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Book Talk

From Revolutionaries to Jihadists: A Foreign Correspondent's Wild Ride

Some of the glamour may be gone, but there's still a place for old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, author says.

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Michael Yamashita’s photograph of people gathering in the morning on a beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam, accompanied Tracy Dahlby’s December 1998 National Geographic story, “South China Sea, Crossroads of Asia.”


Tracy Dahlby was a student in Seattle in the late 1960s, when he heard a radio broadcast about the Cultural Revolution in China. The fuse was lit, and he went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent in the Far East and a regular contributor to National Geographic. His new book, Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent's Notebook, tells the story behind the stories.

Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, Dahlby talks about the glamour—and discomforts—of being a foreign correspondent, the importance of mentors, how the digital age is both a blessing and a curse, and how he came to be trapped on a boat in Indonesia with 600 jihadists.

Your desire to become a foreign correspondent began with a teenage epiphany. Tell us about "the voice."

Ah, the voice. I was 20 years old, sitting in my parents' house in Seattle, Washington, hoping against hope that there was some way to escape my basement bedroom and go out and see the world.

It was a Sunday night, and I flipped on the radio—one of those enormous radios of the sixties and seventies, the size of a shoe box. I heard this plummy British accent talking from Hong Kong. And I thought: Well, there's a person who's out in the thick of it.

It was 1969, the Cultural Revolution in China. I was studying Asian culture and language at the University of Washington. And the reporter on the radio was talking about bodies floating down the Pearl River into Hong Kong. I saw him as a cross between Clark Gable and Sean Connery playing James Bond, standing on the street in Hong Kong, with the heat wave shimmering off the tarmac, dressed in a white tropical suit.

A few years later, I met an Englishman in Hong Kong who had broadcast radio stories from there during the Cultural Revolution. It might have been the voice I heard all those years ago in Seattle. But one thing was certain: he didn't look anything like Clark Gable [laughs]. He was this rumpled, Falstaffian fellow who used the pseudonym Ian Dunbar. His real name was Russell Spur, and he wound up being the guy who hired me at the Far Eastern Economic Review, which in those days was the only Newsweek-style, English-language publication focused on Asia. It was a dream come true.

Are mentors important for an aspiring foreign correspondent?

Mentors are absolutely important. Not only in terms of the skills that they can teach you but how to carry yourself and get along. I'm teaching journalism now at the University of Texas at Austin, and I think we do a pretty good job in the classroom of teaching students about the history of journalism and the skills they'll need to prosper in the new, digital market.

But the students always ask, "How did you make the human contacts that got you out into the field? Once you got an assignment for National Geographic, what's the weird or funny or dangerous stuff that happened to you along the way?" As far as I know, there aren't many textbooks that fill students in on those kinds of things. That was partly the motivation for writing the book.

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Former National Geographic correspondent Tracy Dahlby is now a professor at the University of Texas, Austin.


What are the essential characteristics of a good foreign correspondent?

As I say in the book, I'm a risk-averse reporter. So before I go out into the field, I try and prepare as meticulously as possible. That begins with reading about the area or the story that I'm trying to figure out—where the story is now and what might be a new angle. I try to read histories and literature, different lenses that can tell you about a country, a place, or a culture, particularly if you haven't been there before. Then I try to make as many arrangements in advance as possible, like setting up interviews, so that you're not just going out blind but have built a context for yourself on the story, and a network of contacts.

Then when you go out into the field, you have to expect everything to be 180 degrees different from what you expected. Louis Pasteur said, fortune favors the prepared mind. But you also have to be flexible. Reporting is a living, dynamic thing. If you're not flexible, you're going to miss a lot.

You worked extensively for Old Yellow, as National Geographic is known. What's distinctive about its journalistic approach and culture?

One of the founding fathers of the Geographic, Alexander Graham Bell, said, "The world and all that is in it" is our theme. The world is an enormous, complex place, and the great gift that the Geographic gives its writers and photographers is the ability to go out there and explore in depth stories about people and cultures in a way you don't find anywhere else. I've produced some documentary films in my time. And I came to think about a Geographic article as being like documentary films on paper.

There can often be as many misadventures in the field as adventures. Tell us about a few of them—and how you cope with the frustrations and discomforts of being a long-distance reporter.

The one that leaps to mind is the night that my fixer, Norman Wibowo, and I managed to get aboard a ship in Makassar, in eastern Indonesia. We were trying to get to a little island group called the Bandas, which the Dutch swapped with the British for Manhattan because of the nutmeg riches there [laughs]. I was living in Manhattan at that time and wanted to see the place and explain why I was speaking English and not Dutch.

Eastern Indonesia was alight with communal and religious tension, and that was an area of fighting between Muslim and Christian extremists. So Norman and I got on the good ship Bukit Siguntang, only to discover that there were 600 jihadists on board! Being the only European-looking person on the ship, and six feet seven tall, and white, I naturally stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb!

The digital revolution has transformed journalism, in terms of research. It also poses dangers, doesn't it?

When I was a young reporter, we would have to go back in the newsroom to a place called the morgue, where they kept all the dead news clippings and old phone books. A librarian helped you research your story. Now all that information is at your fingertips. So nobody in his right mind would want to go back 30 years to before the Internet.

On the other hand, I think there's a danger in relying too much on digital media. We think we see and know something digitally when we really don't. And it's a good argument for the existence of foreign correspondents—regular shoe-leather reporters who leave their computer terminals and go out into the world and report the stories from the grassroots level up.

Twenty years ago most major regional U.S. newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, had a foreign bureau. Now only ten publications have any foreign presence. Is this the end of the road for the foreign correspondent?

I hope not. But having foreign reporters stationed outside the United States is a ferociously expensive proposition. But if I look at some of my former students, two are currently stationed in Hong Kong, reporting on the pro-democracy protests. One works for Time magazine, the other works for Reuters.

Reuters and Bloomberg have a flourishing global network for economic reporting. So if young folks are interested in economic reporting as a vehicle for getting out into the world, there are jobs in places like China and Southeast Asia or Japan. But unlike the time when I could stumble through with a little Japanese, these organizations now have tests to ensure that the people they're thinking about hiring can actually speak the language fluently!

Has the Clark Gable glamour gone?

Newsrooms today look like insurance offices. The only sound you hear is the quiet click of the keyboard. When I worked at the Far Eastern Economic Review, the main office in Hong Kong was filled with these raffish, colorful characters who had spent time all over Asia. I still think there's a romance in going to far-off places and reporting. But I guess I'd have to agree that there's less of it.

One of the reasons I wrote the book was to capture an "antique" time, when being a foreign correspondent was still considered glamorous. We were lured out to a place like Asia by a kind of fairy tale that was leading us by the nose. And I think my students, who are in their 20s or early 30s, still have that sense of wanting to go out and have an adventure in the world.

It was a student who inspired you to write this book, wasn't it?

I teach a long-form storytelling class, which is basically stories like the ones I wrote for National Geographic. I was showing the students my technique for taking notes. I have kind of a double-entry bookkeeping system. First, I write all the interviews in my notebook. Then, when I get back to the hotel at night, I'll transcribe them so that I have them in my laptop, in typed-up form.

The other set of notes is what I call my day notes, everything that happens from the time you wake up in the morning: what you have for breakfast, how it's cooked, what the weather is like that day, what the traffic is like, do you have a good driver or a bad driver.

That day, I had my double-entry book on the big screen in the classroom and was reading from my day notes about a source in Bali. I hadn't been back to Bali for a couple of years. I was sitting by the pool at some friends' house one night, and I asked what happened to so-and-so. They said: "Didn't you hear? He was murdered." It was a riveting and grim story, and after I read that out as an example of the kind of powerful human detail that can embed itself in your notes, one of my students looked at me and said, "You didn't use that in your story for National Geographic. Are you just going to let that go to waste?"

It was like an arrow in the heart. I thought: My God, I have all this great material that I've been collecting for years traveling around Asia, and very little of it has actually gotten into a story. It's kind of the forest out of which the story was cut. So I thought, the young folks I'm teaching now might be interested in those stories behind the stories that never make it into print. And that was one of the motivations for the book.

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This scene in Kampong Ayer, Brunei, also appeared in Dahlby’s South China Sea story, one of his “dream assignments” for the Geographic during the 1990s.


What did you love most about being a foreign correspondent?

I loved everything about it [laughs]. Except for dealing with recalcitrant government officials. But I did it because of the romance, and I never lost that. I did a half dozen assignments for the Geographic in the nineties. Those were dream assignments. The idea that somebody would trust you to go out into the world, set your own schedule, but provide you with the resources necessary to get the job done, was manna from heaven.

I think it's a magical thing to be able to think about a place from afar and then actually go there and, even for a brief time, participate in the life of the community or a culture—to see how they live their lives, how they confront their challenges-and get a sense of the basic humanity that binds us all together but does so in very different ways according to the region or the culture. That was the great gift of working for National Geographic.

In recent years I've taken students to China on reporting workshops. One day, we were way out in the farming country around Xian. Our minders wanted to corral us in the bus (we learned belatedly that this is not an area where foreigners were supposed to be). So I used the old foreign correspondent's trick of being hard of hearing. As we walked down the road, the minders were shouting, "Come back! Come back! You can't go down there!" But we kept strolling down this village lane. In the middle of the road, there was an enormous hog that was sick.

I wanted to show my students what was possible, how you can make something out of nothing. So I started talking to the farmer who owned the hog through an interpreter. And the next thing you know, we were invited inside the farmer's house, and the neighbors were coming over, and the students were sitting on the kang, the typical raised bed in rural China.

I asked the neighbors to tell me what it had been like to live there during the Cultural Revolution. As they began telling their stories, I felt a chill go up my spine. I turned to my students and said, If you were covering this story for National Geographic, this is a place you could spend the next two days just listening to the stories that these folks have to tell.

Even at the age of 64, there's still that sense of the magic that can happen when you go to a far-off place and people start telling you honestly about their lives.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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