An e-mail worth keeping
Dear Mr Callahan,
I came across your entertaining and pleasingly provocative blog the other day, while searching for something else. I'm glad to have done so.
As someone who reports from the United States for a number of papers (principally The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday as well as, occasionally, on this side of the atlantic for National Review Online) it is simultaneously disconcerting and encouraging to find blogs such as the one you so vigorously and tenaciously maintain.
Disconcerting, because journalists generally dislike being monitored in this fashion; encouraging because we should be and such scrutiny, provided it is conducted with a reasonable degree of fairness, can be valuable. The medicine is not always palatable, but it is still good for us.
As it happens, I share some of your frustrations. All foreign correspondents have their weaknesses but there is a structural problem to the job too.
Firstly, by simple virtue of our foreigness we have an imperfect knowledge of the countries we report on. This can be minimised by reading and experience and while the advantages of a fresh perspective should not be discounted either, this weakness still remains. It's one we should be conscious of: the old saw that the more one knows the more one realises how much more there is to know applies here. This is true everywhere but especially so in a country as large, diverse and contradictory as the United States.
Secondly, editors in the United Kingdom, who will browse the major American news sites and consider themselves au fait with what is happening here have their own preconceptions that are not always shared by their correspondents in the field. Ultimately, of course, it is the editors who decide what appears in the paper.
Thirdly, all foreign correspondents simplify matters. It's sadly inescapable. Space constraints play a part in this, of course, but it is also the case that, much of the time at least, our readers neither need nor demand the level of detail that the NYT or WaPo properly realises their own readership requires. I suspect every correspondent will tell you that nuance and qualifying statements are frequently the first lines to be cut from a piece if cutting is required. This is highly regrettable.
Fourthly, it is one of the weaknesses of the modern media that almost every story needs to be hyped to be more important the day it is published than it necessarily would seem were one to take a longer-term view.
Nonetheless, I think we have, as a class, to admit that we do an imperfect job. So I can understand your frustration. It's akin to reading the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to one's own home town and not recognising the description you find. It casts doubt, one feels, on the accuracy of every other guide in the publisher's series.
So what can be done? The challenge is to report on the United States in a sufficiently sensitive manner as to give, over time, as accurate a picture of this country's complexity as possible. This is sometimes easier in theory than practice.
I've come to feel, sometimes, that there's a degree of truth in almost everything written about the United States in the British press but that most stories invite the response, "yes, but..." since the contrary point of view or narrative is frequently every bit as persuasive as that which is eventually published. That generalisation, of course, like every generalisation about the United States, only takes one so far...
But it is clearly the case that many, though by no means all, British reporters stationed in America are instinctively well to the left of American mainstream opinion and wary of the United States. This would still be the case if John Kerry had triumphed last November, though it is certainly true that George Bush's victory was met with great depression in many British newsrooms and that this has impacted coverage of the United States in the British press.
It is also obvious that, like most of our counterparts on the major metropolitan American papers, much of American life is, as the Justin Webb quotation you cite, easy for us to mock and present as a caricature. Foreign correspondents touch down in Alabama or Texas for a couple of days to watch the locals (some of whom even seem to speak a form of English!) before retreating to the comfort and security of Washington or New York. I'm rather painfully aware that I have not spent enough time in the south or Texas and constantly remind myself that the Beltway does not represent America and that what is received wisdom here is not necessarily - and generally is not - accepted as gospel truth elsewhere in the country.
Equally, for all that parts of American and American life may seem strange, the point to remember is that different does not automatically mean beyond the pale or illegitimate. Diversity comes in many guises. I think some of my colleagues may sometimes forget this. But it is also a sad truth that editors in the UK (and, I fear, readers) enjoy wacky tales of bible-thumping, gun-toting rednecks, no matter how cliched and unrepresentative - or at least distorted - such stories may be. Those stories tend to be easier to get into the paper than, for example, "Bush increases aid to Africa." Sad but true.
For my own part I'll confess to admiring the United States and the enjoyment I feel living here. For all its imperfections it is a remarkable, fascinating, stimulating place to be. Dr Johnson's famous line to the effect that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life rather sums up how I often feel about America.
(This op-ed, from July 4th, gives you some idea of where I'm coming from, should you be interested)
Anyway, this email has gone on long enough. I'm sure you won't need my encouragement to keep up your good work.