By: M.L. Stein
Associated Press special correspondent Mort Rosenblum
has filed stories from some 145 countries during
his 30-year career with the news service sp.
MORT ROSENBLUM, WHO covers the world for the Associated Press (AP), had barely unpacked from an assignment in Vietnam, when the phone rang in the French farmhouse where he lives part of the time.
It was his office in Paris. The situation in Haiti was heating up. Did he want to go?
“Jeez,” Rosenblum exclaimed to a visitor after he hung up, “my olive trees need attention, I haven’t filled out an expense account in three months, I’m still working on the Vietnam story ? I’m behind in everything. Am I going? Of course. They can’t start a war without me.”
There was no war, but Rosenblum, who carries the title of special correspondent, was there, a repeat appearance in one of the 145 or so countries he has covered during his 30-year career with AP. If there had been a war in Haiti, it would have been his 25th or 26th shooting conflict (“It’s hard to remember exactly”) in such places as Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Zaire and Yugoslavia. He has flown on more than 100 different airlines and has their barf bags pasted on his wall to prove it.
Wiry, cigar-chomping and highly kinetic, Rosenblum, at 52, could be called the quintessential, globe-trotting foreign correspondent. In one respect, he is a throwback to such legendary newsmen as Richard Harding Davis, Webb Miller, Vincent Sheean, Robert St. John, Reynolds Packard and Daniel DeLuce.
But, while his predecessors concentrated primarily on breaking news and meeting deadlines, Rosenblum believes the meat of international stories is in the “underbrush.”
Although he can cover a breaking story with the best of them, the award-winning journalist’s news-gathering style reflects a profound change in foreign reporting from the days of the picaresque, trench-coated correspondent of yesteryear.
“I really feel you must get beneath the layers of the story ? find out who the characters are and why they’re acting the way they are,” Rosenblum explained. The idea, he added, is to make the story understandable to American readers thousands of miles away.
Citing the war in the former Yugoslavia and the situation in Haiti as examples, he said, “The reporter should deal with such questions as, Will the Serbs really fight? Will it lead to World War III? Should we invade Haiti and occupy it for 18 or 19 years as we did before? These are crucial questions on which the world turns. It’s easy for TV to show you the main line with a sound bite from a source, but they pass over the important questions. Only a seasoned correspondent, who knows about people, history and economics, and has time to dig and the space to get it in the paper, can come up with the real story that readers can relate to.”
Rosenblum contends there is nothing intrinsically wrong with so-called parachute journalism, a term often used derogatorily in connection with foreign correspondence.
“If you have the skills, it doesn’t matter if you’re based on Mars or on a mountaintop when you get the assignment,” he asserted. “If you have the background, or at least know how to get it, it will be all right. If there is any problem about parachute journalism, it’s editors who send just anybody, whether he or she is capable or not.”
The AP veteran said readers can rely on reports by such experienced correspondents as John Kifner of the New York Times, Cable News Network’s Peter Arnett and Bill Touhy of the Los Angeles Times, who can fly from anywhere to the scene of a story and quickly grasp its essentials.
“If Kif shows up on a story, it doesn’t matter where he comes from,” Rosenblum continued. “You can trust that he will get it down.”
Rosenblum, who is fluent in five languages and has a smattering of others, noted that, when covering a major event with other AP reporters, he usually will not write the main story. This suits him just fine because his sidebars often turn out to be the main story.
“I’m not worried about getting on Page One, although all of us have pretty big egos,” he commented. “My chief concern is getting the copy through the editing process and saying the same thing I meant it to say.”
He recalled the incident in Sarajevo where the young “Romeo and Juliet” of different faiths were shot by snipers as they tried to flee across no man’s land and died in each other’s arms.
In covering the incident, Rosenblum attended the pair’s funeral.
“This had all the elements of Shakespearean tragedy,” he remarked, “but when you write about who showed up at the funeral, who did not, the struggle over where it would be held and the burial site, you’ve told the Sarajevo story.”
Rosenblum’s probing into the seeming minutiae surrounding momentous events also paid off for him in Goma, Zaire, site of the refugee camp for the thousands of Rwandans fleeing the bloodshed in their country.
He was only half-listening to what appeared to be a dull, newsless briefing by a UN representative, when his attention was caught by what he described as the speaker’s “throwaway line.”
The man mentioned that Boy Scouts were burying bodies nearby.
“My ears pricked up,” Rosenblum related. “I hurried down there and, sure enough, there was a potbellied Belgian scoutmaster, directing 12-year-old kids wearing merit badges as they heaved bodies onto a truck for the trip to the graveyard. Boy Scouts do good deeds. Burying bodies was their good deed. People in Des Moines can relate to that. The story was on almost every front page in the heartland. Once you do a piece like this, you can write about the big issues.”
The correspondent also has another vivid memory of Goma.
“It was probably the worst assignment I ever had,” he said. “People were dying all over the place, and there were smells I’ll never forget in my life.”
Rosenblum started his career at the English-language Daily Journal in Caracas, Venezuela, after leaving, the University of Arizona before graduating.
“There was a job there,” he recollected. “I knew Spanish, and I wanted to get going.”
He returned about a year later to finish his degree, while working on the copy desk of the Arizona Star in Tucson.
There was one hitch. Because his hours at the Star prevented him from taking a required course, the head of that department would not let him finish school as a journalism major.
However, Rosenblum had sufficient credits to graduate in romance languages and subsequently joined the AP in Newark. From there, he moved quickly to the wire service’s foreign desk in New York and got his first overseas assignment in Zaire in 1967.
Years later, when his byline became well known, “they asked me at Arizona if they could list me as a journalism major,” he recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ “
Rosenblum left AP in 1979 to become editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris. He returned three years later after leaving the Herald over what he said was a dispute with top management over the use of advertorials.
Rosenblum is the author of seven books. His Coups and Earthquakes alone is one of the best accounts ever written of a foreign correspondent’s life and work.
Its sequel, Who Stole the News?, blends Rosenblum’s characteristic enthusiasm for his work with some misgivings about the state of foreign correspondence.
“We are sometimes sabotaged by our own technology,” he writes. “When communications were precarious, correspondents told their editors what was news. With satellite phones, editors talk back. They see events unfold on screens above their desks, and filter them through their own cultural prisms. Reality is distorted by assumption and accepted wisdom back home. It is easier now to send back words and pictures. During crises, we run on at length, confusing as much as we inform. In the end, more is less.”
In the interview, the newsman also lamented about the dwindling opportunities for foreign correspondents to get good play in the paper.
“At one time,” he elaborated, “there were a number of stories that were important. Later, you had the top 10, and now there are the top three and they keep changing. If you’re lucky, you may write one of them. If something hot happens in the O.J. Simpson case, you’re probably not even going to get in the paper.”
None of this has dimmed Rosenblum’s love of his job. For journalism students and others who may aspire to overseas work, he offers this advice: “Learn context, learn languages, learn history, learn economics. Learn how things fit together. And be driven by something other than normal rewards.”
?(Associated Press special correspondent Mort Rosenblum (center) interviews refugees at Shaalen camp near the Iraqi-Jordanian border in 1990) [Photo & Caption]