April 6, 2006

The Jill Carroll/Jordan Times Connection: It's Worse Than Her Critics Imagine

The Jordan Times may indeed be an anti-Semitic and anti-American rag. Aren't most papers in the Middle East? But Jill Carroll shouldn’t necessarily be judged harshly for working there. She was doing what most would-be foreign correspondents do these days – using a job at a foreign English-language paper as a springboard into Big Time journalism. Indeed, lots of foreign reporting you read in major papers like The New York Times is not, in fact, always written by veteran staff reporters – it's written by young expat journalists like Carroll, working at foreign English-language papers. Don’t believe me? Read on…

By David Paulin
Austin, Texas -- Jill Carroll may or may not be guilty of the poisonous anti-Americanism that some bloggers accuse her of harboring. Certainly blogger Debbie Schlussel has been raising troubling questions about Carroll.

Like many folks I'm withholding my judgment for the time being. But in respect to one of Schlussel's accusations - that Carroll should be judged harshly for having worked at an "anti-Semitic" and "anti-American" rag like The Jordan Times - I give Carroll a pass for the moment.

The reason, though, is probably worse than anything Schlussel imagines: Carroll’s sojourn to Baghdad, via The Jordan Times, has in fact become an accepted career path in recent years for would-be foreign correspondents: those with no hope of getting a foot in the door at a news service or big-time paper, one that might eventually send them abroad.

And there’s one reason for this: profits. Once upon a time, top U.S. newspapers had lots of foreign news bureaus all over the world; and they didn’t rely on freelancers like Carroll to the extent they do today. Rather, they sent their best reporters to work in them – once those reporters, of course, had proved their mettle at home. Over the past couple of decades, however, most of those overseas bureaus have disappeared - thanks to an ongoing quest to maintain profits amid declining readership and advertising revenues.

The upshot: Papers increasingly rely on freelancers and “contract” reporters; and the way that many people get those jobs is to do what Carroll did: They go abroad and work at an English-language newspaper, get their feet wet, and then start freelancing. In the capitals of most non-English speaking countries, there’s usually one English-language paper. Whether it’s the Mexico City News, Prague Post, Caracas Daily Journal…or The Jordan Times.

Papers such as these attract Brits and Americans with varying levels of journalism skills, all with the hope of leveraging their experience into a big-time reporting gig. That’s the route Carroll took after getting laid off from The Wall Street Journal, where she’d worked as a reporting assistant.

By her own account, Carroll always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. She figured that war in Iraq was inevitable; and wanting to have a piece of that action, she got a job at The Jordan Times, a stepping stone on the way to Baghdad.

Carroll learned a bit of Arabic, did some freelance reporting on the side and, basically, positioned herself for her eventual relocation to Iraq where reporters – including many freelance reporters – would be in demand. And like most freelance foreign correspondents, Carroll presumably hoped her freelancework would eventually lead to a full-time staff position. Nobody, after all, likes the irregular pay and lack of benefits that go hand in hand with freelance journalism.

Perhaps Carroll shared The Jordan Times' toxic political views; perhaps she played along with them or looked the other way (the same as many reporters do at papers all over the world, so long as they feel that their own work is not compromised and retains enough integrity to enable them to live with themselves).

I can identify with Carroll because I took the same career path she did in the mid-1990s: I was in my mid-thirties, with 10-plus years of journalism experience, but my career was in a giant stall. So I headed to Caracas, Venezuela, and landed a job at The Daily Journal, an English-language paper. In the past, the paper had served as a springboard for many young journalists -- mainly young Americans and Brits just a few years out of college; and usually with limited journalism experience but with talent and pluck.

Did I mention my salary at The Daily Journal? Strictly local wages: $330 a month. (Yes, a month.) But once I knew my way around, understood the culture, and spoke enough Spanish to get by, I quickly started freelancing on the side for some major regional papers in the U.S.

Within a few years, my freelance work was generating a decent U.S.-level salary. I moved to one of the best sections of Caracas and contemplated how to make the jump to a big-time staff position in the states. There are lots of reporters in Caracas today just like Carroll: green, ambitions, and freelancing for major papers – all while working for The Daily Journal.

Just for fun, next time you see a Caracas dateline with an unfamiliar byline in the venerable New York Times, Google the name: You might just find that the reporter is not in fact a venerable ‘Timesman’ drawing on years of experience to cover one of Latin America’s hotspot: He’s a Daily Journal reporter who is freelancing on the side for the Gray Lady.

Not long ago, I saw an interesting story in The New York Times out of Prague. Curious about the reporter, I Googled his name. Sure enough, he worked at the Prague Post, a daily newspaper.

Call it Big Media’s bait and switch: The New York Times and a slew of other news outlets (Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Cox News Service, San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, The Washington Times, etc.) all pretend the freelancers they’re using are staff writers. In fact, many of those freelancers probably lack enough job experience, fancy education, contacts, or whatever, to even get a job interview at those elite papers (assuming those papers are even hiring, which they probably aren’t).

Jill Carroll, to be sure, was on the green side herself. She was in the process of proving herself at The Wall Street Journal in her reporting assistant job. Once Carroll was in Iraq, however, papers eager for coverage they could call their own suddenly could care less about having a veteran reporter covering the biggest story since the end of the Cold War.

Jill Carroll’s experience was good enough. In addition to reporting, incidentally, many of the young reporters at English-language papers work as“fixers;” that’s journalistic lingo for news assistant. And despite their limited experience, they can, as fixers, play major roles in shaping stories while in the service of big-time staff reporters. They may decide who to interview for a story, set up interviews, and perhaps they’ll even do the interviews. In a sense, these young reporters are the weakest link in the news gathering process - yet another scam in Big Media that I recently wrote about for Editor & Publisher.

Did I mention how a few major newspapers identified me when I freelanced for them? Writing for the Boston Globe, I was a “Globe Correspondent.” At the San Francisco Chronicle, it was David Paulin/Chronicle Foreign Service. The Dallas Morning News, I should note, was one of the few papers for which I wrote that, at the end of my stories, identified me for what I was: “a freelance journalist based in Caracas.”

Fortunately for Carroll, The Christian Science Monitor hired her one week after she was kidnapped -- an interesting turn of events that was announced a few days ago. However, one has to wonder if Carroll would have been kidnapped in the first place had she been a staff reporter all along -- enjoying the support and protection that’s available to staff reporters but that’s not generally available to freelancers.

As for her murdered translator, Allan Enwiyah, it’s probable he would have died no matter what Carroll’s employment status. After all, Iraqi news assistants, reporters, and translators are doing most of the dying in Iraq, a fact made clear in statistics provided here by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Welcome to Big Media's approach to foreign reporting.


Jeremayakovka said...

Quite a style, David. It may just be you shooting from the hip, but it reads like a kind of pitiless pity looking into the costs, the delusions, the commitments (honorable and less honorable) of getting to the news and the truth in Iraq.

David Paulin said...

Hi Jeremiah,
Thanks for those comments. We can all be thankful for the blogesphere. Without it, this war could be lost at home -- as was the case in Vietnam. See you later over at Seraphic Secret.