ÒForeign Correspondence: The World on DeadlineÓ
The New York Times
Northwestern University ÒLiterary Journalism Seminar and Literature of Fact Lecture SeriesÓ
February 16, 2009
PHOTO BY JOAO SILVA/NEW YORK TIMES
I'd like to begin with this picture right here. ThatÕs President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. As you know, Georgia was invaded by Russia in August of last year. There have been long-running territorial disputes along the Russian border and they broke out into war after years of provocation and counter-provocation. The war broke out early in July and I was home in Rhode Island where we live now. We needed to get people there quickly. I had been covering the caucuses – this is just on the other side of the ridge from Chechnya – and I know President Saakashvili and I know his government and I know a lot of the ideas it had about its national vision for unification. I know Russia because I lived in Russia and I know how they thought that was fundamentally a provocation of RussiaÕs rule in the region. This was a real flash point, that we didnÕt have enough people there.
The man who took this picture – about, IÕll say 36 hours or 40 hours before he took it, he was in South Africa. The photographer, Joao Silva, doesnÕt speak South African, he doesnÕt speak Georgian, he doesnÕt speak Russian – those are the two principle languages on the ground. Joao has never been to Georgia. He didnÕt really know how to get there quickly. But we needed to get him there. The airport was closed. The country was under aerial bombardment. So what we did was we called Joao – I did this through the photo editor – we asked just to get him on a plane to Europe. He flewÉI donÕt remember exactly where. Just for the sake of the story, letÕs say Paris or Vienna. He was in the air. While he was in the air, we had to figure out where we were going to get him because there was no connection going into T'bilisi, the capital of Georgia. CanÕt go to Russia – the borders are closed and thereÕs a war. That leaves you with Turkey or Armenia. We settled on Azerbajhan and left a message to him to try and get a ticket to Baku. ThatÕs the capital of Azerbajhan. I got on the phone. We have a guy we worked with in Baku whoÕs a driver. The driver doesnÕt speak any English. But we managed, through the Moscow office, to get the driver on the phone and track him down. We asked if heÕd be willing to pick Joao up from the airport and drive him all the way up to the Georgia border and kick him out at the border. He could walk across the border. HeÕs European with a Portuguese passport so he doesnÕt need a visa to walk into Georgia. He can do it lawfully.
We had a problem. Ali, the driver, so he speaks good Russian, so we were able to communicate who he needed to pick up and when to pick him up – he doesnÕt write in English, so he couldnÕt write [the photographerÕs] last name, Silva, except in the Cyrillic script, which the photographer canÕt read, so we got his daughter on the phone. We got his daughter, who spoke a little English, to make a little sign with his last name. The photographer landed many hours later – a day, day and a half – and there was a guy out front with his name written.
We told him, thatÕs going to be Ali, they canÕt talk to each other. Get in the car, AliÕs going to take you to the border. When you get off at the border at Georgia, you need to know one word, T'bilisi, which is the capital. Just keep saying T'bilisi and youÕll get there. The photographer did this. He had some money – he paid Ali and walked across the border, started saying T'bilisi. He was picked up by a driver there, got himself into the capital, not knowing any of the languages but starting to find some English. T'bilisi has been westernizing. He managed within a few hours to get up to the town of Gori. Gori was about to change hands because the Russian army was right on the edge of town and was coming in and going to try and occupy it for some weeks. This was right before that happened.
I donÕt know how much Joao slept. The answer is not much. I know he couldnÕt really talk to anybody. I know he is one of the best photographers and most resourceful people IÕve ever met. He ended up in Gori. I was still in my garage in Rhode Island.
HeÕd been in Gori not very long when he saw a convoy of black vehicles moving through this town, which was in disarray. It had been bombed, been hit with rockets. There was an exodus. The Georgian army was in retreat. ThereÕs Joao and he sees a black convoy, which is the kind of thing in war that you might want to take a look at. So he went over to it and out pops the President. The President was out surveying the battlefield – that tells you something about this president and about his nature. Joao I donÕt think knew he was the president but he picked up pretty quickly that he was important.
A Russian plane flew overhead. The next thing you know, the President was tackled by his security detail and pressed to the ground, and Joao was right there. He took a bunch of pictures of it. IÕve seen video of it because there were a couple of local video journalists there. It literally was one little moment where he was on the ground, you could have had a clear shot at the President. He made those pictures, he backed away, and very quickly went back. This went on the front page of The New York Times. ItÕs probably one of the most symbolically important pictures of that war because that says it all – this was the sort of slap-down of an upstart state. It was about a moment of intense reassessment of American foreign policy because we had been his ally. It was also about a changed presidency. Fundamentally, it was about [the question:] will Georgia survive? Because if it ever comes to a moment where your president is in this position – with an enemy jet overhead – you might wonder where your countryÕs going to be in a week. Or less.
Why do I tell you this entire story? The story sounds pretty interesting, right? How this picture got put in the newspaper. What IÕd like to do now is ask you to forget everything I just told you, except the end result, which was the picture. We spent a lot of time in foreign correspondence talking about how we get where weÕre going, what the road was like, the so-called adventure of the story. All of that stuff, at the end of the day, is just map knowledge. ItÕs no different than going to city hall except that itÕs logistically more complicated. ItÕs no different to know to call Ali and to get a sign for Joao and to tell him the bare bones of what he needs to get where heÕs headed, and to trust him to get where heÕs supposed to be, than it is to go over and cover a Bruins game.
What really matters is the skill set once you get there. Once youÕve been through this Òsign for Silva, drive to the border, walk through a country whose language you donÕt speak,Ó go as Napoleon said, to the sound of the guns and youÕll find gainful employment there – once youÕve done all of that, what skill set do you show up with is all that matters. And what IÕd like to do today is talk about demystifying that skill set. Because there isnÕt that much to it. ItÕs all fundamentals.
What Joao was able to do in this picture was no different than taking a picture of a touchdown pass. ThatÕs his basic skill set – being a photographer who can get himself into the action to take a picture of something very fluid, realize heÕs got the picture. The pictureÕs not artistically beautiful, but it conveys a hell of a lot of information and itÕs technically sound and itÕs workable.
ThatÕs what you need to be able to do – convey a hell of a lot of information in a technically sound way and make it workable. ItÕs all fundamentals.
People say, ÔWhat do you do when you go on a foreign assignment?Õ And I do, excepting the journey – and we just talked about the journey, and I said itÕs not that important – I do the exact same thing when I cover a rollover on Route 90. I go to the scene, I find out people who were in the rollover or saw the rollover or worked the rollover after it happened, and I ask them what happened. [I ask,] What do you know? What donÕt you know? Who else knows something about this? If you were me, who would you be talking to? And then I ask them a couple of really basic questions, and if you canÕt get these right youÕre in the wrong line of work: How do you spell your name? WhatÕs your date of birth? How can I get in touch with you later on deadline in three hours or in two weeks if it turns out that the story is going to have some legs and we need to come back at it? How do I keep you in my file?
You do all of these things at a car accident or a fire or a school board meeting thatÕs contentious where you have different camps arguing over the curriculum for changes that are going to be implemented in the month ahead. You do the same thing here.
ItÕs no different.
The map is different. The map now takes a little bit of seizing, which means you have to get a little bit older. That happens naturally in the work, so thatÕs easy. You have to know all these phone numbers or someone who knows the phone number. But, at the end of the day, what we do, what we put out – the world on deadline – is we work on deadline. Exactly as I worked when I used to cover the Providence Police Department. And exactly as when I worked to cover the Providence School Department. And exactly as I worked when I had to take an obituary, when the phone would ring and it would be the funeral home and I was writing about the natural passing of an 85-year-old resident of the town I covered. ThereÕs nothing different.
I like to tell everybody that because as foreign correspondence appears to shrink – as newspapers quote bureaus or reduce staff, as news holes shrink – it seems a little more exotic, maybe even than it used to, but itÕs always seemed a lot more exotic than it actually is. Everything you need to know I think most of you who are students here know already. All you have to do is go out and practice it again and again and again.
The food may change along the road and the languages may change, and the scenes may change, the names do – but the work doesnÕt change. What I need to know to do my job, excepting all the phone numbers I have, I can put on a 3x5 card. You go, you get the story. You ask questions along the line of the questions I just framed for you in pursuit of getting the story. You get on the phone with the editor. You talk about what you think the story is. If you have a good editor, your editor challenges you and she pushes you to go out and ask more questions or to bring in another point of view. You write the thing. You negotiate the length. IÕd like to do 1500 [words], youÕd like to do 1100 [words], so IÕm going to sneak in 1300 [words] and weÕll see if I can keep that extra two.
You negotiate through the edit. You try to keep your mind open so that an editing suggestion that you initially thought wasnÕt very good, after a few minutes or days of reflection, realize is excellent and you try to incorporate it into your thinking to improve your copy. But you also have to resist some edits that you donÕt like, that you donÕt think are good. You have to get a high batting average, as they say, because youÕre going to get some of those wrong. And then you file the thing. You make yourself available to the copyeditor, which means you have your cell phone in your pocket. You answer questions for the copyedit. You get whatÕs called a play-back; they return you the copyedited version of your story. You look at it, make a quality control check to make sure principally that itÕs accurate and that every other attendant issue to journalism is as contextualized properly and complete as it can be. Does it acknowledge frontally the information needed by readers? Does it say what we donÕt know?
And then the story appears, and you proceed to the next one. ThatÕs basically the sum and substance of my remarks. I would tell you doing what I do from afar looks kind of exotic. But itÕs no different than it would be if I was covering the Providence Bruins. The same process every day informs what gets out. Thank you.
And now IÕll take your questions.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to whatÕs different about working for a foreign bureau as compared to other journalism jobs]
Foreign bureau is not going to be any different than any other job. Language is obviously [important]. YouÕre going to want to be at least conversant in the language in the area that youÕre working. ThatÕs obvious, itÕs just pretty basic.
I was trained. I didnÕt speak Russian before I first went into the former Soviet Union in 2001. In 2002 or 2003, I was assigned to go full time into the region. So I had a package of language training given to me for about six hours a day, one on one with a tutor, for multiple months. You sort of get the bones of the language down. To be honest, I hated it. It was essential, but I really missed reporting every day and I felt mentally confined, being at a table and not reporting and not writing and having someone else lead. The teacher had to lead you through that kind of intense submergence. Obviously it was necessary so I stuck with it.
If I were looking for journalists to work alongside me, and I often recruit local journalists or freelancers in the area to help the bureau – thereÕs no one resume [that fits]. The resume actually means nothing; itÕs more the personality type [and whether] the person is willing to work as hard as IÕm willing to work. Are they always available? Are they accurate? Less important can they write than can they get it right. If they can get the facts right and theyÕre willing to call people who they might not agree with or people who theyÕre writing about who might not agree with them, those are things that I look for. That sort of set of basic reporting skills. Writing can come later, but first comes the work ethic and precise way of questing information so that you reduce the chance of error, and honesty. If youÕve got those things, youÕve got a start. That doesnÕt answer your question, how do you get a job? Is that what you really mean?
Question: [Inaudible, but related to how students can prepare themselves for a foreign correspondence job, which languages to study]
All those would help there, of course, and in the order you listed them. They all would help. Perfect. If youÕve got those, youÕve got a leg up. But I tell you this – letÕs just back up a little bit. LetÕs not just talk about Jerusalem, letÕs talk about journalism. What would you need to be a journalist now in the shrinking marketplace, fragile and shaky employers? To be a journalist now you need a few very basic things. You need, first of all to be [open to general work]. You need to be ready to write on a range of things. Then, I would say, you also want to specialize in a couple of things.
I got some great advice when I was still in the Marine Corps getting ready to come out. I met a freelance journalist and I said, how do you get somewhere, from where I am to where you are, where youÕre actually writing stories and having them published? And he said, pretty easy: you send out a query letter, a pitch letter, every day. And if you donÕt have a story idea a day that you could organize and frame and present to someone, youÕre in the long line of work. Send out a letter every day. If you can do that, I think thereÕs a chance that someone is going to start printing your stories assuming you can meet all of the quality control issues we talked about a few minutes ago. Editors are sitting around all day starved for or hungry for or eager to recognize the next good idea, the next good thing that they can help put out before their readers. And if you come with that, every day – you donÕt have to go to the same editor every day, obviously, because youÕre not going to get anywhere doing that – but you could get a writerÕs market. If you have a few hobbies and a few interests, you could make those your side piece. While youÕre working for a newspaper or working for a website, and you can pitch letters on those side pieces every day. I used to write, and still do, a lot of little fishing articles on the side. IÕve found that writing a fishing article – in which, frankly, not much happens – but you know what does happen in a fishing article? The exact same journalism that happened in the story about [the new president in Georgia]. I still have to spell everything write, I still have to figure out how to weave dialogue through context, IÕve still got to work on my transitions, I still need an interesting top and a rewarding bottom. I need to do all of the same things in an article about my six-year-old boy and my four-year-old boy catching a few little perch. Not much is happening. I mean, a lotÕs happening in our family but why would this be interesting to somebody else? A pretty low-pressure piece of journalism, right? But the process is exactly the same. If youÕre doing these things – pick your hobbies, something you already know a lot about. Write for the hobby publication and your journalism will improve along the way and when youÕre here when the next big thing happens – I donÕt know, imagine if a lot of your neighbors were losing their homes, pretty big story, right? – youÕll find yourself more equipped to write about it.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to getting rejected when trying to get access to sources for a story]
Everyone has the right to refuse. YouÕre going to face that. When people meet me – nowadays everybody knows who you are when you come at them. If I call up someone and say, IÕd like an interview with you, they go right to Google. They figure out what IÕve been writing about, where I come from, what my background is, and they form their own set of assessments about me off of that. We do that all the time. So everyone has the right of refusal. I run into people who say, I donÕt like your paperÕs position on gun control, therefore, go away, or a lot worse than that.
What I will often do is [look around]. You donÕt necessarily need one person. ThereÕs a range of people who represent a range of different views and youÕre probably not going to succeed on your first story getting people who are hostile to you. But as you develop lines of coverage, you get known in the community as the journalist you are. Some people are going to like you; some people arenÕt. Some people are going to not let you in, but some who initially wouldnÕt will if youÕre doing your job honestly.
I interview a lot of people I donÕt like all the time. I come to the conclusion often that theyÕre right. Or that theyÕre honest. And IÕm very glad to have their information inform the story that IÕm writing. I also when I talk among my colleagues I speak a lot against the tyranny of the single story, when people read a story thatÕs 4- or 500 words, and they think thatÕs all the New York Times or it could be The Washington Post or The Times of London knows and thinks about that subject. ThatÕs ridiculous. I say, look at the line of coverage. Look at that paperÕs coverage of that issue for – pick your period – three months, one year, ten years, and youÕll find itÕs much more rich and diverse. YouÕll find itÕs flawed, because all coverage is flawed, but youÕll find itÕs better than one story. Individual stories will often have one point of view which finds its way into a story – not necessarily because the writer has an opinion on the subject the writerÕs working on, but because the sources do. For every source in the story, you get 800 words, so you might have six to eight on-record sources in a good 800-word story, thereÕs a million people who may know a lot about that subject who arenÕt in the story. The point of view of these six or eight will be represented. That can kind of feel like bias, but itÕs actually more like the representation of the people who are speaking. As you cover a subject over time, you want to start pulling in more and more informed voices on it and hopefully you leaven that out. Can you ever fully leaven that out? Of course not.
IÕm not the person whoÕs going to sit here and tell you every newspaper story is perfect. Every newspaper story is flawed. ItÕs the best thing we have for discussing the news, but itÕs flawed.
Question: [Inaudible, but related to his work in Uzbekistan]
It was Andijan. It was in Andijan. IÕd been going to Uzbekistan on and off in 2001 and had been in the Fergana before. Uzbekistan is essentially a post-Soviet police state, highly centralized, run by a range of competing security services. It has particularly in the Fergana Valley a lot of social unrest, and some religious unrest as well – a lot of it due to economics and basic justice. In this case, a number of local businessmen had been detained and held for a long time by the local authorities and were having a trial that their relatives thought was a show trial. One night, we still to this day donÕt know exactly who, someone hit the prison that held a couple dozen businessmen and their close associates. They didnÕt just release them. Of course when you knock over the gate of the prison, not just the people you wanted to get out get out, everybody gets out. And everybody did. They proceeded to go for several hours through the town to attack in guerilla fashion several of the buildings in the city. They ended up at dawn or a little bit after dawn in the city administration with a number of hostages from the government.
At this point, itÕs prison break, right? Whatever you think of Uzbekistan, whenever a country suffers a prison break has kind of an interest in putting the prison break back into order. At this point, though, it got tactically and socially very, very complicated, as if it wasnÕt already. Townspeople came out – we could argue numbers – probably by the low thousands. IÕve seen a lot of video of it, certainly several hundred. Civilians came out in support of the prison break and stood in the central square chanting, among other things, ÔFreedom!Õ The Uzbek government moved forces in over the course of that day. They had now very much a hybrid event – they had social unrest, they had a big demonstration with unarmed people including women and children, and they had a bunch of guys who escaped from prison and were armed and had hostages on the other side of the windows, if you will, inside the main building in town.
That gives you the background, now IÕll answer your question. Sorry for the long wind-up, but a lot of people might not have known the background. I was in Moscow when it happened. We immediately tried to get visas, but we were of course denied. Western passport holders canÕt go into Uzbekistan without a visa. There was a wonderful reporter-to-be, a UN diplomat and American guy in his early twenties, who was working in Bishtek, which was the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a neighboring country, that had had its own social unrest a few months earlier. Ethan was his name. Ethan was ordered out of the country with all the UN western diplomats. He was evacuated during that social unrest. Ethan refused to evacuate. He quit the UN. He said, ÔWe have a revolution in the country, am I going to get on a plane? No.Õ So he stuck around. HeÕd gotten to know a few correspondents who came barreling into that and had become kind of impressed with journalism. Ethan found his way to the Uzbek/Krgy border and met the Uzbek refugees who were coming out. I skipped a step. That night, the Uzbek security forces had attacked a crowd and killed – we donÕt know how many they killed. The tote guys went into the low hundreds. There have been some reporters whoÕve said it was a lot higher than that and there were a lot of civilians. The civilians who didnÕt get shot obviously bolted and a lot of them realized, ÔItÕs now untenable.Õ There were mop-ups going on in the neighborhood, so they walked to Kyrgyzstan through the night across the border. WhoÕd they meet there? They met Ethan, whoÕd come down from Bishtek because he wanted to see what was going on.
Ethan called me up .He said, ÔIÕve read you on Uzbekistan. YouÕre one of the guys who cover it. IÕm here with some refugees. Would you like some notes?Õ And I said, ÔYes.Õ And I said, ÔHow do I catch up to you?Õ I ended up flying to Bishtek. Now Ethan at this point, because he was still holdingÉwell, I probably should spare some details. Ethan had a way to get into Uzbekistan. He went in to Uzbekistan.
There were a series of road blocks. Uzbek police are very centralized and the population is very familiar with life inside a police state. In a real police state you donÕt have to do a lot of policing because everyone kind of behaves to a certain standard. So they set up very simple road blocks. Ethan got a horse and went around the road blocks. They were basically controlling the road, but they werenÕt controlling the cotton field next to it. Ethan sort of picked his way up through the cotton fields, up to the edge of Andijan and got a stronger sense of what was going on. I flew to Bishtek and I donÕt remember how I got down to the border. I think I caught a little local flight, a plane you can fit in this room, and landed near the border and basically started calling Ethan. I said, ÔEthan, Ethan, Ethan, where are you?Õ The border had collapsed and the canal – thereÕs a very fast-moving canal over the irrigation canal. The cops had all retreated in to do the crackdown. The border police had left, so some locals had put some planks across the canal. So we walked across the planks into the country and met up with Ethan, and reported it from there, from inside the country.
IÕll never forget Ethan because I showed up and called and said, ÔIÕm in the bazaar, where are you? I want to meet you.Õ A taxi pulled up and Ethan got out and all he was carrying was a shopping bag, a little plastic bag with a few pieces of paper and an iPod in it. He was using the iPod to record the interviews. He had these wonderfully rich interviews.
We collaborated for about a week or ten days going to a variety of places, some of them the refugee camps, a couple others I probably donÕt want to mention because I donÕt have EthanÕs permission. We got together, bit by bit, an account (as far as we could tell) of what had happened. ThereÕs one element of this that was important. I began to do something that I really believe in, and I didnÕt even realize how IÕd come to it. Ethan was very fascinated with it, what I call an Ôisolation interview.Õ LetÕs say all of you come over a border together. YouÕve all had similar but different experiences. Some of you may have had very different experiences. If IÕm interviewing you, I donÕt want you interrupting my interview. I donÕt what you repeating something heÕs told you because thatÕs hearsay. IÕm interested in your experience only. What we would do is go where we could find survivors, and we would yank them away from their social groups so that there was no pressure to stick to a line which may be informed by any given asylum. ItÕs just, ÔTell me what happened to you,Õ and every time someone told me, ÔOh I heard that they were shooting over on this side of the squareÉÕ I said, ÔDid you see it? What was the name of the injured guy? What time was he shot? How was he shot?Õ And usually that would [result in them saying,] ÔNo, but he did.Õ And so that guy would be my next isolation interview. YouÕve got to get people away from other people when you interview them, because the group informs the interview, usually to the detriment of the quality of your notes. You want to be referred back, bounced around like a ping-pong ball, between different people but you want to get each person alone. When youÕre in a group, the quality of your information is diminished by the behavior of the person youÕre interviewing while someoneÕs watching.
Question: How did your experience in the military help your journalism?
The main way it helped is I was 30 years old when I started journalism, so I was older. I just knew more than I did when I was 22 or 23. I wanted to be a writer. I didnÕt know what that meant when I was in college. I also knew I had nothing to write about. I didnÕt know anything. I spent a bunch of years in the Marine Corps, and I knew a little bit more. Not much, but a little bit more. It was helpful to start then. It helped me socially all the time because there are a lot of people out there whoÕve served in the Marine Corps and they turn up all over the place.
Copyright 2009 C.J. Chivers. All rights reserved.