I must have been 15 or 16 when I watched a documentary on television about foreign correspondents. And it struck me like lightning. Were my professional interests prior to that as vague as “become the first president of the kingdom of the Netherlands” or “learn how to build better dikes”, from that moment onwards my mission in life was crystal clear. I too was going to write stories from afar, while in the midst of history in the making; and I’d be sure the news got out about any kind of injustice, so it could be halted and paradise would descend on earth. Because of my writing. Or something close to that. Of course, nowadays I giggle at the idealism and unlimited arrogance an adolescent is entitled to. In those days I was a firm believer in the malleability of reality. And now? “Now we are pathetically wise,” to quote my favorite Dutch author, Nescio in his short story called “Tiny Titans”.
It took about fourteen years, a degree in Political Science, a whole lot of rejections and stubborn perseverance, but I did make it as a correspondent. Gallivanting Africa, hunting stories, chasing ghosts and riding the riddles of life on this majestic continent of ours. Best of all: I got to write about it. Luckily, I’d lost most of the naive political idealism of youth so I as a journalist could do what journalists are supposed to do. To try report on life and its mysteries as best one can from an unbiased point of view. While seated on a fence.
The newspaper industry has its roots in letters merchants wrote in the early 1600s from their base somewhere far away, to partners and investors in their home countries. These letter spoke of political intrigue, of business opportunities and anything else relevant to the economical elite to base its decisions on.
In the course of centuries, newspapers increasingly became a source of entertainment more than news; in many cases going as far as adjusting the basics of that news so reading it would be entertaining. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
And that is what journalists know how to do like few others: to wrap into a story the facts of life in such a way that it can be comprehended, and the reading of it might even be enjoyable. Of course, I am biased, but the best non-fiction writing I have read so far has almost always been done by a journalist. Jeff Warren for example, in his marvelous work on consciousness: “Head Trip”. Or otherwise: “28 stories of AIDS” (which definitely is not my favorite, at all, by the way). Otherwise look at the works by Jonny Steinberg.
And, best of all, the master of non-fiction writing: Ryszard Kapuscinski.
What started almost 400 years ago seems to be dying, and is heading to a coffin. Foreign correspondents and their trade are no longer needed. There are any factors which, collectively, have brought this on: the demise of print media, the superfast ways of Internet and related social media, a worldwide epidemic of ADD (according to neuroscientist Richard Restak), and so forth.
Oxford University and Reuters published a report recently which announced the terminal state of foreign news reporting. Apart from all those former) colleagues having to find alternative ways of paying the bills (like I have had to), I wonder what other ‘health’ effects it will have on the health of global insight and IQ.
Sure, all the nitty-gritty facts of life on the outskirts of the planet will make it through: your terrorist attack, your tsunami, your collapse of the financial sector. The thing is: although those facts are crucial, they’re not enough. Why not? Because they turn ‘current events’ into nothing more or less than stats – impersonal, distant, cold.
Empathy doesn’t come from stats. Empathy comes from stories about real life individuals. Jotted down by other real life individuals. To be read by real life individuals.
Without that empathy the world will never ever become a better place.
Foreign correspondents pump oxygen into the bloodstream of life on earth. Through the stories they tell.
When the stories fade away, it becomes scarily quiet.