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What Hard News Misses

50 Years of Foreign Reporting from the NYRB

Reg Lancaster/Getty Images

Lamentations of the purported downfall of international news coverage have been plentiful in recent years, as American newspapers have slashed budgets and scaled back their global presence. The New York Times’ Bill Keller wrote about this phenomenon last December, touting the importance of full-time foreign correspondents over “reporters or anchors who parachute in when there’s a crisis.” But arguments like these often only tell part of the story, focusing on hard-news reporting more than longer-term analyses. This is where publications like The New York Review of Books (and, indeed, The New Republic) come in, publishing the kind of work collected in the forthcoming The New York Review Abroad: Fifty Years of International Reportage, edited by the magazine’s editor Robert B. Silvers with commentary by Ian Buruma.1

The book is made up of a broad slate of foreign stories published by the magazine at critical junctures in history (for the most part). While the journal is not primarily known for its international work, it has long published reports from abroad: The first story in The New York Review Abroad is a 1968 dispatch from Vietnam written by Mary McCarthy. Twenty-six distinct reports from the Review’s archives follow, arranged chronologically. No central theme ties them together. While some of the pieces read like traditional newsmagazine articles, others focus on atmospheres and scene-setting. Still others are personal remembrances or surveys of scientific exploration. Meanwhile, the table of contents includes authors like Joan Didion, V.S. Naipaul, and Susan Sontag. The diversity can make for an occasionally disjointed feeling, but this ultimately fails to detract from the content itself.

The diversity of the coverage in fact serves as a useful reminder of the importance of long-view international coverage.2 The collection’s second piece, Stephen Spender’s haunting article about the Paris student uprising of 1968, contains the book’s most compelling articulation of its own merits: “Journalism inevitably falsifies by concentrating on the scene and the subject, in a situation where what is most significant may be not the scene and not the subject.” Rather than the “first rough draft of history,” these stories are first-draft historical analyses. There is little indication that the rest of the stories are similarly conscious of their role, but Silvers’s selections each recall the historical necessity of reflection beyond hard news coverage. The articles do not approach the realm of abstract philosophy or qualify as traditional event coverage. But each struck a balance that must have enhanced readers’ understanding when they were published. The importance of contemporary news analysis is hardly controversial, but this entertaining collection makes it compellingly clear.

Of particular note are Spender’s Paris story, Caroline Blackwood’s meditations on Liverpool’s gravediggers strike in 1979, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s portrayal of his adventures in Nigeria published in 1986, Timothy Garton Ash’s overwhelming 1990 essay on his time in Václav Havel’s Prague, Amos Elon’s 1993 dispatch from conflicted Kaliningrad, Tim Judah’s take on the state of Afghanistan in late 2001, and Mischa Berlinski’s evaluation of Haitian culture, published just last year. These stories have aged well—few are strictly “reportage,” but each illuminates aspects of the relevant time or place that might be lost to the researcher who only searches newspaper coverage.

These pieces also have the distinct advantage of not being hamstrung by the rules of newspaper-enforced objectivity. This is perhaps best exemplified by Kapuscinski’s story. Without declaring allegiance to any party in the ongoing Nigerian conflict, the author thrusts himself into the story, deciding to drive “along a road where they say no white man can come back alive.” The story, describing how Kapuscinski metaphorically “got close to a lion so that I would know how it feels,” depicts the on-the-ground experience more clearly than any hard-news article could. The article also helpfully reminds the reader that some of the most evocative and surprising international reportage comes from places and events that aren’t immediately identified as the most globally notable of the last half-century (like Elizabeth Hardwick in Brazil in 1974 or Rosemary Dinnage on Indian mental health in 1981).

The various articles rarely pontificate, though quite a few of them are laden with lessons.3 They contain plenty of political argumentation, which the Review plainly sees as a crucial type of analysis, even when such discussion is not their central aim. As such, readers are consistently shown that this collection of “international reportage” is much more than simply traditional reporting, and that political or cultural analysis need not follow any specific rubric. They also see an advocacy of engagement with far-away issues. By not hesitating to opine—at times passionately—about events thousands of miles from the Review’s New York headquarters, the collection promotes global awareness and, occasionally, action.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of this book is the story distribution; the 27 articles are clustered in bunches over the last 50 years. (Three were published in 1984 and ten since 2001.) The book does not aim to cover every important international event of the last half-century, but without any explanation for the distribution, the reader is left with the impression that the editor thinks the events of the last 15 years (12 stories) merit more coverage than those of the 1960s and ’70s (six stories). Furthermore, some of the stories feel more deserving of inclusion than others. The book weighs in at over 500 pages, and it would not be terribly harmed by the elimination of one or two of the pieces that are not quite “reportage”—Jerzy Popieluzsko’s 1984 personal statement and the transcript of a radio interview between Natalya Viktorovna Hesse and Vladimir Tolz in that same year come to mind.

The book, then, hardly advances the current hand wringing about the state of international news. But this was never its goal. It instead succeeds in expanding the debate to include its own type of coverage, in an engaging and enjoyable tour of the last fifty years. True to its component pieces, the collection isn’t critical to understanding these years—but it helps.

  1. The collection comes as the Review celebrates its fiftieth anniversary—an achievement thus far marked by a much-heralded February celebration and by Martin Scorcese’s cameras.

  2. Despite the ostensible purview of the magazine, the collection contains very few actual book reviews (or stories mentioning specific books).

  3. Most often liberal ones, consistent with NYRB’s tradition.