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Malcolm in the muddle

31 December 2009

Bloggers, understand this: journalists are just people. Foreign correspondents, who most of you like to hate, are people who have covered many parts of the world; they are not experts in the local like some of you. Their talent lies in their ability to decipher events from their perspective and in a way that their readership, a wide readership often consisting of people who don’t even know where mexico is on the world map, will understand. They are not the final authority, they are just interpreters.

Malcolm Beith, foreign correspondent… and blogger!

Beith, the former editor of The [Mexico City] News, was taking exception to various “posts criticizing David Luhnow’s Mexico coverage in the Wall Street Journal”. Being one of those who was extremely critical of Luhnow recently, a few remarks.

  • I can’t speak for others, but I certainly don’t “hate” foreign correspondents.    That doesn’t mean we have to accept plainly wrong, or wrong headed, reportage (or editing) — nor that we shouldn’t comment on how Mexico is presented to a foreign audience.
  • Our talent as mere bloggers also rests on our “ability to decipher events from [our] perspective”.  Beith writes that correspondents are often addressing themselves to  “people who don’t even know where mexico is on the world map,” which makes it all the more important … for — oh — for example, writers on the culture and history of the country … to correct the errors being perpetuated by correspondents.
  • I can’t think of any of the English-language Mexican bloggers (unless Beith is referring to the real estate sales blogs) that consider themselves the “final authority” on anything:  like the other bloggers mentioned in this post, I follow the standard internet conventions of linking to my sources and trusting those that wish to critique my product to go back to those sources.   In my books, I use footnotes or the bibliography for the same reason.

A more general complaint — and a common one among “mainstream press” alumni — is that people like me are dependent on the “foreign correspondents” for much of our material.

… blogs suffer from their inherent form, which is to bounce off news, rather than report it. And because of their lack of understanding of the media, bloggers often end up being overly critical of material that is out there, rather like a nagging spouse or child who really doesn’t know what they’re talking about but desperately wants to be heard.

Actually, I depend a lot on Mexican local writers too, but it’s true that a lot of what we write is “bounced off” the news.  However, not everything in the media… or in THIS media… is meant to be “news”.  Taking a critical attitude (not necessarily negative) towards the existing documentation of others is the staple of much reportage … and has always been the basis of literary criticism and scholarship.  The assumption that all media is news, or that all blogs are presented as “news reports” is false.

That said, it’s a broad (and incorrect) generalization to say bloggers know nothing of media.  Several of the best English-language bloggers ARE from the media… Patrick Corcoran at “Ganchoblog” (for whom Beith sometimes posts), Alexis Okeowo at “Exodus“, Frank Keogan at Burro Hall, Michael Reynolds at “NarcoGuerro Times“, not to mention David Agren at “Tales From San Lazaro” (and like Beith, formerly of The News).   My “mainstream media” experience is a bit limited to having worked on and off as a reporter for small town newspapers (including once as a correspondent for The News when Beith was editor) and being the ex-spousal equivalent of an investigative reporter — the latter of which might have made me slightly biased, but still with a basic understanding of the media.

The Mex Files has a rather open-ended purpose:  to explore  “Mexican art, history, culture, politics, economics, news, some travel and the general weirdness that usually comes blowing in from the north“.  In other words, it is cultural  (including political culture) commentary and analysis, not news writing.  Like most other English-language bloggers on Mexican affairs, it tends to present the “Mexican side” of things to people who presumably can find Mexico on a map (or at least through a search engine).  Then again, whether focused on daily language and life (like Mexico Bob), the United States from an expat perspective and expat life within a Mexican community (From Xico), the problems in one corner of the country (Maggie’s Madness),  or a scholarly specialty like the intersection of religion and culture (Secret History), most of us are  not writing news. Nor pretending to. We riff off the media to discuss what is important to us — less nagging than finding inspiration.  I’m sure Malcolm’s blog — meant to provide “News and analysis on the global war on organized crime” — is also going to depend on media reports — both mainstream and alternative — as a resource and, at times, as a rationale for presenting his own perspective on a given event.

Malcolm is a welcome addition to the scrum, and I’ve already added him to my “Bloglines” RSS feeder … I hope he continues at least manages to find something to say about Mexico as he writes “News and analysis on the global war on organized crime” .  His “foreign correspondent” view isn’t my view, and is all the more valuable for that.  I know what I think.  I want to know what HE thinks… and what is being presented to the world about Mexico.

Of course, if I think he’s presenting a misguided or misinformed view, I’ll say so, and give my reasons for doing so.  And hope he does the same for me.  As long — of course — as he doesn’t get too snarky about my inability to self-edit (I do fine on other people’s stuff, just not my own, where I can’t see overly complicated sentences — like this one — to save my life).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 December 2009 8:56 am

    Good post. And I would just like to add that some of us sometimes translate Mexican articles for non-Spanish speakers in the US on the off-chance that it may help those non-Spanish speakers learn a bit about Mexico from a Mexican perspective.

  2. 31 December 2009 9:33 am

    Great post. Interesting that Beith goes after Mexican journalists in El Universal in his blog while he defends the weak analysis and lack of context and depth of “foreign correspondence.”

    I left journalism not because I hate reporters, but because journalism fails to push most reporters to really go for depth, context, and alternative points of view. I certainly don’t hate foreign correspondents. Take Anthony DePalma, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Tim Golden … that was some of the best reporting on Mexico’s political, economic, and cultural life and times you could find (though they certainly made errors at times). Even Sam Quinones (who has a tendency toward melodrama) produced some of the great culture-on-economics coverage of Mexico and had a real nose for sniffing out stories not already on the radar.

    BECAUSE foreign correspondents are writing for people who can’t find Mexico on a map they should be more careful and have a greater understanding of alternatives and context. It is what we pointy-headed academics-who-double-as-bloggers are trying to get done in our class rooms (and blogs) every day. A blog offers a different perspective on the one offered by “THE MEDIA” – what you call “bouncing off” the news. Sexist gripes about nagging wives is a disappointing way to respond to a public interaction with your product.

  3. 31 December 2009 9:46 am

    … and yes, drafted in a hurry, bloggers like me make oodles of errors ourselves. Just check my spelling some days. Gack!

  4. Maggie Drake permalink
    31 December 2009 5:54 pm

    I still say you should be teaching at Oxford.


    • 31 December 2009 7:41 pm

      The climate there is kinda soggy, I hear. And who in their right mind would go someplace that serves English food?

  5. 6 January 2010 4:10 am

    thanks for the post Richard, feel free to post these sort of comments on my site so i see them earlier (still trying to get quick enough to survive in the blog-world, it’s tough.) i’ll be going after the foreign correspondents, too, if they screw something up royally, i just had to note that El Universal story. I’ve been so impressed by the improvements in the mexican press since the 90s that i am fearing for their decline.

    as for the self-editing, i will certainly forgive that. why is it always easier to edit someone else? same principle as pointing out faults or giving advice?

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