but has helped us understand their martyrdom.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.