06/13/2013 11:23 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Foreign Correspondents Often Misinform Instead of Inform

For anyone who knows anything about India, the Economist's coverage of the subcontinent is dire. For a long time, this publication with its 1843 vintage opposed India's independence. In 2011, in an article about the anti-corruption movement, the Economist incoherently asserted that the movement was at the same time right-wing in its flirtation with Hindu chauvinism and left-wing in its love of Indira's economics leaving many Indians flummoxed. The New York Times, another reputable name, does not do much better. Its former India correspondent, Anand Giridhardas, writes beautifully. One would expect so after an education in Oxford and Harvard. Yet, for all his Indian roots, his views on the country are naive. His paean to Mukesh Ambani in his book, India Calling, is simply uninformed. Some suspect him of having sold out to Ambani for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver. A more likely explanation is his ignorance. In a dinner with the author, he refused to utter a word in any other language than English and demonstrated a striking ignorance of life outside the affluent social circles of Mumbai and Delhi.

This sums up the problem with foreign reporting today. There was a time when foreign reporters went native. When Mark Tully of the BBC came to India, he immersed himself in the history, culture, and language of the country. His reporting is therefore the stuff of legend. More importantly, he is one of the few who understands India intuitively and credits the pluralism of the country for teaching him that there are many ways to God. The celebrated Financial Times correspondent, Ed Luce, has written insightfully about India but he has never truly understood the country. Luce's preference for the ruling party over the alternatives might be informed by the cultural familiarity with the English speaking elite into which he has married. He is now based in Washington, DC and, though his writing about the U.S. is incisive, he often betrays the weaknesses of any foreign correspondent cocooned in the capital with cozy elites.

When foreign correspondents arrive in capital cities, they tend to gravitate to other foreign correspondents, people from their home nations and friends they went to school with. The native view that they reflect is usually the view of the elites they are familiar with. In case of Giridhardas and Luce, their friends in India tend to be alumni of schools such as Oxford and Harvard. Now if they worked in private equity, this may not be a problem. But as journalists covering a country with hundreds of languages and multiple scripts, they fail to reflect the complexity and diversity of India. It gives the illusion of an English speaking country. Plenty of people speak the language for foreign correspondents to get by. Yet, the bulk of India still converses in the vernacular. A foreigner has to be like a Mark Tully to scrape under the surface of an infuriatingly complex society. Monolingual foreign correspondents in India are frequently seduced by hospitable hosts who pour Scotch into their glasses at five star hotels or post-imperial clubs. Trapped in their bubble more so than the past because of incessant deadlines, fellow expatriates and familiar local elites, foreign correspondents are increasingly doing a terrible job.

Even if these foreign correspondents were swashbuckling colonial adventurers of yore instead of modern day journeymen ascending a company hierarchy, they would still represent the outsider's view. This view can often be invaluable. Alistair Cooke's Letter from America for the BBC, educated thousands of people about the U.S. The foreign correspondent brings distance and objectivity to make up for a lack of depth and nuance. However, when things go awry, foreign reporting can misinform instead of inform. The outsider perspective of Heart of Darkness was rightly criticized by the late Chinua Achebe, a towering literary genius from Nigeria, when he denounced Joseph Conrad as "a bloody racist." The fact that the dominant discourse in the world is still largely English means that many of us learn about the world through the prism of the BBC or the Economist. We live in a world where what Chimamanda Adichie calls "the danger of a single story" is still present and profound. Even the best of foreign correspondents further the narratives of their cultures. The stories and narratives of the natives are missed and "oh look at the other" feeling is amplified. We live in a world where African, Asian, South American, and even European narratives are neglected in favor of the Anglo-Saxon worldview dominated by Oxbridge and the Ivy League. In a more global era, this is simply untenable not only because it is unfair but also because it is damaging. Democracy suffers when citizens are not well informed and an awareness of other narratives will improve both their individual and collective choices.

Even within the Anglo-Saxon world, elite discourse reigns. Voices from Minnesota and Mississippi rarely make it to the mainstream media. There is a division even between Oxbridge and Ivy League elites. For instance, Ed Luce's article, "Obama must tread warily after Boston," is well written. However, it could only have been written by an Englishman who has been trained to be sanctimonious and sermonize to others about the actions they should be taking. He gives gratuitous advice to Obama and it is clear that, while Luce might have intellectually acquainted himself with America, he does not have an intuitive feel for either the country or its president. Obama is the son of a Kenyan student who wrote Dreams From My Father, painting a poignant picture of his father's continent. He grew up in Indonesia and multicultural Hawaii, and his middle name is Hussein. He understands what it is to be an outsider and clearly cares about immigration reform. He has no need for lessons from a patrician English public school boy whose father was Lord Chamberlain to the Queen and whose professional experience is almost exclusively limited to English institutions staffed by his fellow Oxbridge alumni.

About three years ago, Pankaj Mishra, an Indian essayist, made a very valid point about foreign journalists in the context of India and China. It is a point that applies to any country, including the United States, but is especially acute if a country is inhabited by people who belong to a different race and speak another language. Foreign correspondents come to a country with their "inherited assumptions" and "ideological beliefs." Lest one considers this to be a Western malaise, the Indian and Chinese correspondents in Washington DC are notoriously insular and tend not to socialize with the natives. What we need in a more global world is a plurality of perspectives, a combination of views of insiders and outsiders. When it comes to the United States, the narratives of Americans who grew up in Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont, a Nigerian professional who works in New York, a Chinese businessman who does business in America and an Indian professor teaching American politics might be useful additions to Ed's view. All of us have blindsides but when we come together cutting across race, region, nation, religion, language, gender, age, and professions we are more likely to get a better approximation of the truth.