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Excerpt: Through Their Eyes

Foreign correspondents in the United States

By Stephen Hess - February 22, 2006

What distinguishes most foreign correspondents from most other journalists is that often they are separated from their editors and audience by several time zones. Those who work in New York or Washington usually are six hours behind Europe and twelve to fourteen hours ahead of Asia. "The time difference is the hardest part," Dubravka Savic of Belgrade Daily told us. "I'm always running after time and never reaching it."

The most obvious consequence or reporting on breaking news for a distant organization is that the workday becomes very long. "I love to work in this country," said Rujun Wang, of China's People's Daily. "Bout you have to work very hard, especially [since] we have a time difference. You have to work too hard, I think. Sometimes I realize I have3 to work harder than American people, but I don't make more money than they do." "I am practically overrun by the amount of work I have to do," concluded Ennino Carreto of Italy's Corriere Della Sera.

Correspondents can run into problems trying to fit events that transpire in one place to deadlines designed for somewhere else. "We don't pay attention to most State Department briefings," commented Julian Borger of the Guardian. "It's late for us, timing-wise. Five hours' difference" But mid-morning briefings were fine for Toshiyuki Matsuyama, of Fuji TV; adjusting to what happens at night was his problem. "President Bush made a speech for the public, for [the] TV camera. That happens always at night, eastern time. In that case, we have to do a live report from here soon after we hear the speech." Japanese papers want the big stories for the morning news. At Yomiuri Shimbun's Washington bureau, according to Mike Hayashi, "We have an annex room where we can sleep."

Juggling time zones has consequences for correspondents' personal lives. "I can't see my kid," said Chang Choi of Korea TV. "I get up late, after 9:00, 10:00, and my kid already went to school."

The time factor is illustrated in the following accounts of "typical" day from some foreign correspondents in Washington. The first are from those who report to Europe: Olga Bakova, Yasemin Congar, Lars Moberg, and Patrick Smyth. Morning deadlines morph into evening deadlines for the correspondents who report to Asia: Takeshi Yamashita, Chang Choi, and Nobu Sakajiri.

Bakova: Generally in the morning, like 9 o'clock in the morning, which is 3:00 p.m. over there, [my editors] call me and ask me what is going on. And I wake up [before that], I go through my newspapers, usually Washington Post, Washington Times, New York Times, sometimes Internet. And my apartment and my office is the same, so it's very easy. I try to go to the AP and all kinds of websites, other agencies, of course TV. And I tell [my editors] that this and this and this happened. And I have to ask them what do they want. What's going on [here] doesn't mean it is interesting in Europe. There are some cases, like the little girl from Utah [Elizabeth Smart] nobody cares about it in Slovakia. I don't want to feed them with it.

We also have late evening programs. But usually they just repeat [what I reported] at 6:00 in the evening. Usually I do a news story, then I am working on different kinds of [feature stories during the other half of the day]. For example, I was in New York and I went all [over] Brooklyn. I went many different kinds of places, so I brought my [materials back to Washington] and I have to make different things for different kinds of programs. I interviewed one woman form Afghanistan, so I had to prepare those materials. Usually I work all day, then in the evening, 5, 6 o'clock, I start work for my morning and mid-day programs [back home]. And I do it through Internet. My only contact [with my editors] is by telephone in the morning, because it is easier and chaper to mix all these radio things and send it.

Q: You send them the finished product?
A: Yes. Through FTP [file transfer protocol] transmission.
Q: You have this technology in your apartment?
A: Yes. I have everything. I [cut and edit the pieces], and I have different kinds of programs for mixing. So if Colin Powell says something, I have to translate it, but also to mix it together.
Q: So you're the writer, the editor, the translator, and the producer?
A: Everything. Driver and mother of two kids.
Q: That must keep you very busy.
A: Of course. But it depends how you look at it. This is a very interesting job. Sometimes I work until 2 o'clock in the morning. That's when they do morning news [in Slovakia]. And when it's important, I do live shows. And I don't care, because I like it.

Congar: The newspaper I work for is part of the biggest media group in Turkey. I work for the newspaper [Milliyet] as the Washington bureau chief, as the foreign affairs columnist. I also work for CNN Turk, which is a news network. So I work for two different organizations within the same umbrella. [CNN Turk] is a twenty-four-hour news network just like CNN. It's owned by Turner International and our media corporation. They call me at 1:00 a.m. [Washington time], and I do the 6:00 or 7:000 a.m. news [in Turkey]. Between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. [in Washington], which is the prime-time news [in Turkey], that's my political portion, sometimes live, sometimes recorded. For the newspaper I usually talk to them around 6:30 [a.m. in Washington] or so and we decide if I'm doing a story. Or if I have a story already, we decide how I'm going to use it. Then I have an early deadline for the early edition at 9:00 [a.m. in Washington]. And for the late edition, it ends up usually 2:00 p.m. [in Washington]. It can go as late as 6:00 p.m. for an important story.

I write columns. I have two weekly columns. One is a political column, one is a cultural column. One is in the Sunday edition, the cultural column, and the other appears on Monday, on the foreign news page. And I write them the last day, especially the political column. The political column I have to file it by 9:00 a.m. Then I usually get up by 5:00 a.m. to do it. But I have done all the interviews and I have all the notes. I [just] get up and write it.

Basically you work on tomorrow's story today, in the afternoon. But TV changes that because we can record anything anytime. It's a twenty-four-hour news network. And it's immediate. If I have an important story and it's exclusive, I usually break it on TV whenever it happened, whenever I learn about [it]. And when I write something on that for the paper [after I've already broken it on TV], they don't like that. But because both organizations are owned by the same company, they're not competitive in that sense directly, and they have an understanding. Only when the newspaper asks me about something exclusively — if they say, "I want an exclusive interview on this" — then I wouldn't do anything [on the same subject for TV].

Moberg: I come in at 8:30 or 9:000 in the morning, and I get down to my desk. Then, of course, I have already in my house been on the computer the first thing when I wake up just to check the mail. With the time difference e-mail is even more essential. You have six hours. They're six hours ahead of us here. So when I wake up in the United States the day has almost passed in Sweden.

I have two main programs that I work for. One of them is 7;30 p.m. in Sweden, which is 1:30 [p.m.] here, and the next is 9:00 [p.m.] there and 3:00 p.m. here. If you get the phone call 7, 8 o'clock in the morning up at Davenport Street, where I live, "We want a piece from you today. We want you to film and cut a piece today." The day is very short. You can't start to get people before 9:00, offices open at 9:00. You're at scratch and you need to find the people to talk to, you need to go out and do it, you need to take some pictures, you usually do some vox-pops in the street with people. You probably need to do a stand-up yourself and to think out what to say and you need to get back here to edit the piece and to send it over on the satellite in time for the 7:30 p.m. show, which is] perhaps 1:30 p.m. here.

To give an example. They called me Tuesday morning wanting to have a follow-up story on Padilla [Jose Padilla, an American citizen with times to Islamic fundamentalists organizations who was accused of involvement in a plot to construct a "dirty bomb"]. I was lucky to have a guy at George Washington University that I has used for a piece like a half-year ago, a law professor who's really good. He was there and he understood my lack of time, so I got to interview him early. And went out and talked to people in the street. And that was for the 9:00 [p.m.] news in Sweden, we had the feed time than at 2:15. It's a lot of work that hast to be carried out in two to four hours from scratch to a cut piece. And it has to be good. You have to be accurate. You have to know what you're saying and make no mistakes. It's kind of a very demanding job.

Q: Usually just with breaking news stories or does this happen more often than that?
A: Usually with big news stories. But also it can sometimes be stories that are not so big here but would fit into a package over there that they are coming up with….So what I would do would go together with another piece or two other pieces or a guy in the studio in Stockholm and they want to have the American aspect of something. It does not always have to be a breaking tremendous news story here in order to make me very busy, if you see my point. This happens often.

Smyth: I get up at half past 6:00, and I spend tow hours reading the papers and surfing the net for stories. I read the Post, the Times, the Washington Times, and USA Today; all arrive by post. Then I have to read the Irish Times. Magazines — the Nation, New Republic, Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, Harper's, U.S. News, and Foreign Affairs. That's a lot of reading. By half-past 8:00 I would be on [the phone with] my desk [in Dublin] to tell them what I want to write before they've got too many ideas themselves about what they want me to write. If I don't read the papers before I speak to them I'm at a distinct disadvantage. Then from 8:30 [a.m.] through to 1:00 p.m. I'm working on stories, on the phone or on the Internet, watching briefings on CNN, or coming in for an issue briefing. I have to file most inside page stories by about 2:00 p.m. After that a short break, then I will be working on longer-term projects or doing business, like arranging travel. Apart form covering the daily news, which can be two or sometimes three news stories a day, I would try and work on one more substantial feature.

Q: Do you do a lot of analysis?
A: I write a column once a week, which is sort of "Letter from America," which can be analysis or sort of just about an issue. It's about 1,000 words, so it's quite substantial. The last was about how the business crisis is playing into politics, particularly looking at shareholders, pensioners, and how they were affected by the fall of the market. The last feature [was] on a book about new environmental economics based on the ideas of externalizing internalities, the idea of using market forces as a tool in environmentalism. And I went up to the Catskills to look at a major experiment where the water supply of a town is being provided by paying farmers to manage the water running through their land.
Q: Do you ever do feature pieces on nonpolitical issues?
A: Oh, yeah. Endlessly. Grisly murders and offbeat stories. It's the big sexy stories. Chandra Levy, which we followed at some length, unfortunately. The poor woman who killed her children in the bath, Andrea Yates. I find there is quite an appetite for death penalty stories, so I follow the death penalty quite closely.

Yamashita: Yesterday was not usual. We had a live show. I got here at 9:30 [p.m.] and [the] live show [started] at 10:00. I didn't do the show, the bureau chief did. [But the show] featured my report recorded [beforehand]. I was covering the Senate hearing on Iraq. Then I wrote an article about the hearing. And then I had this party for some colleagues [from] Japan. If the editor wants to contact [us] or if we want to call [someone] in Japan, we have to call [around] midnight [here]. And yesterday I was at the party, and I [arrived] at the party at 10:00 p.m., then a little later I get a call [from my editor]. There is an FBI report… [he pauses to think how to explain].

Q: The story that was in this morning's Post about the FBI and WorldCom arrests?
A: Yes. So they asked me to write an article. So I [did not finish] until 2:00 this morning.

Q: Do you live nearby? You must have gotten home even later?
A: I live in Bethesda, Maryland. And then they called me again at 3:00 [a.m.] because … in Japan, news has a … A few years ago, there was a case with [a group] who used sarin attacks. Do you know sarin?

Q: You mean the Aum Shimrikyo attacks in the subways?
A: Yes. Before the Aum Shimrikyo subway attacks, they [had committed] another crime. A man next to the crime site was suspected, and the media published his name. So did NHK. But [it turned out that] he was not related to the crime at all. So it was kind [of] a [media] human rights problem. So we are very prudent about reporting the person who is suspected. So in [the first draft of my article] I didn't write the names or the company, but Tokyo is more cautious, so they wanted me to [change some things in my story]. So they called me, and so I [finally got] to sleep at 4:00 a.m.

Choi: We usually work in this bureau in accordance with Korea standard time. A lot of journalists here work in accordance with their own country's time. In the mornings we are free. We sometimes stop by some seminar, or we get a little bit of rest. Only after 2:00 p.m. [we begin working on] the news story, which [will be broadcast] in our morning news. Our morning news begins at 6:00 a.m. [in Korea], which is 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon here. So from 3:00 p.m. we prepare and see which story is better for the morning news story. So from 2:00 'til 4:00 and 4:20 we collect material, make a stand-up, and we write the story, do voiceovers recorded on the story. And we make a package with our stand-up, and we send it through this [he gestures to machine]. It is activated by the digital system. It sends almost instantly. So yesterday our main topic [was] the U.S. economy and how the U.S. economy influences the Asian market, Korea's money market.

From 4:50 [p.m.] through 6:30 I arrange the remaining jobs [that are not] news stories. In the news bureau there is a lot of extra work, management work. Then from 6:30 [p.m.] I monitor the evening news. CBS starts at 6:30. I monitor the news programs simultaneously, ABC and CBS. I turn up the CBS [sound] and turn on the captions on ABC. Then I watch NBC news with Tom Brokaw [at 7:00 p.m.]. At 7:30 I round up the news of the day — what news can be worth broadcasting in the evening news time slot? So after 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening I call my editor in chief in my home country, and we discuss which story is best. I think three or four, average three, stories are picked as our nightly news items. So from that time, 8:00 [p.m.] to 1 a.m., I am working on the evening story. So I usually come into this office very late [in the morning] 11:00, 12:00. I am off Saturday. But Sunday afternoon, as you can guess, is Monday morning in Korea. So I can usually rest from Friday afternoon and Saturday.

Sakajiri: I don't have the time to sleep. The daytime, for example, usually I wake up [at] 7:00, get down to [the] office, let's say 8:00 or 9:00 or 10:00 [a.m.] sometimes. I go to the seminar or briefing or symposium or something, I do an interview or read the newspaper. And around 5:00 or 6:00 [p.m.] we start writing the story: what happened today in Washington, D.C.

We have an international [section]; about from 10 to 30 percent is American news. Because even if [the story is about] the Middle East or Asian countries, [the editors] ask me to cover a story about the U.S. reaction. We recognize that the U.S. is the only superpower, so in every event we need what the U.S. government thinks about this. So the response form Washington is very important. Additionally, we cover incidents in the United States. So you can find many stories about the U.S. every day in the international pages.

We have two deadlines: 12:30 night and noon. At evening we filed the story for [the deadline] at 12:30. After deadline, we every often start writing the story for the morning edition. And because 12:30 here, midnight, is lunchtime [in] Japan, they ever hesitate to call us. [It is] very often 2:00, 3:00, or 4:00 o'clock until we have to stay here and file [the] story [before we can] go back [home]. I sleep maybe two or three hours every day.


Excerpted from Through Their Eyes: Foreign Correspondents in the United States by Stephen Hess. Copyright (c) 2005 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of The Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Through Their Eyes is available online from the Brookings Institution Press.

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