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NPR's Loren Jenkins On Changing World Coverage

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Congratulations, you are now the senior foreign editor at NPR, responsible for managing 17 bureaus around the world. So today, where do you devote those resources?

Stories include the Turkish earthquake, the eurozone crisis, the burial of Moammar Gadhafi, elections in Tunisia, the presidential runoff in Liberia, grenade attacks in Nairobi, war and famine in Somalia, bouncing ambassadors between Damascus and Washington, diplomatic hardball with Pakistan, the alleged Iranian assassination plot, nuclear talks with North Korea, China's currency. Did we mention the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Hurry up, you've got reporters and producers to dispatch, editors to assign. What are your priorities? How do you decide? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the challenges of breaking up with your bank. But first, we bid farewell to Loren Jenkins, who has made these decisions as NPR's senior foreign editor these past 15 years. He steps down next week, which is why we're auditioning all of you. He joins us here in Studio 3A.

Loren, it's great to have you with us.

LOREN JENKINS: Great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And this, the foreign desk - that's what we call it here - there were, what, six correspondents when you got here?

JENKINS: Yes, when I came, there were six. You know, my mandate was to try and build up our foreign service, our audience. Our own needs were to have global coverage, not just domestic coverage. And that's what we've been trying to do for the past 15 years, and I hope we'll continue doing it for the next 15.

CONAN: But that menu of priorities, well, I don't think it's - you know, obviously the details change, but the volume hasn't changed in 15 years. Obviously, it's easier now than it used to be.

JENKINS: Well, it's easier because we have more correspondents. We now, as you pointed out, have 17 bureaus around the world, plus, you know, half-a-dozen roving correspondents that we can dispatch and send.

But now the daily menu is always a hard choice between what stories you can get at, what stories you can cover and which ones you can't, sometimes because they're not as important as the ones you cover. Sometimes they're harder to get at. It's - daily, it's a choice. You have to make hard choices every day to see what to, you know, put on air.

CONAN: And sometimes those awful people actually go on vacation, and they're not around.

JENKINS: That's always a problem. I don't know why we have - allow vacations at NPR, but we have to.

CONAN: Me, neither.


CONAN: As the demands have changed, what has occupied your mind? What keeps you up at night?

JENKINS: Everything. I mean, you know, we live in this very complex global world. There's not a day that goes by without important news happening somewhere that's going to affect us. And, you know, I approach my job as foreign editor at NPR as adult education in democracy, to teach Americans something about the world they live in so they'll be better citizens and make better choices.

CONAN: And the world - you covered Beirut for a long time.

JENKINS: A long time, yes.

CONAN: And this was a story that a lot of people, and I remember back here, as well, before your time here, but were saying what is the relevance of this to the United States. Why should we care? Why should we be spending money to have two full-time correspondents, a producer and a correspondent in Beirut covering a civil war in a country far away?

JENKINS: Well, it's mostly because - one forgets that the U.S. Marines have gone into Beirut twice, in '58 and later in the '70s.

CONAN: Reagan administration.

JENKINS: And, you know, it's an important part of the global equation. The Middle East is always a tender spot. It's, you know, on - there's Israel. There's our commitments to the Arab world, where we get our oil. Its politics are complex, but they're very important to us.

CONAN: As you look to those assignments, though, one thing that has changed is that doing this work, sending foreign reporters overseas and basing them overseas, life has gotten more dangerous.

JENKINS: Absolutely. Well, it's always been dangerous. But there used to be, in my day as a foreign correspondent, and I covered wars from Vietnam to Africa and the Middle East, there was a certain freedom you had as a reporter. Everyone on both sides sort of respected that you were not a participant in the struggle you were covering. That's broken down over the years.

You no longer have that autonomy in the middle of covering a war zone. You can suffer just like anybody else.

CONAN: And the experience of a Daniel Pearl, the reporter killed in Pakistan.

JENKINS: Exactly.

CONAN: Terrifying.

JENKINS: Exactly, terrifying. That wouldn't have happened 20 years ago. The dangers were if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get injured or killed. Now people seek out the press. You know, you're reporting things often they don't want, and they're prepared to kill people to silence you.

CONAN: And we've been very fortunate. We've had more than a few people scared but nobody seriously hurt.

JENKINS: Knock on wood, we've been really lucky. We've been covering, you know, Iraq from the very beginning, Afghanistan from the beginning, the Arab Spring, Libya now. We've had no one injured.

CONAN: Bosnia, going back that far, and that could get ugly, too.

JENKINS: Indeed.

CONAN: We want to hear your thoughts. We're designating each of our listeners as NPR's new senior foreign editor. So call and tell us today what your priorities in this new job would be: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Mitch(ph), Mitch with us from Beaverton in Oregon.

MITCH: Well, I think Loren Jenkins has a lot to be proud of, and I'm very thankful for being able to look at such a complex world, news-generating scene and choose as wisely as he has chosen. Compared to the competition, NPR can hold its head pretty high.

CONAN: Well, thank you...

JENKINS: Thank you very much.

MITCH: I think the one area where NPR could use some help, though, is in helping Americans, not just Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, understand what the economic model we're in has wrought. And I'm a little disappointed that there was no coverage leading up to the elections in Argentinia(ph), where Fernandez de Kirchner won by bucking the conventional economic wisdom.

JENKINS: Well, that's one of the stories that we were just shorthanded at the time. We did actually cover the election, but we didn't have time to send someone in way ahead to analyze it. There were just so many other stories happening around the world at the time.

MITCH: Have you thought about how much coverage, though, has been given to the European countries that are failing, and you have one world leader that has bucked the model and has won, and her economy is thriving.

JENKINS: Yes, we have. But Europe, if Europe fails, the whole world economy is going to fail, and it's - the magnitude of what would happen is so much greater than whatever happens in Argentina. And that's one of those decisions, they're hard ones we make every day, and that's one we made.

MITCH: Well, and again my respect to you for having to make those decisions. I wish more fellow Americans were interested enough to look at the information available in other countries' news media because it's now out there on the Web, a lot of it in translation, too.

CONAN: Mitch, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And that's a question: What about the competition? And 15 years ago, the big newspapers in this country all maintained big foreign staffs, certainly the Boston Globe and the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. There were big organized bureaus for the broadcast news organizations, as well.

JENKINS: Indeed, and, you know, I think that's one of the reasons NPR's coverage has grown, to fill a void because everyone else was cutting back. You know, maintaining a foreign bureau overseas is a very, very expensive operation. Just for NPR, which we maintain very tiny bureaus, you know, a correspondent and some local hired helpers, it's half-a-million dollars a year per correspondent.

And what's happened, sadly, is the economics of journalism made it harder and harder for newspapers like the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, to maintain foreign bureaus, and they've all shut down. And it's a smaller, much smaller field of correspondents working for U.S. media today.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dave(ph), Dave with us from Needham in Massachusetts.

DAVE: Hi, this is an excellent topic to cover, especially on the retirement of Mr. Jenkins. Under - what I would do for NPR, where I would allocate resources is I would hire fluid - excuse me, fluent Arabic speakers and send them into the Middle East and somehow immunize them from localities(ph) and have them report on how - the incitement to terrorism that happens in the Arab world, that this even happens with the moderate Palestinian Authority to which United States taxpayers send half-a-billion dollars a year directly, plus what we send through the U.N.

And I'd also send them there with a sense of historical perspective so that you'll not hear things like the Palestinians are demanding another settlement freeze before they'll start negotiations; they would report that it would be another settlement freeze because the initial 10-month-long one was not good enough for them. They didn't come to negotiate then.

CONAN: Well, Dave, making a few arguments in there, but he's got a point. Can you start hiring foreign correspondents at the age of five and start teaching them languages and history, Loren?

JENKINS: That's what we need to do. But, you know, our correspondents all are well-versed in history. They live in the regions. They read everything that's been written about them. They read the books. They meet the people. I think they're very well-informed, and they're reporting what they see, what they hear, what's being told and what's being printed. That's where they're getting their information.

CONAN: It's interesting, yes Arabic but not just Arabic: Farsi, Pashto, all these languages are more and more important in the world today.

JENKINS: Absolutely. Unfortunately, there are not that many Americans who study those languages, and there are not that many out in the field looking for jobs in journalism. I wish there were more.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in before the break, Brent(ph) with us from Kansas.

BRENT: Yes, my comment is basic - sorry about the wind. I had to step in. My comment is I think that there should be multiple correspondents. And, you know, I know it would take a lot of resources from other parts of the world, but Pakistan is complex and large enough to where I don't know why there's not four or five covering that.

Syria, I mean, all of the places that are going to be important five to 10 years from now. Europe, yeah, I know there's a big crisis, but the economy's going to take care of itself. I mean, they're going to do whatever they're going to do regardless of coverage.


CONAN: I'm really glad you think that, Brent. He's got a point, though. We do have a correspondent, of course, full-time in Pakistan, but a very complex story.

JENKINS: It's a very complex story. I wish we had more correspondents all around the world. But as I said, it's a financial issue. They're very expensive to maintain. But we in the last 10 years have opened news bureaus in Baghdad, in Kabul, in Islamabad. We have one in New Delhi. We're well-placed there with very good, strong correspondents. Obviously we could use more, but we need more contributions to NPR to be able to fund them.

CONAN: And Brent mentioned Syria. At this point, it's impossible to have anybody there.

JENKINS: Yes, it's impossible to go into Syria. They don't let us in. Occasionally we've been let in for very brief and controlled reporting moments.

CONAN: Next week, Loren Jenkins leaves after 15 years as NPR's senior foreign editor. So we've got an opening, listeners. You are now the senior foreign editor. What are your priorities? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When Loren Jenkins took the top job on NPR's foreign desk in 1996, Bill Clinton was in the White House, U.N. peacekeepers had just pulled out of Rwanda, Boris Yeltsin won a second term as president of Russia, and a car bomb killed 19 U.S. servicemen at the Khobar Towers Housing Complex in Saudi Arabia.

A lot's changed in the last 15 years - in the world and in the business of journalism. Loren Jenkins steps down next week as senior foreign editor. Before he goes, he joins us today for an exit interview.

We're asking you to put yourself in his shoes. Let's say you are the foreign editor. You have reporters, producers to dispatch, editors to assign. What are your priorities? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next, let's get a call in on the international line. Yunis(ph) is with us, calling from Saudi Arabia.

YUNIS: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to - first of all, I'd like to thank Loren for the high-quality coverage that he's given on international topics. I really like that. All I really wanted to say was that, you know, maybe - well, I'm not sure if this is your area, but anyway - maybe you should focus on expanding international exposure of NPR, which is to let NPR be heard around the world not just through the Internet but also on, you know, radio, just regular radio.

Now, I'm here in Saudi Arabia, and I'm in Jeddah. I can hear NPR on local radio, FM, and I don't know if that's the case anywhere else. And I'm very grateful for that.

And I know that in the last few years, since it started in Jeddah, that was back in 2003 if I'm not mistaken, many people have started listening to NPR. And I know most of the local kids around here are studying English by listening to NPR. And I think that's just amazing.

And, you know, this is a way to, you know, expand NPR's exposure around the world and also, you know, the U.S. point of view, I would think.

CONAN: Well, please don't let them listen to Ken Rudin.


CONAN: But the distribution, we are on FM in Berlin, for example, and obviously with satellite technology distribution. But this is - you benefit from it. I'm not sure this is your area.

JENKINS: Yeah, it's not, but it's great to know that it's reaching out to places like Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah. I didn't realize it was. Yeah, we'd love to have more people listen to it. We don't want to make the commitment BBC has done, which is to build a whole network of shortwave radios and transmitters around the world, which are much too costly. That technology is being...

CONAN: Pretty 20th-century, yes. But Eunice, thanks very much for the call, and we appreciate it.

YUNIS: Thank you very much, appreciate it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Chris(ph) in Baltimore: The safety record of correspondents is impressive. Is it all just luck, or are there some lessons to be learned about protecting correspondents in dangerous places?

JENKINS: Well, it's luck, and we do a lot to try and protect correspondents in dangerous places. But you can only protect them so far. They have to go out. They have to see what's happening. You know, they have to venture out to get the news, and there's always a risk. We try and minimize the risks. We provide them with training on how to operate in danger zones.

In places like Baghdad and Kabul, we have security advisors that help out. But it's a dangerous business. It's like being a policeman or a fireman, you know, first responders. Danger is inherent in the profession.

CONAN: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, before your time, when we had the situation in Somalia, the only way for reporters to protect themselves in that situation - and this was our producers on the ground - everybody did it. You hired a technical group of, you know, young men with automatic weapons in pick-up trucks, and the terror was that your group of khat-chewing teenagers would get into an argument with somebody else's group of khat-chewing teenagers, and heaven knows what would happen.

If the press has to arm itself, should it participate in coverage?

JENKINS: No, absolutely not. I've always maintained, and we've not armed ourselves or used armed guards to go out and cover news in Iraq or Kabul or anywhere else. I think if the story demands that you go out with gunsels pointing guns at everybody, you're not going to get real reports. You're going to get what people are either intimidated to tell you or some distorted fact. And I just think you're better off not covering it if that's what's required.

Journalists shouldn't be traveling armed or with armed guards to do his job.

CONAN: Let's go next to Michelle(ph), Michelle with us from San Antonio.

MICHELLE: Thank you so much for taking my call. I think by the nature of your business, you're reporting from crisis, and you only have a limited amount of time to tell that story. And I'm wondering: How do you balance the perspective that we all crave with NPR of how it affects us in our - in the States, in addition in the world?

And then you mentioned half-a-million dollars per bureau. Do you have to pay a little bit more for correspondents, say Sylvia Poggioli? I mean, is that the best name or whatever?


CONAN: She's got - she's more than just a pretty name, let me put it that way.

MICHELLE: Absolutely.

CONAN: How do you keep things in perspective?

JENKINS: Well, you know, it's not brief. You know, take Libya. We started covering Libya the moment it - the revolt happen. Lulu Garcia-Navarro's been there almost throughout - since February. She's there right now, just as they're burying Gadhafi in the desert.

You know, we've been covering it day-in, day-out, with correspondents who know what it is, and the story that we tell isn't just one story in one hour. It's the cumulative stories, day after day after day, which we seek to cover the context, the history, the events and the meanings of it all.

CONAN: There is also discussions with - well, you have editors here in Washington, each assigned a different part of the world. There are also producers at programs like TALK OF THE NATION or ALL THINGS CONSIDERED who assign amounts of time and what stories are going to run. I ran that menu of stories at the top of the show. I didn't mention the annoying producer who says: Hey, what about that New York Times story on the penetration of the Mexican drug cartels? How come we didn't have that?


JENKINS: That's true, that's true.

CONAN: So it's a difficult business. Michelle, thanks very much for the phone call.

MICHELLE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ben(ph), Ben with us from Oklahoma City.

BEN: Hey, yes, it's - glad to talk to you guys. First of all, I want to thank Mr. Jenkins for his service. He really - I know it's hard doing what he did. I embedded with the troops a while ago, in 2004, and did some reporting. And now I work at a college.

But what do you think has caused what seems to be a really strong backlash against foreign coverage, so that, you know, there's vast amounts of people who just on a knee-jerk reaction don't trust what foreign correspondents do? And it seems like it's so important. I'm kind of bewildered by it. What do you think happened?

JENKINS: I'm not so sure that the world has changed that much. I think in the United States, there are people who care about international news and want to hear it, and there are people who don't, who say it doesn't intrude in their lives, in whatever their communities are. I think this was true in the past, 100 years ago, it was true 50 years ago, and it's probably true today.

But I will say that, you know, there is an interest in foreign news in this country, which people aren't aware of. NPR, since we started building up our international coverage, has doubled its listenership in the past 10 years, and most of the people, when they're queried about it, say one of the reasons is we're providing them with international news that they want to hear.

CONAN: And it has grown quite a bit. By the way, I was the London bureau chief back in the 1980s, and the only staff reporter between Montauk Point and Diamond Head. So it's changed quite a bit since then.


BEN: Wow.

CONAN: Thanks, Ben. Let's go next to - this is Alvaro(ph), Alvaro with us from Tampa.

ALVARO: Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ALVARO: Thank you. What I wanted to say is that it seems to me that while NPR sounds very professional and is very broad and has a lot of information, it seems to me it fails to give us impartial information. I think whether we talk about Cuba or we talk about the breakup with Yugoslavia or we talk about the most recent reporting on Libya, their reporting seems to come out straight from the - with dictates for the State Department.

CONAN: Have you gotten your cables from the State Department this morning?

JENKINS: Absolutely not. I think this is a misconception. I'm sorry that we spend a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to give all sides of any story and putting it in its historical context. Our reporters are trained to do that, and we certainly don't get our instructions from the State Department.

ALVARO: (Unintelligible).

JENKINS: We often are reporting stories that the State Department doesn't like us to report.

ALVARO: Well, I haven't seen that, and definitely I did not see it with the Libya reporting. I didn't see that happening.

CONAN: Which side of the story wasn't covered in Libya?

ALVARO: I think the - Gadhafi's side was not covered in Libya. I think it was very poor. I think Ms. Garcia-Navarro may have been the first Western reporter there, mostly promoting the war right from the beginning, calling the so-called revolutionaries democracy fighters or fighters for democracy.

You know, I think a quick look at the history of Libya, first the (unintelligible) took arms because they knew they didn't have the support of the population to do something, to begin in a peaceful manner. They were defeated, rounded back, defeated, and then, they became the mop-up group for the - for NATO. NATO did the killing. NATO did the bombing.

CONAN: Alvaro...

ALVARO: They just...


CONAN: I think we get your point of view. I must say there were reporters...

ALVARO: Thank you.

CONAN: ...based in Tripoli reporting what the Gadhafi government was saying and their point of view.

JENKINS: And I think if you were in Tripoli today, you would see that the majority of the Libyans wanted Gadhafi out, but I think that's pretty clear.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to John(ph). John is calling us from Syracuse.

JOHN: Hey there. Thanks for taking my call. First, I just want to say thank you so much to Mr. Jenkins for your hard work for 15 years. I'm actually going to be traveling to Nairobi in January, and I was just kind of curious, you know, how dangerous is the situation down there?

JENKINS: Well, there have been a couple of incidents in the last couple days of grenades thrown into crowds, mostly because of the tension with the al-Shabaab guerrillas in Somalia who have been crossing into Nairobi - I mean, into Kenya, across the borders and kidnapping foreigners who they find for ransom. The Kenyan government has gone in militarily after them. There's a tense situation. So there's some danger in Nairobi today.

CONAN: We'll have to see how that works out. Shabaab has vowed to bring down the towers, as we said, the buildings in Nairobi. All there's been thus far is just a couple of grenade attacks. We have to see where that goes. John, good luck.

JOHN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Email. Using - from Amy(ph), using hindsight, is there a story you wished you had covered a different way?

JENKINS: Oh, boy. That's a hard question to answer. I'd have to really ponder that. I don't think so. I think I pretty much stand behind, you know, we've done things that we had to do. Sometimes, we've done them not as well as we might have done them if we'd had more resources. But I think our judgment calls have been pretty good. I can't think of a story I'd cover a different way right now.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sam. Sam with us from Newton, Massachusetts.

SAM: Hi. I have a question about the role of the media as it relates to humanitarianism and, I guess, especially in Africa where, you know, from Biafra to Coram(ph), you've had media sort of represent this heart of darkness Africa. And I was wondering so how do you - when you send a correspondent into Africa, how do you sort of work to avoid doing that and essentializing(ph) Africa as a deep, dark, violent place like that?

JENKINS: Well, our chief correspondent in Africa right now is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's a Ghanaian, who knows Africa backwards and forwards, has been covering it all of her adult life. I think she's as sensitive as anybody could be about the realities of Africa, its strengths and its weaknesses.

SAM: Yup. Great.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with NPR senior foreign editor - excuse me - Loren Jenkins, who leaves us next week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Email from John(ph). At a time when the world's power players are changing, should we not have more news from South America and Africa?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I wish we, you know...


JENKINS: I wish we had more news from around - all around the world. We do the news we can afford to do, which, as I say, is already quite high. We could do better. If we had more correspondents, hopefully, we will in the future. We've been growing constantly since I've been here 15 years, and I would say I hope we keep growing. There's room for a lot better coverage of Latin America. We need more people there, a lot more coverage in Africa, where we maintain two bureaus. We could maintain three. It's just a matter of getting the financing and be able to expand further.

CONAN: A lot of news organizations saved money when they close their bureaus in Baghdad as the war wound down. How long is NPR - or how long should - it's not going to be your decision, I guess. How long should NPR sustain a bureau in Baghdad?

JENKINS: Well, we've committed to sustain it until the American troops pull out, then we'll reassess it - our need. We will probably certainly be there next year in strength. Our plans are to continue covering it, rotating reporters in. We may not have a permanent correspondent based in Baghdad all the time because there are so many other stories now we have to cover in the region. So we're going to be rotating people in and out, but we're maintaining our presence in Baghdad at least into next year.

CONAN: Let's go to Amelia(ph). Amelia with us from Baltimore.

AMELIA: Hi. Good afternoon, Mr. Jenkins. Thank you. I love NPR (unintelligible) and all of the stories that really bring it home; you don't have to have the video. But my question is how did you feel about a lot of television journalists being embedded with troops when we invaded Iraq and do you think that that warped the story at all?

CONAN: Newspaper and radio correspondents were embedded as well, but go ahead, Loren.

AMELIA: Oh, yes, I'm sorry.

JENKINS: I have a problem with this term embedded, having covered wars in Vietnam and other places. In Vietnam, correspondents went out with the troops to get the story. That's how you'd get out to cover battle. You couldn't cover it from the North Vietnamese side unless you were captured. I think what's now called embedded is the same thing correspondents have always done. You attach yourself to one side or the other to go out and cover it. It's the only way to get to a battle zone is with one of the fighting groups.

And you cover it, and you understand you're covering it from one side. You'd be surprise what you can find out sometimes covering it from one side. You go out with U.S. troops in Baghdad you get chances to talk with the locals, and stories come to you that aren't necessarily the ones the military wants you to hear or air.

CONAN: Amelia, thanks very much for the call and thanks for the kind words as well.

AMELIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Loren, where do you go from here? What are you going to do after your life as the senior foreign editor?

JENKINS: Well, I came into journalism as a writer and wrote a lot for, you know, 25 years as a foreign correspondent. Since being here, I've been directing news, directing an operation around the world and not having a lot of time to do much writing. So I want to go back to writing. I've got several writing projects I want to pursue, things that I've had that I never had time to finish. So I'm going to go back to being a writer.

CONAN: Well, on your way out, we have one more budget for you to fill out.


CONAN: Nobody tells them about the budgets, do they?

JENKINS: No, no, no.


CONAN: You're not going to miss that part of it. Loren, you've left the place a much better place than when you found it. Thank you so much for your work here.

JENKINS: Thank you, Neal. It's been a pleasure and great to work at NPR.

CONAN: Loren Jenkins, NPR's outgoing senior foreign editor. He joined NPR in 1996, leaves next week to go on to writing projects. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.