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Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting by John Maxwell Hamilton

Posted By Peter Bridges On September 16, 2009 @ 9:45 am In History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Russia | No Comments

Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
by John Maxwell Hamilton
Louisiana State University Press, 672 pp.
CLR Rating:

The Important Role of Foreign Correspondents

Foreign Service officers pride themselves that they and not the 82nd Airborne Division are really America’s first line of defense. It is, after all, our diplomats who are called on to impress on foreign governments American aims and policies, intermixed with the more or less subtle message that others fool with us at their peril. It is our diplomats who draw on their broad contacts in foreign governments and societies, to report to Washington on incipient problems and perils for us abroad—problems and perils which, if we cannot or will not deal with them through diplomacy, may lead Washington to send in the 82nd. (One should not denigrate the vital role of the CIA; but it is Foreign Service reporting that supplies most of the information needed for our conduct of foreign relations.)

Our journalists abroad have a perhaps still greater task than do our diplomats or spies. If American democracy and American government are to function well, they must do so on the basis of an informed public. If our people cannot comprehend at least in a general way what is going on in the world, they may not support vital actions abroad by our government.

It is the corps of American foreign correspondents, more than any others, who have throughout the history of our republic had the main job of telling Americans what they need to know about events abroad. And it is John Maxwell Hamilton, a university dean with long experience as both a journalist and a public servant, who now provides us this well researched and well written history of America’s news from abroad, beginning with Benjamin Franklin and ending with a hopeful statement. Today, says Hamilton, although newspapers and journals are cutting their staffs of reporters and the electronic media are taking over, “…the basis for high-quality reporting about the world is not over….The new species of correspondents emerging from the bog of history can serve us well, and maybe even better.”

This book is good reading throughout, and no wonder. It provides portraits of a wide range of interesting American characters, many of them brave and intrepid, a few of them dishonest or traitorous, and some plain brilliant. My favorite among them has long been Richard Harding Davis, who roamed the world for two decades, reporting on wars from Cuba through Asia and South Africa to Europe, until he died at only 51 in 1916.

Davis was a flamboyant fellow who, Hamilton says, “complemented his square-jawed manliness with specially tailored uniforms.” He complemented his reporting with many works of fiction based on his own adventurous life. Davis was also a brave man, who in World War I stood up to the German soldiers who had apprehended him and accused him of being a spy. President Theodore Roosevelt said of Davis, whom he first met when Davis joined Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba (and I wish Hamilton had quoted this), that “He was as good an American as ever lived, and his heart flamed against cruelty and injustice.”

For readers who have lived, worked or anyway traveled abroad it is interesting to read in Hamilton how much the world used to weigh in the American press. In 1705, the author says, news from abroad made up more than four-fifths of the Boston News-Letter. This percentage dropped steadily in our papers over the next three centuries, and it is still dropping. As long ago as 1969 C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times was warning aspiring young foreign correspondents that “It is like becoming a blacksmith in 1919—still an honorable and skilled profession; but the horse is doomed.”

Unfortunately, as Hamilton tells us, even in the decades when foreign correspondents were numerous and most of them reported honestly what they saw and learned abroad, what their papers printed was sometimes biased. Robert McCormick, longtime proprietor of the Chicago Tribune, provides a prime example. As Hamilton says, “McCormick had his suits made on Savile Row and yet was an avowed Anglophobe.” This reviewer remembers well the anti-British tone of the Tribune in the years before World War II, when the paper was not above warning its readers that we might see a repeat of the War of 1812, and a British invasion from Canada. McCormick was not just a man in a Savile Row suit; he delivered a sort of (often anti-British) sermon weekly over the Tribune’s radio station, WGN, and he did so with a pronounced British accent. He had attended an English public school, where his fellow students mocked him for his uncouth American accent—until he got rid of it.

Not all of the foreign correspondents for American papers were themselves American. Karl Marx contributed almost five hundred articles on the European scene to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune during the years between 1852 and 1861. This was after Marx had published the Communist Manifesto and was working on Das Kapital; but his reportage for Greeley, though left-leaning, looks to a modern reader relatively objective.

Greeley also employed America’s first female foreign correspondent, Margaret Fuller, who reported from Rome when the new Roman Republic was destroyed by French troops in 1849, and who died the next year when the ship bringing her back to America went aground off Fire Island.

Still more famous, in the Victorian age, was Henry Morton Stanley, a poor boy from Wales who made his name working for James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Stanley’s greatest feat was locating, in an African village in 1871, the Scottish explorer David Livingstone who had been given up for dead. Stanley returned subsequently to Africa on several equally difficult expeditions.

Some of Hamilton’s characters were more entertainer than reporter. One of these was Richard Halliburton, little remembered now although his books of adventure were at the top of best-seller lists in the late 1920s. Halliburton climbed the Matterhorn and Mount Olympus and Popocatepetl, swam across the Hellespont and the Sea of Galilee and through the Panama Canal, and vanished in 1939 while trying to sail an unseaworthy junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

Russia has provided a subject and an object of inquiry for a long string of American journalists and writers. The first George Kennan—an elder cousin of the distinguished American ambassador with the same name—was famous in America and denounced in Russia for his blunt 1891 work on the Tsars’ horrendous Siberian prisons. After the Bolshevik revolution a number of American journalists went to report on the Land of the Soviets. One of these was Walter Duranty, who first went to the Soviet Union in 1921 for the New York Times and whose reporting a decade later painted a positive picture of Stalinism—and won him a Pulitzer Prize, which was nearly revoked several years ago.

Hamilton inexplicably ignores a worse case, that of Edmund Stevens. This was a young American who went to Moscow and spent four decades there as a reporter. Stevens, too, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, in 1950, for a series of articles in which, like Duranty, he painted a pretty picture of Stalin’s gory dictatorship. Unlike Duranty’s case, there has been no move to revoke Stevens’ Pulitzer although Stevens may have been reporting at the direction of the Soviet authorities. (Stevens is identified as having been a member of the American Communist Party in The Secret World of American Communism, based on documents from Soviet archives and published by Yale University Press in 1996.)

One of the best features of this book is the author’s inclusion of some long passages of foreign reporting (and a few cartoons), from the Mexican War through the Civil War to a report from Harrison Salisbury in Hanoi when the city was being hard hit by American bombers. One of the puzzling things about the book is how little attention Hamilton gives to today’s burning question of how objective American media are in reporting the continuing crisis involving Israel, Arab states, and Iran. Altogether, the book is despite some imperfections an extremely valuable, and interesting history of a small but key force of Americans.


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