AMERICA FLIES BLIND WITHOUT FOREIGN JOURNALISTS

by Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- After several months, we have almost grown accustomed to news of American journalists being held by the military in Egypt and by Gadhafi agents in chaotic Libya. Big newspapers rally for their brave reporters, neutral foreign diplomats like the Turks are often brought in, and eventually the exhausted journalists get out.

By now, one has to imagine that just about every news hawk has read of the four New York Times journalists held by Gadhafi's men for a week -- and barely making it out alive. The vulgar saga of CBS' Laura Logan being beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob of men in Egypt will go down in history as something we all want to avoid, and somehow get even for.

As this winter's "Arab Spring" continues to blossom erratically from country to country, more journalists were detained in Libya by Gadhafi's cadres. Par for the course, you might say. Just more hostages taken. But this capture tells us something quite new about journalism today.

Among the reporters in this case was James Foley; he and three other foreign correspondents were taken on a lonely stretch of road in a no-man's-land around the town of Brega. In the other cases, the detainees (if we can call them that?) were able to immediately call their editors back home, who pretty much knew what to do. But James Foley? Nobody seemed to know him.

Foley was a freelance journalist with the GlobalPost, an online news publication that is attempting to fill the vacuum left by the major news outlets that have pulled foreign correspondents back home at every possible opportunity, largely to save money. But whether the situation be good or bad, the fact was that freelancer Foley was not closely enough tied to a major media outlet to allow it or anyone to immediately get him out.

As Peter Bouckaert, the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, summed up at the time: "One of the challenges faced by many freelance journalists is they don't work with the same support network as journalists working with some of the bigger publications. Nobody notices they're missing, and the response doesn't happen as quickly."

What also happens is that when readers at home have no idea who these reporters are, they find it difficult to judge the truth or value of the news product turned out. Of necessity, when coverage is so spasmodic, the reader will find it harder and harder to put the puzzles of international systems and structures together. And so, this "first draft of history," as reporting is often called, will necessarily be a very imprecise draft.

This is not to say that the new agencies are not using good people or journalists. In fact, GlobalPost, which hires reporters in the area who will file from that area and then sells the stories to newspapers, and the Pulitzer Center, a promising experiment of similar style, have some experienced journalists at their helms. But this does not mean we are not missing something from the old journalism model.

Where does the judgment in times of crisis come from if journalists have not earlier "dug in" in the area? How can we afford as a great nation, or perhaps still the "greatest nation," not to have the basic information that comes only from sustained levels of personal reporting on the ground? Of course, we can't.

If for just a moment we go beyond the immediate, which is what the new groups tend to focus on, and see how ungodly difficult it is for journalists untethered to a backup mother office and one's own deep experience in the area, we can see how the lack of this special and specialized information costs our small businesses and our huge corporations, who will simply not have the international information they so badly need.

Libya is probably one of the top three (think Syria and Iran) Middle Eastern countries in which it is difficult, and sometimes simply impossible, to know what is genuine and what is fake. Gadhafi brings faked blood samples to the international press corps, apparently quite unaware of how rightfully suspicious they are. He holds "press conferences" when he visits a school at the height of the fighting.

The New York Times writes that "the Gadhafi government's most honest trait might be its lack of pretense to credibility or legitimacy. It lies, but it does not try to be convincing or even consistent."

Soon we will enter the "Arab Summer," a time when Arabs hope to give serious structure to their troubled nations -- and it's vital that credible American journalists be there to tell the true story to the world.