Covering the World in the Trump Era
By Jon Emont | February 08, 2017 | Taiwan
For American foreign correspondents, it’s become a familiar refrain: It’s difficult to get stories placed in the Trump era.
Right now, Washington, DC, might just be the most exciting correspondent’s post in the world. It used to be that American readers who wanted colorful tales of deep-seated ideological clashes, winner-takes- all politics, and large-scale ineptness would be forced to turn to the international pages. But now that American democracy is at a major inflection point (or, less optimistically, has just passed a major inflection point), all the drama that a reader would once have had to find in chaotic democracies like Nigeria, Indonesia, or Israel can now be found right at home. And when there is chaos in the United States – the world’s largest economy and primary backer of the global liberal order – it matters more.
The fact that American readers, and American editors, are going to be far more concerned about what goes on at home over the next few years has implications for those of us who do journalism for American publications abroad as well as for the subjects of our writing. I recently returned from a one-month IRP reporting fellowship where I followed Indonesian migrant workers around East Asia as they sought out jobs to care for the elderly. It’s harder to pitch stories on this theme than it was a few months ago: some of the magazines that have been my mainstays for human-rights reporting on neglected groups apologetically told me that they were too focused on Trump to have the bandwidth to deal with, in this case, Indonesian migrant workers. Fair enough. What’s going on in Washington could turn out to be world-historic. Issues related to Indonesian migrant workers are important, but mainly for the workers themselves.
The reduced American interest in international news has negative implications nonetheless. Less interest in what’s happening abroad means less money supporting independent journalism abroad, which will make it even harder for foreign correspondents (especially freelancers like me) to earn our keep. Increasingly, we’ll seek to focus our reporting on issues that currently have the most resonance to American readers – topics relating to concerns over Trump’s immigration policy, for example, or to his foreign business partners.
But these stories might be less important to citizens of the countries we cover than what we usually write, and perhaps most worrying is what it means for the subjects of our reporting. In many countries without a free press – or where the press is under-resourced and oligarch-dominated – foreign correspondents feel less constrained and can paint a clearer and deeper picture of what is going on than the local press.
A recent case would be Myanmar, where recent abuses against Rohingya have been covered more thoroughly by foreign correspondents than by local media, much of which remains state-controlled. More reporting resources dedicated to the US likely means fewer reporting resources dedicated to places like Myanmar, which makes it that much easier for state institutions to commit human rights abuses. Equally, the power of the American press to influence foreign governments on stories about corruption and human rights abuses may diminish when the President of the United States, and his top aides, feel free to dismiss outlets like the New York Times as “pathetic” and spreaders of “fake news.” Foreign leaders who don’t appreciate our reporting can simply copy and paste from Trump’s speech rather than confronting the substance of the reports.
Are there any upsides to the current Trump fixation for American correspondents? It could be that the skills we have acquired abroad, ferreting out the truth in countries where the state line is often a lie, will make us very useful in Washington one day. And there are tactics to manage the challenges: one thing I plan to do is reach out to more UK and Australian publications. One of the many luxuries of being an English-speaking journalist is the option to tap into different media markets.
More optimistically, there are signs that the current attacks on the press at home have redoubled progressive Americans’ commitment to the press, leading to major jumps in subscription numbers for the Washington Post and New York Times. It’s likely both publications will re-invest that extra money in running investigations into the current administration. But it’s always possible some of that will go to paying for more good reporting abroad.