Slate Plus

Life on the Downer Beat

Josh Keating talks to his editor about how to make you care about foreign affairs.

Anti-government protesters continue to clash with police in Independence Square on Feb. 20, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Anti-government protesters continue to clash with police in Independence Square on Feb. 20, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.

Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Welcome to Politics Plus, where a revolving cast of Slate political writers and editors bring Slate Plus members one special extra.

If It Happened There is a popular Slate series that describes an American news event while using some of “the tropes and tones normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.” Josh Keating, who writes the series on his blog, The World, discusses the pitfalls of foreign news coverage in an email conversation with Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor Will Dobson. – Jeff Friedrich, Slate Plus

Will Dobson: Hey Josh, I’ve got some bad news for you: Plotz doesn’t get why foreign news matters. I mean, you’ve heard him in the editorial meetings. “Why should I care about Ukraine? Why does Crimea matter? Will this China piece touch on the panda situation, i.e., that there are too many?” He asks me to show up on the Gabfest whenever some part of the world is exploding—I think mainly to save him from having to read NYT stories with foreign datelines. Fortunately, I guess for both of us, the interests of Slate’s readers don’t seem to stop at the water’s edge. But you must get this kind of knee-jerk skepticism from people sometimes. What do you think is the best way to write about international news for a broad audience? Do you sugarcoat it or just tell them to eat it?

Joshua Keating: Clearly I need to have “Why Should Plotz Care?” bracelets printed up for Slate’s beleaguered world news obsessives. 

The knee-jerk skepticism is definitely there. On days when I’m not lucky enough to have Justin Bieber inadvertently wander into a major international conflict, it can be difficult for international stories to break though a very crowded domestic news cycle.

American news consumers do care about what’s happening in the rest of the world, but the attention is often very sporadic. In Ukraine, for instance, Russian influence in Crimea had been growing for years before it became a story everyone was talking about. Benghazi, obviously, was a real place before it was a Washington talking point. I think having a sense of what’s happening in these places when they’re not in the midst of a major international crisis can lead to better understanding when they are. 

In general, I think if you’re presenting surprising facts and compelling stories about the world, people will be interested—even people who normally don’t think they care about what’s happening in East Timor or Mauritania. It’s treating international news like a homework assignment that turns readers off. 

Dobson: I agree that I have never really bought the idea that people are inherently less interested in foreign news. Sure, it helps if there is sex, intrigue, or Bieber, but barring that the rules that govern what makes a good piece a good piece generally hold.

I worked for an editor who used to ask why a particular story would be of interest to an American businessman, a Danish lawyer, and a Japanese housewife. (I could never please all three.) I thought it was a good exercise though; you should be asking yourself what is the essential kernel in a story that will captivate people from very different places or walks of life. Too much foreign news amounts to “a bomb blew up in this marketplace that you have never heard of.” There’s a good chance that the explanation of why that bomb was planted in the first place is what will interest readers.

And you are right that sometimes you just need to take advantage of the news cycle you are given. I mean, I had to be goaded into writing a piece about the MH 370 tragedy, but that was silly. Malaysia is a place that I have reported from and I find Malaysian politics fascinating. And the fact is that the way the Malaysian government approached its investigation of the missing plane is pretty emblematic of what happens to a country that has been ruled by the same political party for more than 60 years.

Keating: It looks like a big part of the shtick of John Oliver’s new TV show is going to be mocking the U.S. media for ignoring the rest of the world. I liked his segment on the Indian election quite a bit and agree that given the stakes, the scale of the thing, and the fascinating personalities involved, this shouldn’t actually be a hard sell as a story aimed at the American public.

But I think you can take this idea a little too far. If you’re willing to take the slightest bit of initiative, it’s actually a great time for consumers of international news. Yes, the shuttering of American outlets’ overseas bureaus is a very unfortunate trend that shouldn’t be downplayed, but now a reader can access coverage from a wide range of U.S. and international outlets, reports from NGOs, or analysis from experts and academics on blogs and Twitter. Why do I care if Fox and MSNBC aren’t giving Ukraine enough attention if I can watch a live video stream from the Maidan?  

Dobson: Very true. I always thought that the shuttering of foreign bureaus said more about the newspaper and newsweeklies’ business model than people’s interest in specific stories, whether foreign or domestic.

The dirty secret of the George W. Bush administration was that it was a boon for foreign news coverage. I think some foreign editors worried they wouldn’t be able to live without so much incompetence to report on—but it’s nice to see they may be wrong.

But speaking of positive trends in foreign news, why do you think your “If It Happened There” series has been such a wild success? 

Keating: Sometimes I feel as if I’m on the downer beat for Slate. War, famine, oppression, and disease make up a pretty typical week of blog fodder for me. So I find it amusing, if not exactly surprising, that my most successful posts so far have been decidedly more lighthearted.

One thing I’ve noticed every time I do one of these is that people don’t seem quite sure whether my intention is to mock U.S. coverage of foreign events, or to mock America itself. In other words: Is my point that America is more like Pakistan than we like to pretend, or that Pakistan is not actually as much like “Pakistan” as this coverage would have us believe.

It’s a little bit of both. I read a whole lot of foreign coverage for my job and there are a number of clichés and tics that seem worth mocking. The word regime, for instance. Any government America doesn’t like is a regime. Otherwise it’s just a government.

Cultural coverage of other countries also tends toward these sweeping generalizations, as if everyone who lives in a developing country walks around all day thinking, “How can I reconcile my traditional cultural identity with my country’s increasing integration into the global economy?”  

But I also think that trying to imagine how events in the U.S. look from an outside perspective is a useful mental exercise. My imaginary foreign correspondent is naive and sometimes ill-informed. But he isn’t dumb. He finds the things that happen in America perplexing and exotic, and the questions he asks and the conclusions he draws are very different from those of someone with more background knowledge.

One reason I like working on international news is that it puts a little more pressure on both the reader and writer to hunt for underlying trends, historical background, and cultural context. The way things happen and people act in America appear more normal to us because they’re part of the environment we’re used to. 

Sometimes, trying to take an outsider’s perspective helps us realize what a unique, occasionally horrifying, occasionally wonderful country we live in. Hopefully it helps us understand it a little better too.