War Is Hell - and Boring As Hell, Too

Bosnians die. Chechnyans die. Herald honchos yawn.

On August 4, Juan Tamayo resigned his post as foreign editor of the Miami Herald to return to reporting duties for the newspaper. An office memo circulated by managing editor Saundra Keyes provided no explanation for Tamayo's unexpected decision, but his resignation was widely believed to have been the result of his growing frustration regarding the direction of the Herald's foreign coverage, which during the Eighties was credited with being both aggressive and far-reaching, but which in recent years has become far more provincial.

Since its globe-trotting heyday only a decade ago, the Herald has steadily narrowed its range, closing offices in China, London, and Berlin, and severely limiting its practice of sending reporters to international hot spots. Instead it has concentrated on Latin America and to a lesser extent the Middle East, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

No replacement for Tamayo has been named, and he will hold the title until a successor is found. As Herald executives scramble to find that replacement, post-Cold War turmoil continues apace, from terrorism in the Middle East to tribal brutality in Africa to violent uprisings in Russia to worsening U.S. relations with China to the ethnic slaughter in Bosnia.

Indeed it appears that the Herald's coverage of the war in Bosnia may have played a deciding factor in Tamayo's decision to resign. On July 12, Herald executive editor Doug Clifton posted an e-mail message in the paper's computer system questioning that coverage. "If anyone has an idea on what to do with the Bosnia story, I welcome it," Clifton began. "I'm embarrassed to say I long ago stopped reading this story of enormous human tragedy and significant global consequence. Why is that? Some of it is my personal failure. I'm callous, shallow, parochial and maybe even stupid. But more of it may be my -- our -- professional failure.

"We dutifully report each day's events, one a bit more horrible than the other, and pretty soon they all begin to look and sound alike. I haven't really 'read' a Bosnia story in two years, not in the Herald and not in the [New York] Times, which has devoted more space to it. Yet this is an important story that a newspaper must tell. I would argue that we must tell it in a substantially different way than we have if we are to fulfill our obligation to inform readers about the important issues of the day."

Clifton complimented the front-page story in that day's edition -- a dramatic tale of fleeing refugees -- but added, "I'm not sure readers cared so much that 'terrified Muslims' were 'rounded up, deported,' as our headline and story reported.

"Yes, I care about man's inhumanity to man," Clifton continued, "but I care more about whether this latest event brings the world or the U.S. closer to a brink. A reader -- even a high-minded, liberal-thinking one with a world view -- wants to know 'What does this mean to ME?' If we can't make that clear in type and visuals, the story becomes one of faraway strangers killing other strangers in cities with unpronounceable names."

Tamayo, who has been foreign editor since 1993, did not return calls seeking comment for this story, but those close to him say he viewed Clifton's memo as an attack on him and as further evidence of the Herald's diminishing commitment to coverage of world affairs. (Before being named foreign editor, Tamayo had reported for the Herald from Jerusalem and Berlin.)

In a searing e-mail response to Clifton's provocative message, Tamayo lashed out at both his boss and the paper. "I am as anguished as you by our inability to make this story move the needle," Tamayo wrote. "Having seen the murder and mayhem firsthand, I cannot understand why it doesn't grab every American by the throat and shake him out of his shoes.

"But let me try to put a few things in perspective: Too many editors have long considered Bosnia to be a yawner of a story. Likewise Chechnya. Rolled our editorial eyes at news meetings, pronounced it too complex, too alien, too boring. Can't pronounce the name. They are still killing each other. Who cares?

"And now we want punch, pizzaz," Tamayo went on. "We want that graphic that explains it all in three easy steps, that one zinger of a story that catches up those of us who have NOT BEEN READING some of the truly great stories we have carried over the past two years.

"I don't believe this type of editorial MEGO culture -- My Eyes Glaze Over -- exists in any other U.S. newspaper that considers itself good. No other editor that I know has to ask himself why Bosnia is important to HIM. Certainly not at the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and not even the Dallas Morning News, which, with something close to our circulation and resources, regularly sends staffers, and yeah, photographers, to Bosnia."

Tamayo offered a few suggestions, including later deadlines for stories so the most interesting and up-to-date information could be published. He also argued that the Herald should consider sending its own reporters to the region.

And then he closed with a few suggestions clearly directed at Clifton. The paper, he said, needed to "find editors who are not callous, shallow, or parochial, who don't dismiss readers interested in foreign news as 'high-minded liberals with a world view,' and who don't think the New York Times is boring." The Herald, Tamayo wrote, also needed to "find editors who can get excited about foreign news and transmit that excitement to readers," and to "find editors who are as smart as our readers."

The sharp tone of Tamayo's response was in keeping with his management style, which some reporters have found abrasive. But other staffers note that personalities are irrelevant to the larger questions raised by paper's recent editorial retrenchment. "Interestingly, the Herald's debate about Bosnia coverage is a good illustration of what newspapers lose when important regions of the world are 'left to the wires,' as we have done in Europe," wrote reporter Peter Slevin in yet another e-mail response. "Absent a knowledgeable correspondent who can do quick analysis or a timely take-out -- and whose copy will be well-used because the Herald has a stake in it -- the Herald is left to other devices. That means cobbling together coverage written for wire services and newspapers with different mandates and readerships.

"Is there really all that much mystery to defining the Herald's coverage?" asked Slevin, who spent eight years reporting from London and Berlin. "Years ago this newspaper developed a reputation for choosing its targets and weighing in at defining moments on big stories. Bosnia should be no exception, whether or not we deploy our own staff to the front lines. News should be noted. Developments should be explained. Turning points should be explored. Images should be painted in words and colors. Stories should be well told. That is one thing that newspapers can do well and television does rarely.

"And if a reader is 'callous, shallow, parochial, and maybe even stupid' -- and admits it -- I'm not sure we should be writing our stories with him in mind! Even if he does admit that he is 'embarrassed' by it."

Mark Seibel, the newspaper's foreign editor from 1984 to 1991, complained in his own electronic memo prior to Tamayo's resignation that the Herald relies too much on the New York Times to signal what is or is not newsworthy. "That's letting their tail wag our dog," he wrote.

"We need to be ambitious in our thinking -- every single day," Seibel argued. "And we need to drive hard, every single day, on every single story, to make sure our ambitions become reality. It is too easy to blame a lack of resources or lack of space for lack of good coverage. It becomes an excuse for not using our resources as well as we can, for not thinking as deeply as we are able, to cover what is important to our readers.

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