As happened with so many correspondents, when cold-war certitudes about Communism drove out other questions, Sheean’s fame faded. By 1949, when Lead, Kindly Light appeared, not one of the ten top-selling books for the year was by a journalist, let alone a foreign correspondent. The public was hungry for lighter fare: three of the top sellers were how-to books about winning at canasta, and another was Norman Vincent Peale’s A Guide to Confident Living. “One wonders,” wrote a reviewer of This House Against This House, “if this type of intimate, first-person journalism hasn’t about outlived its usefulness as a serious contribution to world thought.”
It is a question still worth pondering.
For the modern reader, Personal History celebrates a lost golden age of foreign correspondence. News outlets were plentiful. The dollar was strong and the cost of living abroad cheap. Americans were well liked. Editors could not yet reach a reporter on the steppes of Russia by pressing a few telephone buttons. In those days, American correspondents enjoyed great freedom, and large numbers of them spent years abroad, roving and learning. When it came to foreseeing the impending World War II, Sheean wrote, “International journalism was more alert than international statesmanship.” This self-confidence makes for a poignant contrast with our current pop-cultural image of the foreign correspondent, a disheveled figure most often freighted with angst. “It’s not a fucking forties movie,” says a character in The Killing Fields. “You can’t just get on a goddamn plane and make the whole world come out right.”
We cannot bring back that era. But in a world in which our security is threadbare and questions abound about what is happening and why, the need for foreign reporting is no less urgent and Sheean’s approach no less compelling.
The drive for credibility has pushed journalists toward greater caution. When USA Today correspondent Jack Kelley was found to have fabricated news, the home-office solution was to double-check quotes in reporters’ stories and comb expense accounts to see whether they had been where they said they were. Such scrutiny may avoid more Kelleys (or it may not). But it does not encourage correspondents to interpret the world for an audience that often doesn’t have the background to weigh a leader’s quote or judge the relevance of a distant fact.
For all its emotion, Sheean’s approach was more objective than the pseudo-scientific artifices of attributing all insights and opinions to others and of balancing unequal points of view to avoid seeming “biased.” Like a proper scientist, Sheean brought expert observational skills to his reporting he told the reader what he saw, the conditions under which he saw it, and what it meant.
That was strikingly apparent in 1938, when Sheean covered Germany’s annexation of Austria for the Herald Tribune. He rejected the widespread argument that the Nazis succeeded by terror alone. The party’s message, argued Sheean in the paper’s banner story of July 5, had mass appeal:
I am unable to name any sources or any authority for what I say, since nobody in Vienna is willing to be quoted, but investigations in the last ten days have given me one firm belief that nothing will shake the power of national socialism here until it has completed its historic functions and has reached its natural and inevitable conclusion in general war.
This was not the antiestablishment free-for-all of the New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s. Nor was it the self-centered blogging of today. It was informed reporting of the highest order.
Journalists of a certain age remember Sheean. As I was working on this article, long-retired cbs correspondent Marvin Kalb mentioned that he read Personal History when it came out and said to himself, “I’ve got to be a journalist.” May it inspire a new generation of correspondents as well.