John Pomfret Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Covering Human Rights: Conversation with John Pomfret, Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post; 11/18/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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The Foreign Beat

Before we get you to China, reflecting back on this experience, what is the difference between domestic reporting and foreign? Is there less of a dynamic? Is it a more static situation? Is the reporting easier?

In some ways the domestic reporting is a lot easier because Americans will talk to you about anything. They all have an opinion about something and generally they're willing to talk to the press. Lately newspapers, I guess, and the media, have been seen to be a bit, on the social scale, down with cockroaches. But when I was starting we were still relatively respected, and still there are some people who do respect the press, and so people will talk. Working overseas is more difficult in that it's much more complicated to get people to open their hearts to you and to tell you information. Not many other cultures have a culture like we do in the States where openness is considered a bonus, a good value to posses. So it is more difficult.

On the other hand, the scrutiny that local coverage comes under in America is much higher than foreign coverage. So in some ways foreign coverage can be irresponsible and get away with it. For example, if I am an obituary writer for a local paper and I make a mistake in the obituary of a local dignitary, someone is immediately going to call up the paper and it's a problem, because these people are going to put these things in their Bible. Whereas with foreign coverage there's a much broader disconnect between you and your audience.

That's something that must influence you, because in a way you're writing for an international group or for the audience in the country that sent you to where ever you are.

Yeah. I think for a young reporter it's liberating, but it's not a good situation to confront. I think that it's one of the reasons to suggest that for people to be sent overseas there should be a lot of training in teaching responsible practices; in teaching people to realize that what they write can have great deal of influence on things, specifically on government policy, and as a result they should be that much more careful about what they do.

And also sensitivities to the differences in the culture and the society that you're reporting on, differences from your situation back home and differences with other foreign societies?

A lot of times when we work overseas we tend to put the experience of someone who lives overseas, a Chinese person or a Korean person or a Bosnian person, within the prism of an American life. And things are not the same. I think some of the best reporters are the ones who can really illustrate the differences between societies, at the same time trying to connect the fact that there are a lot of shared values in addition to those differences.

Let's compare these two experiences, the domestic one and the foreign one. The facts are what you're after first, right? Digging out the story? If you're in a foreign setting, how do you prepare yourself? Your first assignment was China once you went abroad, so in a way you were prepped because you actually studied the language and presumably had taken courses on China.

Right. But the difference is that in an overseas assignment there is an emphasis on the facts but there's also a much greater emphasis on interpretation. You have to be reflective and you have to interpret what things mean. And you do have to do a lot of analysis, without inserting too much of your opinion into the piece, but analysis of what this means. Why should an American in Dubuque care what goes on in Beijing? Whereas, if you're writing about something in Dubuque, that's a natural. They should care because it's their own city and they naturally most probably will. So that is an important process to learn how to communicate to the reader.

But in a way, aren't you in a bind because your market is the American in Washington D.C. or Dubuque or Dallas, or wherever, and, thinking about that market, is there not a danger that you will put an overlay on what you're encountering in a particular setting, say China or Bosnia? I mean, perhaps the people back home want to hear about the democracy movement in China, but in fact maybe it isn't a democracy movement, as you suggested earlier in your talk.

Yes, that's really a good point. One of the problems that we have as American journalists is that we bring the American cultural baggage with us and we plop it down and it follows us around and that's just a fact of life. The things that we have to go through to try to get away from that problem! For example, the pro-democracy movement in China. That's what it's called, but I think that's a bad moniker for the movement because what the students were asking for is something a lot smaller than democracy in China. They were asking for the freedom to have a student union that was outside of the control of the Communist Party. They were asking for less corruption. They were asking for lower inflation. Those are specific policies. Yes, at a certain point one can say that democracy is at the end of their rainbow. On the other hand, to say that it's a "pro-democracy movement" puts them in the category of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin. The drums begin to roll and you start to look at these Chinese demonstrators as if they are Americans. And that, I think, is dangerous because if you don't recognize the fact that the cultures are different. I think it is an impediment to real understanding that these people do have a different view of the universe than we do and do hold different things dear to their hearts than we do. And unless we can understand that, we then won't be able to understand the country. And that's going to be a great problem in pursuing future U.S. - China relations, for example.

Next page: Covering China

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