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Reporter finds third-world news lurking in mid-American towns

By David R. FrancisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 1984

Jack Hamilton had for some time wanted to prove to newspaper editors in mid-America that economic and political development in the third world is a good news story in their towns. Last month he got his chance.

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Taking a temporary absence from his job as a World Bank public relations official, Mr. Hamilton recently reported for work at the American, a newspaper with a daily circulation of 25,000 in the Mississippi town of Hattiesburg.

His temporary assignment: Find the links between this Southern city of 40,000 (and its surrounding counties), and developing nations - then write about it.

Many journalists recognize the growing importance of United States ties with the world's poorer countries. But they and their editors are often afraid stories on the subject will bore their readers, Hamilton says.

They think it's like ''wrapping garbage even before it was put in print,'' as Hamilton puts it.

That seems especially true in the heartland of the US where economic ties with third-world nations are not nearly as obvious as in the nation's port cities.

Indeed, Frank Sutherland, managing editor of the American, was somewhat skeptical about Hamilton's chances for coming up with any stories of genuine interest or importance.

Now, since ex-foreign correspondent Jack (John Maxwell) Hamilton has turned in a series of five stories and photos, Mr. Sutherland admits: ''There are more connections - cultural, historical, economic, political - with the third world than anybody would guess.''

Hamilton's first story, which ran on Sunday, tells of soybean and wheat farmer Joe Morgan, who has never traveled abroad. Most of Mr. Morgan's soybeans are shipped to Asia to be made into soy sauce, even though he himself has never tasted soy sauce.

Morgan's prosperity, the article notes, depends largely on the economic and political stability of the third world. When the Soviets occupy Afghanistan and the US imposes an embargo on wheat shipments to the Soviet Union, he's hurt.

If third-world foreign debts prompt these nations to restrain imports, that hits his business too. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries boosts prices, Morgan pays more for the 28,000 gallons of diesel fuel he uses each year in his farm equipment. When population pressures prompt Panamanians to deforest the hills along the Panama Canal, low water levels make it tougher for the ships carrying his wheat or soybeans to move through the canal.

That overview article also probed the influx of about 2,300 Vietnamese to the nearby gulf coast (and a much smaller number to Hattiesburg itself) that has resulted from political turmoil in Southeast Asia.

In addition, the story reveals other local connections with the third world. A large number of medical doctors in the state, for example, received their education abroad; that the southern Mississippi Chevron refinery buys more than two-thirds of its oil from developing countries; and that Bolivian peasants, desperate for a cash crop, produce the cocaine that is part of the local drug problem.

Another of the stories focused on Mississippi companies that depend on sales and imports from developing countries. Hamilton showed that Hercules Inc., a chemical plant, used to get rosin from pine stumps in the area, but now imports the rosin from China at half the cost. A local music distributor imports guitars from South Korea. Another firm imports steel from Brazil.

Miller-Picking, a custom air-conditioner maker, in some years exports as much as 90 percent of its sales to developing countries. With these local examples, the article discusses the issue of protectionism vs. open trade.