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A History of American Foreign Reporting

Review by Michael Canning

John Maxwell Hamilton, Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting, Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press, 2009, ISBN13: 978-0-8071-3474-0, 680 pp.  $45.00

Journalism’s Roving Eye is subtitled “A History of American Foreign Reporting,” and it proves an ambitious effort in a surprisingly little plowed field.  The history of what the author John Maxwell Hamilton also calls “foreign correspondence”, i.e., U.S. media’s coverage involving overseas reporters, is a thin one, with only three broad historical surveys before Hamilton’s effort, and none of them as comprehensive.

His study is basically chronological, beginning with the earliest such reporting in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when stories on foreign events were merely reprints from European journals. Things speeded up a bit when the New York Herald sent a reporter to ride out to meet boats coming in from Europe to gain the latest scuttlebutt. The first American war correspondent was likely with the New Orleans Picayune covering the Mexican War in situ, and, after the laying of the first transatlantic cable in 1858, the first permanently based overseas bureau chief (in London) was George Washburn Smalley for the New York Tribune.

The real breakthrough for American overseas coverage comes with war, in this instance the Spanish American War, when major outlets began to seriously compete with on-the-ground reporting.  A surprise for this reader comes from learning of the significance of Chicago newspapers in this sphere, especially the Chicago Daily News, whose owner, Victor Lawson, “virtually invented the ideal of high-quality American newspaper foreign services.” Lawson was seen as having the best foreign news coverage in the world, an expertise amplified by the First World War.  He eventually had a sturdy rival, too, in the Chicago Tribune, which competed with the Daily News for scoops and talent.

Hamilton highlights the period between the World Wars, calling this the “Golden Age” of the foreign correspondent.  Contributing to this Golden Age was the fact that the United States had not been drawn directly into the great conflicts of the period and was still seen as mainly a benign presence.  In addition, there were urgent and grand issues at stake at the time and—not least—a very strong dollar that allowed media outlets to cover costs for expensive foreign assignments.

The core of Journalism’s Roving Eye is a parade of mini-biographies of illustrious Golden Age types, those “roving knights of the pencil.”  They include Vincent Sheean of the Chicago Tribune, who produced a best seller of his journalistic exploits in Personal History, a lively life that was paraphrased by Hollywood in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent.  Another important Chicago figure was Paul Scott Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for “correspondence” (in 1929).

There was Dorothy Thompson of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, kicked out of Hitler’s Berlin in 1934 after her commentaries cut too close to the Nazi bone. The book includes, in fact, a fascinating excerpt of a withering assessment by Thompson of Hitler during a late 1931 interview, where she describes a man of “startling insignificance.” John Gunther, who started as a foreign correspondent, is also featured, though his foreign beat reporting disappeared as his fame grew through his series of  “Inside” books covering the globe and its leaders.

The famous China hand Edgar Snow, a special interest of the author, gets his own chapter, and another highlights Richard Halliburton, the globetrotting, breathless adventurer who offered vicarious visions of the world well before large-scale tourism.  A personal aside: as a young man, I devoured all Halliburton’s adventure books, which introduced me to the wonders of Peru and Tibet and everything in between.  Who knows, those adventure yarns may have self-consciously driven me into the Foreign Service life.

One important, but largely forgotten figure that Hamilton resuscitates is Jack Belden, one of the very best war correspondents and a man with a “dark attraction to battle.”  Writing mainly for Time magazine during WWII, Belden captured the war in both theaters while only in his thirties, but he ended up a burnt-out case in Paris.  Hamilton also honors the legendary Edward R. Murrow (naming him “the Tennyson of the ether”) by narrating the story of the famous CBS World War II London Bureau—and Ed Murrow’s and “Murrow’s Boys” roles in it. The team that Murrow molded (people of a certain age will remember many of the cadre) allowed CBS to emerge from the war as the premier broadcast news organization and gave the network news caché for decades.

Besides the intriguing biographic material on prominent correspondents, Hamilton treats a series of other related subjects.  The black American press merits a chapter, and he also contributes an amusing section on “dossing down,” the British expression for bedding down in a convenient place.  Dossing down here means, of course, the phenomenon of foreign correspondents crashing at the same place on assignment—often a luxury hotel with bar—to trade gossip, anecdotes, and often, support for each other.

Though mainly anecdotal, Journalism’s Roving Eye does offer some analysis of its subject.  Some useful tables are included, especially those showing the relative amount of journalistic coverage of foreign affairs. Hamilton cites early on “Woodward’s Law for Foreign News” (after professor Julian Woodward’s landmark study of 1927) that foreign news coverage in American media will remain at a low level—probably under 5 to 6 percent–except when the country is at war.  Coverage beyond that modest amount does not pay for itself in terms of circulation, Woodward concluded.  Content studies since have confirmed that, with our country at peace, the news hole for foreign coverage usually does not top 5 percent.

Other ways foreign news can become salient is when stories find an equivalent to war’s drama—the “if it bleeds, it leads” journalistic tenet, or stories wherein foreign events impinge on Main Street, the kind that carry the headline: “MILITARY COUP MARS COUPLE’S HONEYMOON.”  This general American aversion to foreign news is thus an enduring and consistent phenomenon, one not likely to change, no matter how much globalization there is, and Hamilton’s highlighting the long-term trend provides a useful reminder of how steadily provincial we are.

Informative and entertaining as Journalism’s Roving Eye is, for me, there were curious ellipses in the book concerning more recent trends and personalities in foreign correspondence.  Though Hamilton discusses some issues up to the current day, his full historical accounts effectively stop with the Vietnam War.  There is little or no extended coverage of what American foreign correspondents have been up to for the last 45 years, the period through which most of his readers will have lived or experienced as adults.  The glorious, storied past seems to be what he is most interested in (it may be more the historian than the journalist in him).  As a typical example of this short shrift given to the contemporary, I cite his chapter that covers radio and TV foreign correspondents, which rightly highlights Murrow and his career yet gives the period after Murrow very little space except for meager anecdotes.

For readers of American Diplomacy who are or were Foreign Service officers and especially those who thought their work as information or press officers advanced or aided foreign correspondents, there is no need to scout for your names in the index. The State Department is barely mentioned in its ample pages; the United States Information Agency even less so.  The interaction—however important–of overseas correspondent and press attaché is not a story that is told here.

No one can say that Hamilton, a one-time journalist and government staffer who is now a professor at Louisiana State University, has not done his homework.  The book—a tome that weighs in at three pounds—offers more than a thousand footnotes and contains 136 pages of notes and source materials, including research at more than three-dozen sites of collected papers and archives.  Impressive though this research is, however, I wish it had been organized differently.  He lists all of his footnotes at the end of the book in one massive list by chapter and page number, but uses no numbers to identify them in the text, which requires the reader to scout through cited lines on each page to find the citation information–a hard slough which will discourage readers quickly.End.

Michael Canning was a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) for 28 years in eight overseas posts on four continents, with a particular geographic concentration in Latin America. He also held several senior USIA positions in Washington and graduated from the State Department’s Senior Seminar.  In retirement, he has been a public affairs consultant for the Department of State and a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute. Canning is a board member of the Public Diplomacy Council and has served as president of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association. He also writes movie reviews for a Capitol Hill newspaper and freelances on politics, international affairs, and film.


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