MORT UNPLUGGED: Eyeless in Gaza, Ghazni and Everywhere Else
By Mort Rosenblum

November 10, 2009

PARIS - For 2,500 years, people have shuddered at that tragic scene when Oedipus Rex puts out his own eyes. Today in America, we are doing the same to ourselves.

We have already decimated the ranks of reporters we need to see beyond our borders. Now the Chicago Tribune, which once championed foreign news, threatens what remains.

The Tribune chain, including the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, is shunning Associated Press for a week to try living without it. (Not sports, which are too vital.)

Editors can likely scrounge up enough to pretend to "cover" the world for a week, just as most people can go seven days without calling firemen, police, or a doctor.

But as the norm? Imagine a nation with a $600 billion defense budget, 30 big-league baseball teams, 45 sizeable brands of beer, and no comprehensive global news agency.

We're headed that way. Fifteen percent of AP's cooperative members have rebelled against rates, forcing cuts that translate into reduced coverage.

With climatic chaos, hatred fed by widening disparity, and unstoppable wars, it is time to remember Jonathan Swift: There is none so blind as he who will not see.

As an AP correspondent for most of 40 years, I know the old strengths and the impact of recent changes. We desperately need what AP is supposed to be.

GlobalPost, an admirable Web-based agency for which I now write, is coming up fast. For now, its operating budget still falls two zeros short of AP's.

Britain's Reuters, once a cooperative, is now a dog wagged by a large corporate tail. Though excellent on occasion, it is not enough.

Like the A&P, AP was a supermarket with roots going back a century and a half. It wholesaled news, dramatic breaking stuff but also vital staples we cannot do without.

Its past strength lay in the training of reporters it sent abroad, its travel budget, and its solid bureaus. AP spotted developing stories before they flared into crisis.

New managers have diluted much of this strength. Yet AP still fields a worldwide force of reporters, many of them skilled and courageous. That costs a lot.

Today many of the cooperative's 1,500 newspaper members, like the Tribune Co., are reluctant to pony up their share. Meantime, freeloaders plunder AP's product.

If shoppers piled T-bones and canned corn into their carts and neglected to stop at the checkout counter, A&P would have a problem. Likewise with AP.

The new management is policing for theft, but that is an uphill battle.

I just spoke with a guy who aggregates news. His site, like others, offers for free hard-won stories from AP and newspapers. After trashing the corporate mainstream, he declared that the age of paying for news was over.

There is much to trash about the mainstream. But what happens when this rampant shoplifting empties the shelves?

Even if AP were flush with cash, one supplier is not nearly enough. We need multiple news organizations abroad to fiercely compete but also cooperate to demand access.

Governments everywhere try to manage news. India, for instance, appeased China by banning reporters from a visit by the Dalai Lama. This is the world's largest democracy, with a free-press tradition. Did anyone protest?

A mix of competition and cooperation keeps everyone alert, poking into corners that are now too often ignored.

We hear a lot about bombs but little about who is quietly making them, and why. As budgets shrink, we miss those crucial stories that help us react in time.

More reporters in Baghdad or Kabul during the 1990s, or in Geneva to cover climate-change warnings in the 1980s, could have spared the world a great deal of grief.

Not-yet-big news is out there in Latin America and Africa, Europe and Asia, Oceania and Antarctica. Someone has to pay for people to cover it.

New technologies take us to breaking news in real time. Anyone with a cell phone and thumbs can be a foreign correspondent.

Yet snippets from passersby do not add up to coverage. Without a broader backdrop, or a way to assess credibility, they mislead as much as they inform.

This demand for free news comes as Wall Street and private capital take over "media properties" once run by families with a sense of public service.

Managers calculate words-per-dollar ratios like they cost out the unit price for fenders on a Ford assembly line. "News" is like foam insulation to spray around ads.

Corners are easily cut. Beginners work cheap. Runners and gunners do it for the thrill. Some burnt-out cases take what they can get to pay the mortgage.

But we need professionals who make a living wage, with expense accounts to get them close to stories.

Many correspondents, committed to a vital craft, are willing to cut family budgets to the limit so long as their kids are fed and shod. Yet we are losing them fast.

Reporting abroad is difficult and dangerous. People who do it need alternating current. Without return energy from editors who have been there, their batteries run down.

As their ranks diminish, reporters cover more territory with fewer resources. They spend newsgathering time on company blogs and Web feeds. This saps the spirit.

A few years ago, I titled a book, Escaping Plato's Cave, evoking that simile of people chained to a cave wall watching the world outside as distorted fleeting shadows.

Since then, in spite of all that is happening in a perilous world, we have shut our eyes more tightly.

If we don't reverse these trends now, a new generation cannot know what reporting is supposed to be. And we will be left trying to make sense of meaningless shadows. We urgently need:

--Citizens who understand that real news can come only at a cost and who know complex events require sophisticated explanation by professionals who witness them.

--Journalism schools that teach students to ferret out truth, to explain others' cultures, to adhere to ethics. Public relations and advertising are separate disciplines.

AP needs to refocus on its basic mission. It does well on high-impact domestic stories. It lavishes resources on entertainment and celebrities. But it is uneven abroad.

Between budget cuts and a new editorial approach, it misses too many DBI (dull but important) stories that presage calamity. And, often, no one else reports them.

The Tribune Co. and the others can get by for a while without kicking in for real global coverage. In the end, however, we will all pay more than we can imagine.