How Foreign Journalists Search for News and Truth in Trump’s Washington

Jane Perlez of the New York Times asked journalists from other countries how they see Washington in this tumultuous period in American politics:

Ever since The Times of London dispatched the Irish reporter William Howard Russell to the Crimean War in 1854, foreign correspondents have traveled to hard places to send eyewitness reports back home. Russell, who shocked the British public with his exposés of incompetent British commanders, called himself the “miserable parent of a luckless tribe.” By that he meant that foreign correspondents — no matter what nationality or how stiff the competition for a story — work as a clan, united in their mission to describe what is happening on the ground, often in harsh conditions.

Washington in the era of Donald Trump is not quite a war zone. But there is a zealous fight over information, over what’s true and what’s not. Social media confirms prejudices, distorts the lens. In this age of disinformation, governments, militaries — and yes, the White House — try to muzzle the truth. In that tussle, foreign correspondents fight back by accumulating sources, assessing what they say and making sense of the chaos of decisions. They give as full a picture as possible of complicated events. . . .

By their very presence in Washington, these foreign correspondents illuminate a foundation of American democracy: a free and open press, which feels under pressure these days but lives on, fortified by their efforts.

Al Arabiya News Channel, Saudi Arabia
Before I came to Washington in 2003, I led a nomadic life as a field reporter, covering wars and famines and often traveling great distances to get a story. When I arrived here, I was shocked by how organized it is. There’s all this talk about “briefings,” but really the press secretary just throws you a bone in an effort to distract you, to give you the illusion of access to information. Ten years ago, I helped found the White House Foreign Reporters Group, with the idea that if we come together, we will have better access. Especially in this administration, when we hardly have any information, correspondents are much better when we’re united in trying to hold officials accountable. With President George W. Bush, I did six interviews; every time there was a major event in the Middle East, I was able to convince his staff that it was important to speak directly to the people in that region. The challenge with this administration is that there aren’t people around that you can get through to.


Dagens Nyheter, Sweden
A lot of Swedes are interested in how a person who is close to 80 years old could become the next American president. In Sweden, the welfare state means that people typically retire when they’re 65 or so, and it’s very uncommon to find an 80-year-old person in an important position in politics or business. I was in the Senate Chamber recently, and it still fascinates me that some of the members are close to or over 80. Swedes are also, of course, very interested in Trump, and how America, this rich, sophisticated powerful nation, was so upset about things that 46 percent of its citizens chose him as its president. As a reporter, I’m often surprised by how friendly his supporters can be, though. At Trump rallies, the president will regularly direct his anger toward the press — and I don’t want to diminish the violence in what he’s doing — but later, when I speak with people in the audience, they’re often very curious about the foreign media: They want to know what we think about their lives and the choices they make.

The Straits Times, Singapore
As the competition between China and America grows, there is an acute awareness in Singapore of the need for these two powers to balance each other in a somewhat benign way. So what happens in America matters — perhaps more so now than ever, because you have a president who is bent on disrupting the world order. Recently, I’ve noticed that the frenetic pace of the news cycle has seeped into my dreams. I dream about being late for an appointment or a flight, of missing a deadline, of trying to find somebody unsuccessfully. The dreams are full of stress and anxiety. I miss the organic nature of Asia, its colors, its intensity of life. The way I’ve stayed connected is by remaining involved in wildlife conservation there, specifically in India. We work to preserve four tiger habitats, of which two are also elephant habitats, as well as the grassland habitat of the great Indian bustard. It provides a useful perspective for a journalist. You realize that humans are only passing through, really.


ABC News, Australia
After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, Australia introduced sweeping, strict gun-control laws, so every time there’s a mass shooting in America, there’s a lot of interest back home. When I report on attacks in the U.S., my Twitter feed blows up with Australians asking, “Are they going to do anything? Is anything going to change?” I was in El Paso, Texas, after the shooting there last August, and so many families were grieving, but people were still saying guns weren’t to blame. America, in many ways, does feel like Australia, but that was one thing that was very hard to wrap my head around.

GloboNews, Brazil
During the Obama administration, I remember that people would sometimes sleep in the briefing room. Everybody knew what was coming. Now, everyone’s on edge. Suddenly a staffer will announce that an event in the Oval Office that was previously going to be closed to the press is now open to the pool, and so everyone will start running. I’m always thinking, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” On the other hand, we have much more access than we had before. Now we can get close to the president. I think I’ve already asked Trump dozens of questions about Brazil-U.S. relations. He knows who we are and he comes to us — I think maybe sometimes to change the subject from the American press. There’s so much going on this year — with the impeachment trial, the election and Iran — that we need to let off steam by the end of the week. So some journalists have started something we call survival parties. We go dancing or meet at a bar near the White House; we just have fun — and relieve the stress together.

The Times of India, India
When I first arrived in Washington 25 years ago, India was just a little blip on America’s radar. So much has changed since then: Now, the India-U.S. partnership is India’s principal international relationship. I’ve also witnessed the rise of the Indian-American community, which is now the best-educated and highest-earning immigrant community in the U.S. There’s a great deal of interest there. It’s also been fascinating, while based in the U.S., to watch the ascent of right-wing politicians around the world, including in India. The chief guest at India’s Republic Day this year, for example, was the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. A pattern has emerged: Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are all right-of-center, populist and polarizing figures. And Trump has a large following in India. Part of it has to do with residual Islamophobia — many right-wing Indians have problems with Pakistan because they conflate, wrongly, Islam with terrorism — and they think Trump is tough on Islamic countries. So any administration that’s tough on Pakistan or Muslims is appreciated by the Indian right wing.

CTV News, Canada
When I go back to Canada, people often come up to me, at the airport or even when I’m at the grocery store with my mom, and ask me about Trump. They say, “How can this be happening?” I’m very fortunate because my husband, Paul Hunter, is also a correspondent in Washington. We can vent to each other about how exhausting this is, how difficult it is to get at the truth, and then cook a nice dinner and do it all over again. This is such a historic, crazy story that we’re covering. One day we’ll look back on it all and think, “Wow, I was there,” but right now, we’re just surviving. Washington’s museums are a wonderful escape, too. I like dropping into the National Museum of American History, if only for an hour, to look at Muhammad Ali’s gloves, say, or the Museum of Natural History for the dinosaurs. It’s a reminder that there’s a bigger world out there.


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