Alan Capper is a leading international journalist and the president of the Foreign Press Association of New York.
Following is a conversation he had recently with Richard Torrenzano:
Question: How much input do you have with U.S. business leaders in terms of your importance as a foreign journalist?
AC: I would say that is one of the things that the Foreign Press Association does quite successfully. We can create opportunities for our members to talk to corporations and vice versa. So for example: with Proctor and Gamble, a worldwide company, it would be very difficult for an individual journalist to go to meet the CEO of Proctor and Gamble. If on the other hand, we put together 50 journalists from around the world to talk to the CEO of Proctor, that’s more achievable and efficient. We do that kind of thing. It’s an easier way to get access.
Question: What is the biggest challenge foreign media faces operating in the U.S.?
Alan Capper: To understand the country is the first thing. You can’t just come here with a small briefing. You need to understand the political structure of the U.S. which is very hard to understand for most foreign journalists. The strengths and weaknesses of the economy, the vast differences in the U.S. by geography, East Coast – West Coast, states, and so on. It is so much bigger than most of the countries where the journalists come from, with the exception of India or China obviously.
There’s also a need to understand U.S. history. Some foreign journalists, especially from Europe, would say “Oh it doesn’t have any history; it’s only 300 years old.” That isn’t true. It has a very rich and diverse history. Look at the role of African Americans alone, for example.
Question: Do you think social media impacts the way the foreign media covers the U.S.?
AC: It’s been massive. Absolutely massive. And also we are seeing a change in some of the correspondents that we’re having here now. We have bloggers who are foreign correspondents; they are not what we would have had 20 years ago. Also in terms of information to the foreign press when they are here, it’s essential. It’s an essential information source, the whole viral nature of it.
Question: What’s your viewpoint of citizen journalism? I know you have talked about Occupy Wall Street, but let's discuss the whole concept of citizen journalism.
AC: I don’t see it as journalism we can depend upon, journalism that’s going to be crusading, exposing, accurately detailed, inside scoop journalism. I don’t see that because I still believe that journalism is a profession that needs to be taught.
Question: As in the old days?
AC: As in current days. We, the Foreign Press Association, give five scholarships a year to foreign students, studying journalism in the United States. And so, you know if you visit the Columbia School of Journalism, or NYU or any of them there’s a whole range of disciplines being taught to make you professional.
It’s art, it’s a craft. It also has issues of integrity, huge issues at that. And just to say “I’m a journalist. I’m setting myself up to be this.” I don’t think that cuts it in an increasingly complex and difficult world.
We have news hitting us from a thousand different sources that we didn’t have before. So we don't have to watch the evening news anymore, but what is the most dependable news? The most dependable news must be from people who are professionally able to find it, assess it and deliver it.
Question: Speaking of the evening news, why do you think so little time is spent covering international news and business on the evening news?
AC: It’s very much a peculiarity of the American evening news. If you go to any other country, half the news broadcast is going to be about foreign news, because they – at least in Europe for example, they want to cover other European news outside their own – Germany, France, etc. So here, this world unto yourself is so huge that that is the prime consideration. What’s happening here? And indeed, very often they are the biggest stories.
Question: What do you think is going to be the biggest international story for 2012?
AC: Obviously the U.S. Presidential election. There is this incredulity about the way American politics works. So I think covering Obama, is he going to be re-elected? What is he doing and can he really do anything to alter the course of the economy? And look at the Republican nominee at the moment.
The U.S. economy of course is the huge subject because it affects everyone else. So goes the rest of the world. I did some television reporting to an Iranian station, with Press TV and they didn’t censor anything that was said but what was interesting was that they would normally start with a question that was potentially critical like “Mr. Capper, the Daily Telegraph in London says that the American economic juggernaut has now passed its prime and America is in steep decline. Do you agree with that or not?” That kind of thing.
I would come back and say, “You know the American economy is like a 22 wheel truck going down a highway. It thunders down and occasionally has to slow down or even pull over, but it’s always going to be there and it’s a monster. And it’s going to still be the most important economy in the world.” You know that was the thing. They really didn’t want to hear that.
But that was what I gave to them. What would be interesting would be if it were an Iranian journalist doing that and saying that. Would they want to publish that view? I’m not sure. I managed to get it across but the interest was – the economy, the economy.
Question: What are the differences about a story that would appeal to a non-U.S. reader – someone who’s reading in Germany, or someone who’s reading in New York. From an editor’s point of view?
AC: The Chinese are going to be just as interested in the U.S. economy as anyone here is when we open WSJ in the morning. So I think that the “only in America” stories are very popular in foreign media, especially in Europe because in some sense it gives a kind of superiority, you know? Because America is so huge and so dominant -- and the British are the worst of all -- or the best of all at this. Like, I’m trying to think of a trivial example. Oh let’s say the Coney Island hot dog eating contest.
That might make a paragraph in a column called “Only in America".
Question: Do members of the foreign press receive briefings on U.S. government policies or operations issues on a regular basis?
AC: Yes, it’s very efficient. The Foreign Press Center was set up by the State Department and it issues official documents. So for example, I get the State of the Union address on my computer, two hours before the President actually delivers it. It’s embargoed but you have it. And other briefing papers from the various departments.
Question: So foreign reporters get the same considerations as U.S. journalists?
AC: Yes, if you are registered. Which by the way, being a citizen journalist is a lot more difficult actually. Because you don’t have any official accreditation.
Question: There’s no accreditation? You don’t have a press pass or anything.
AC: No, you can be a freelance, nothing wrong with that, as long as you can provide proof of published material or radio broadcast tapes, that kind of thing. You can be accredited, but obviously if you are attached you do have somewhat more prestige and credibility.
Question: A collective opportunity...
AC: Yes, it’s more valuable for the CEO. Their time is extremely valuable and we respect that. We’ve had some very successful meetings.
Question: Now what would you say, in all your years in journalism, was your favorite, or most challenging, interesting assignment?
AC: One of the most interesting for me personally was the end of Concorde flights.
It was a moment in history anyway. I’d flown on Concorde a few times – I was very fortunate. I had a call from the studio that I was working with – that was LBC and ITN – and they said, “I want you to cover the last flight of the Concorde.” Right? “Okay what do you want? Do you want nostalgia?” “Well, it’s a news story, you know.” And I said, “I’d like to do it on the basis of comparing the nostalgia about it ending with the hostility of its arrival in the first place,” that would be the way to do it.
And so, I duly went out to JFK. They laid on some terrific facilities for us but we were on the roof of the building at five in the morning, freezing cold. There was a whole mixture of people – former aircrew, lots and lots of press, we had a chance to see the VIP guests going in. And there I was, waiting for the take off. “Yes she’s going to begin to taxi now”. The plane was in front of us, the pilots leaning out with Union Jacks, everyone waving. And you felt quite something, like this was a moment.
Especially being British. I found myself, almost in the Hindenberg school of broadcasting, you know saying, “Now she has finally lifted off, she’s winging her way westwards over New York, the city that never wanted her to be here is now mourning her,” and thinking, “actually this is quite historic.”
Question: What is your perspective on the state of journalism today?
AC: I’m optimistic when I talk to students. But we’re going through such a profound change of everything. Everything in our lives is changing, it’s almost impossible to see. There’s no doubt there’s been a dumbing down; there’s been a falling of standards and I see that continuing.
Question: Do you attribute that to 24/7 – get it first – type reporting?
AC: Yes, we always had that but I do see that more so now. Journalistic ethics have suffered with all of this. I worked for the Daily Express and they had a big sign in the newsroom, it said: “Make it fast, make it accurate, and make it right.” That’s simple stuff but now, look at what’s happened with News International, what’s come out from that. It’s so competitive, if you are going to stay alive as a news organization you are going to have something special - you’ve got to get the extra, you’ve got to get the story. If you can’t get it, you are pressured to make it up or whatever; those ethical breaches have come in big time. We’ve always had bad journalism. But I think now we’re also losing a lot of the good stuff.