A tribute to the shuttered McClatchy Beijing bureau — and the former Knight-Ridder international reportersPosted: January 1, 2016
When I started as the University of Pennsylvania stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1974, I was greatly impressed that the Inquirer not only was a fearless advocate for Philadelphians, but it provided us with special insight into the world through its foreign correspondents and other reporters on the payroll of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. The global network of correspondents survived the demise of Knight-Ridder under the McClatchy umbrella.
In my 2 1/2 years in Beijing, I’ve had the opportunity to see the amazing work of McClatchy’s final China bureau chief, Stuart Leavenworth. His stories — perceptive, interesting and unique — reminded me what international correspondents for hometown papers offer. It’s not the same breaking news you get from traditional wire services. It’s added value that comes from a combination of skilled journalists with expertise in the subject matter they are covering and experienced editors who understand their audience (and the world).
Sadly, McClatchy is shuttering its Beijing bureau — and all of its bureaus — this new year. Another casualty of declining newspaper audiences and diminishing news budgets. I will really miss the fine work of these intrepid journalists, as, I suspect, will thousands of loyal readers who now have yet another reason not to subscribe to their hometown paper.
Mark Seibel, a former Dallas Times Herald colleague of mine and a longtime editor for the Miami Herald and the McClatchy D.C. bureau, penned a Facebook tribute to his colleagues. With his permission, I’d like to share it with you:
By Mark Seibel
The other day, Stuart Leavenworth, until midnight McClatchy’s China bureau chief, posted a farewell photo that captured the door of the McClatchy office in Beijing. The plaque read “McClatchy/Miami Herald/Beijing Bureau.” It reminded me that the closing today of McClatchy’s last handful of foreign bureaus – Beijing, Irbil, Istanbul, Mexico City, though not yet Berlin, for reasons of logistics — ends an era when regional newspapers worked hard to make sure their readers were informed not just on local news but on world events. Because readers expected that of their papers.
I first began directing coverage of China in 1984, when I joined The Miami Herald as foreign editor. The correspondent in Beijing then was Michael Browning, perhaps the most talented writer and observer I‘ve ever been privileged to edit. Three decades and his untimely death haven’t dimmed my memory of the lyrical way he described the rippling of a pig’s flesh as it was carried to market at what was the beginning of China’s economic reformation. He once profiled a woman who smoked hundreds of cigarettes daily as a tester in a Chinese state factory.
At the time, Browning’s competitors included correspondents not just from AP and the usual suspects, but from the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, among others. None of those papers has international bureaus today.
Browning’s time in China eventually ended, hastened by Chinese displeasure with his coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and The Herald’s time as the keeper of the Beijing bureau also came to an end, when in the mid 90s, Knight-Ridder decided to centralize oversight of its eight corporate foreign bureaus in Washington. The wisdom of that move can still be debated; I’d argue it put another layer between local editors and international news coverage.
Many talented reporters have passed through the Knight Ridder/McClatchy foreign system. Marty Merzer, Juan O. Tamayo, Carol Rosenberg, Alfonso Chardy, John Donnelly, Soraya Nelson and Dion Nissenbaum all served in the Jerusalem bureau before it closed when Dion moved to Kabul. Hannah Allam, Nancy Youssef and Leila Fadel were Baghdad bureau chiefs, before Roy Gutman closed that bureau when he moved to Istanbul. Jack Changwas the last fulltime Rio de Janeiro correspondent, preceded by Kevin Halland Katherine Ellison. When Tom Lasseter left Moscow to cover China, the position was never filled; Brian Bonner occupied it for months, but never held the job permanently. Shashank Bengali’s departure from Nairobi ended McClatchy/Knight Ridder’s long run there. Nancy Youssef’s departure from Cairo ended our presence there.
Tim Johnson served in China before moving to the Mexico City bureau, which he’ll close in January. Matthew Schofield has been based in Berlin twice, and will eventually close it for a second time.
McClatchy kept the spark alive the last few years with a handful of staffers and an ample group of freelancers and contractors, all talented in their own right. David Enders covered Syria from the inside, being among the first to recognize that the jihadists were taking over the rebellion, and eventually winning a staff assignment (and a share of a Polk). Mitchell Prothero stepped in ably after David, and was willing to move to Irbil when the Islamic State captured Mosul. Others: Sheera Frenkel, Daniella Cheslow and Joel Greenberg from Israel, Adam Baron from Yemen, Alan Boswell from South Sudan and Nairobi, Jon Stephenson in Kabul, Saeed Shah and Tom Hussain in Islamabad.
There were many firsts, but some I think of often: Nancy Youssef was first to report that there had been no demonstration outside the Benghazi compound, and she did so within hours of the attack; Roy Gutman was the first to raise the issue of Obama’s lack of involvement in the negotiations over leaving U.S. troops in Iraq; Tom Lasseter, with an assist from Matthew Schofield, was the first to systematically interview former Guantanamo detainees about their time there, and David Enders reported in 2012 that al Qaida’s Nusra Front could be found at the fore of many key rebel victories in Syria.
I’m sorry to see that Miami Herald plaque disappear from that door in Beijing, but glad to have been a part of it.
Tippecanoe … and Taylor, too?
As a history major, I’ve always struggled for an explanation for the surprisingly bad string of American presidents who served between 1840 and 1860.
This motley crew was politically inept. Think Millard Fillmore. James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce. Zachary Taylor.
The group also had a very high mortality rate. William Henry Harrison died one month after assuming office in March 1841. James Polk (he of Texas annexation and “Manifest Destiny”) died shortly after leaving office. And Zachary Taylor, the old (and I emphasize old) Mexican War hero died less than a year into his term, leaving Americans saddled with Fillmore, who later unsuccessfully sought to return to the presidency as the nominee of the aptly named Know Nothing Party.
I will claim some academic expertise in this period of history. My master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania was on the 1844 Philadelphia economic elite, which included Polk’s vice president, George Mifflin Dallas. The city of Dallas, Texas, is named after this Philadelphian who might — just might — have become the nation’s 12th president if Polk had died a few months earlier, while still in office.
With apologies to Alexis de Tocqueville, the stretch of dysfunctional democracy in America had many causes, including the implacable division between North and South over fundamental social issues, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and the triumph of extremism (and mediocrity) on Capitol Hill.
Sound familiar to your 2014 ears?
Historians have written lots about the political debacle in ante-bellum America. But they haven’t written as much about the health debacle in the White House. That’s why the story that appeared in the April 1 edition of the New York Times (it’s no April Fool’s joke) is so important.
The piece outlined speculation about the cause of William Henry Harrison’s death. Conventional wisdom has held (for 173 years) that old Tippecanoe, the oldest man to be sworn in as president until Ronald Reagan, died of pneumonia after catching cold while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. (I think it may have equalled all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches combined. He had nothing to fear but pneumonia itself.)
But it turns out that pneumonia may not have caused Harrison’s death. The Times article casts a credible finger of blame at the potentially toxic supply of drinking water consumed by American presidents during the time before indoor plumbing:
In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.
That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.
According to the Times piece, Harrison’s eventual case of pneumonia is consistent with enteric fever and may just have been one of the manifestations of acute poisoning.
“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock,” Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak wrote in the Times. “Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”
Harrison was the first of three U.S. presidents to die in office (or shortly after leaving office) within a span of only nine years. I’d say that’s reason for some serious “cold case” sleuthing.
Mackowiak, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland and author of “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World,” took up the challenge, joined by San Antonio writer McHugh.
They made a strong case for tainted water as being the cause of Harrison’s death, and suggested that Polk and Taylor may have been its victims, too. They noted that the 11th and 12th presidents “developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.”
There’s further evidence to suspect that Mackowiak and McHugh are onto something. The president’s quarters on the second floor of the White House did not get running water until 1853 — Fillmore is given credit by some history books for this major technological advance. After Millard’s move, no president contracted gastroenteritis or died of natural causes. (We’ll leave the mysterious 1923 death of Warren Harding to another blog post.)
So we can’t blame the failure of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan on tainted water. Just tainted politics.
One of the realities of living in China is that I must communicate differently with friends and family.
No more drinks at the National Press Club. Cell phone calls and individual emails are an inefficient way to communicate with a large number of people.
So how have my communications methods evolved? Here are my five most frequently used sources — dominated by social media.
It is my lifeline. It is how I share my life experiences and travelogue through words and images. It reaches a large audience instantaneously. And it is my primary method of chatting with friends in America and Europe. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, so it is necessary to climb the Great Firewall of China to use it. That occasionally means some unplanned days of Facebook blackout.
I had never heard of WeChat when I arrived in China. I knew that Weibo was the Chinese combination of Facebook and Twitter. But I quickly learned (taught by my students) that WeChat is far superior. Almost nobody uses email in China. WeChat is the preferred means of communicating. Its “moments” feature allows you to post updates and photos like Facebook. And group chats allow me to communicate instantaneously with everyone in my class — or with a group of friends heading to dinner. It’s great. And there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like it. Yet.
I hadn’t realized just how much drivel gets posted on Twitter until I left the United States. So many American political reporters post so many unimportant updates. So many politicians have nothing to say. So many words (140 characters at a time). So little value. When I came to China, I spent a month “unfollowing” people who offered little insight and added some of the best tweeters in China. Now, once again, Twitter has value to me. But it is no longer my number one social media source, like it was when I was a reporter in search of breaking news, 24/7.
In the past week, I have Skyped with people in Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Texas and France. It is the most cost-effective way for me to do my job as an academic. The quality is usually decent, though, as with everything in China, technology is hit or miss. But Skype allows me to see Pam regularly and to communicate with friends from America to Europe to Asia. I also spend less on long-distance calls today than I did as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you, Skype.
My students don’t use email. My colleagues rarely use email. Email is a very “Y2K” thing. But I still use it. It’s the best way to send documents or memos. And it’s the best way to have lengthy exchanges. It’s the only “old-fashioned” way I communicate.
Funny thing: None of these five methods of communication had been invented when I started my career as a journalist. My, oh my, how technology has changed our world.