Foreign correspondents keep an eye on the world

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If a hero has a thousand faces, there’s usually one who becomes a favorite. It could be Ulysses or Huck Finn, Joan of Arc or Nancy Drew. Mine is William Boot.

Boot is found in Evelyn Waugh’s minor comic novel “Scoop.” He is a gardening writer who wants nothing more than to pen homey columns from the ramshackle manse that he and his eccentric family inhabit far from London. He specializes in overwrought prose such as: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” Through a case of mistaken identity, Boot’s editors dispatch him to a country called Ishmaelia, where – after many adventures and hilarious encounters – he blunders into a scoop.

The novel is too dated (1938) and nichey to be of enduring popularity, but generations of foreign correspondents have chortled at the truths they see in its outrageous characters and plot twists.

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Foreign correspondents witness amazing and awful things – revolutions, massacres, natural disasters. Some long to see the world. Like William, some stumble into the job. Almost all end up with a believe-it-or-not story to tell at dinner parties. Michael Kelly, who died in Iraq in 2003, had a group of Iraqi soldiers surrender to him 12 years earlier in Kuwait. Vincent Schodolski, who was with United Press International in the early 1980s, once interviewed a party propagandist in Lebanon who argued strenuously that his group was not a “Muppet” of the Israelis.

The best story I know of this kind belonged to Joseph C. Harsch, who reported for the Monitor from 1929 to 1988 and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

In early December 1941, he and his wife, Anne, stopped in Hawaii for a working vacation. As the only nonlocal correspondent on the island, he easily scored an interview with the Navy commander in chief, Adm. Husband Kimmel, who assured him that war with Japan was not imminent and that Joe and Anne could relax and enjoy the island.

On Sunday morning, the Harsches awoke to what sounded like banging. They snoozed, got up, took a leisurely swim, then went to breakfast, where they suddenly learned that down the beach at Pearl Harbor had dawned a day that would live in infamy.

Joe had been in London two years earlier when war was declared, in Berlin during the Battle of Britain, in Java as the Japanese closed in. His right-placedness continued to the very last days of the war when he and an Army captain discovered and arrested Nazi architect Albert Speer in a small town in Germany.

Foreign correspondents work hard to develop sources and gain access to remote places where they are often unwelcome guests. Several dozen a year are killed or kidnapped.

As John Maxwell Hamilton notes in his excellent new history of foreign correspondents (“Journalism’s Roving Eye”): “All the problems of journalism are magnified in foreign news-gathering. For owners of media, this is the most expensive reporting. For editors, it is the most difficult to second-guess.... For journalists, it is the most demanding.”

Professor Hamilton, who reported for the Monitor in the 1980s and is dean of the school of mass communications at Louisiana State University, worries that the public has lost sight of the value of foreign reporting and that, as he recently told me, “foreign correspondents aren’t seen as the heroes they once were.”

If they were ever heroes, they were not the superpower-possessing kind. Armed with a notebook and curiosity, they do their work, as Joe Harsch put it in the title of his book, “at the hinge of history.” Sometimes they find history in the making. Sometimes, on a quiet Sunday morning, history falls into their lap.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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