60 Years in Journalism: You Can Go Home Again, But It's Hard

03/09/2015 08:13 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

This is a recollection of how I became a foreign correspondent, why I thought a decade overseas was enough, and why I had second thoughts thereafter.

I was a news correspondent for ABC Radio in Washington in the election year, 1968. The ABC News Moscow Bureau Chief, my former Washington colleague, George Watson, was on home leave. George thought two years in that benighted capital was enough, but the editors, he told me, could find no one willing to replace him. I had studied some Russian, and taken Russian history courses in college. I told George I'd be interested, he wasted no time spreading the word, and I got the job.

My wife was working on Capitol Hill, but she was equally ready for adventure.

We unexpectedly had to wait for a half year before we could pack. The American Broadcasting Company was sold to a conglomerate, International Telephone and Telegraph, which owned Sheraton Hotels and a bunch of other subsidiaries -- and was a major defense contractor. Members of the House Commerce Committee raised a loud and clear objection. How could ABC News cover the Pentagon objectively if it was owned by a defense contractor? The deal fell through. (Years later, no such problem arose when General Electric bought NBC.)

ITT had promised a major expansion of ABC News. Instead, there was belt-tightening, including a hiring freeze and postponement of new assignments for the rest of the year. Instead of heading for Moscow in summer, my wife and I arrived on a sub-zero freezing day in January. We overlapped with George Watson for a few days, and he was more than ready to flee to his new assignment in London.

Front-page news coverage in the USSR was largely limited to what the official Tass agency put on our ticker. News conferences were few and uninformative. Features on how life was lived by ordinary Russians were our stock in trade. Foreign television bureaus did not have camera crews. We had to apply in writing for each story. If the powers that be were OK with it, they scheduled a camera crew (for our hard currency) and made the arrangements if travel was involved.

The crew included three people: cameraman, sound man, and "coordinator," who was the traveling censor. On one occasion, we were filming in a bottling plant for Russian champagne. The coordinator ordered the line stopped because it was too noisy for him to hear what I was saying on camera.

There was always radio. I had to go to the central post office each day at an appointed time to broadcast, to be recorded in New York. There were occasions when I was sitting in front of the microphone and someone unseen would tell ABC New York, "Your correspondent has not shown up for the broadcast."

Then, one day, the international phone lines that served Finland were extended to Moscow. My radio editor phoned me at my office, I hooked up a recorder/amplifier, and from then on could broadcast from my desk and contend no longer with the ghosts of the post office.

We travelled all over the Soviet Union to film what was picturesque, 20,000 miles by my calculation, on Aeroflot, the monopoly airline. The further from Moscow, the friendlier the people, and the ability to speak with them in Russian was crucial. Rarely seeing foreigners, and without the feeling they were under surveillance, they saw no reason to be cautious, unlike Moscovites for whom consorting with a foreign journalist could get them branded as a security risk.

We were into our third year in Moscow when President Richard Nixon announced he would pay the first-ever state visit to the Soviet Union. Of course, my editor said, I would be there to cover the visit -- which was still months away. But as it turned out, I did not have to spend all that time in Moscow. I was sent to Calcutta to cover the exodus of refugees from the Bangladesh war, then to Germany and Egypt. And I went to Vietnam for three months in 1971.

The Nixon visit was my final assignment in Moscow. The U.S. networks were allowed to send in their own camera crews for the occasion. But as we all worked up sidebar features, the Soviet paranoia kicked in. NBC's correspondent took a crew to a railroad station, where they were stopped and detained. I took a Washington-based crew to the Moscow pet market, where we were stopped and detained, until a crew-cut guy in a leather jacket showed up and whispered to the cops that we could go.

When Nixon left, so did I, for a welcome new assignment as bureau chief in Tokyo. I met my new camera crew immediately -- to cover an anti-Vietnam War demonstration outside a U.S. Army base.

Japan was a great setting for television stories of every sort, from the world-beating auto and electronics industries to the brewing of sake, and beer. The "oil shock" of 1973 hit America hard, when the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an embargo. In America, drivers lined up at gas pumps. I was asked to film one story after another on how Japan coped.

The Japanese did a lot less driving than Americans, so the spike in gasoline prices did a lot less damage. The government ordered reductions in use of electricity and gave "administrative guidance" to keep a lid on the price of kerosene, widely used in home space heaters. Above all, the Japanese had a long-standing tradition of group behavior and a feeling that being buffeted by outside forces was nothing new, only their growing prosperity was new, and nobody said it would last forever.

We travelled all over Asia for news coverage, from martial law in the Philippines to a hijacking in Thailand, to floods in Pakistan, to American draft evaders in Australia, to Vietnam again. And we covered the evacuation of South Vietnamese to Guam when the North sent its tanks into Saigon.

Despite the hassle involved in going thousands of miles for stories and dealing with local authorities in strange places, and as fascinating as Japan and Asia were, the appetite on American television for foreign news -- except when explosives were going off in view of cameras -- was severely limited. Meanwhile, my colleagues in domestic bureaus went out in the morning and back the same night, or they were away a couple of days to cover something the whole country cared about. So I agreed to trade places with a correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau who was interested in Japan.

When we first found ourselves in Moscow, my wife and I looked at each other for weeks and said, "What have we gotten ourselves into?" In Los Angeles, we began to ask that question almost immediately. As did other colleagues from Asian bureaus who took assignments in the Atlanta and Miami bureaus.

Foreign cultures go back centuries, evident not only from ancient castles on hilltops but from the attitudes inculcated in populations by tradition, attitudes toward family, friends, classmates, local leaders and central governments. A foreign correspondent is always an outsider, but often a welcome onlooker.

Back home, except for Washington, national news is often centered on crime and weather, significant to our fellow Americans, but not a constant learning experience compared with how we spent the previous ten years.

We finally made our way back to Washington, after another detour to ABC's New York headquarters, and I went on to become a Washington correspondent first for CNN Business News and then for Bloomberg. Our friends in Washington include journalists we had worked with overseas, and others with analogous experience.

When we travel, one of the boons of working for a world-wide news organization is that we can meet with colleagues posted in local bureaus. If any of them hint that they might be ready to return to the States, our response often is: "Are you sure?"