The Perils of Being a Foreign Correspondent During Election-Time

Photograph Source: Nathan Russell – CC BY 2.0

Appointment as a foreign correspondent in Washington is considered a plum job among journalists, but it is a tougher assignment than it sounds. The work is hard because the main product of Washington is news, which may be true, untrue or irrelevant, but still has to be reported and at speed.

I was thinking sympathetically about these pressures on my colleagues in Washington this week as they had to give definitive opinions about the outcome of the midterm elections while the most important races were still in the balance.

I used to get some silent amusement when I was in Washington as a correspondent on hearing distinguished incoming colleagues from Europe tell me grandly how their editor back home had told them to avoid getting bogged down by day-to-day news coverage and take a longer view about what was going on in America. But Washington does not do “long term”, and I suspected that within weeks my friend would most likely be calling me up to cancel our lunch at the last minute because his or her editors were demanding a quick 1,000 words on the latest twist in the Monica Lewinsky affair or some other Washington melodrama.

Another mild irritation for your foreign correspondent in Washington is that politically engaged people back home in Europe are usually convinced that they know far more about American politics than is in fact the case. It is always far more complicated and multi-faceted in that vast country than they imagine, with important trends pointing confusingly in all directions. Yet second guessing of the reporter on the spot is habitual and unconventional views on what is really happening are regarded with some suspicion.

I had a happier time in Washington than most because I was working for The Independent with my late friend Rupert Cornwell. We would take turns to spend alternate weeks in the capital, with one of us covering the run-of-the-mill news, while the other roamed the country looking for stories. They were not hard to find. Before travelling, I would scan local state papers and invariably discover astonishing news that had somehow failed to enter the national news agenda.

Why for instance had a senior judge in Rhode Island been a pall bearer at the funeral of a mafia boss for New England? Why indeed did the mafia in New England had their headquarters in Rhode Island rather than Boston? And why was Rhode Island rated at that time as the most corrupt state in the US aside from Louisiana?

I visited the Civil War battlefields in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley because they are nearby, interesting in themselves, and the bloodiest battles took place in some of the prettiest countryside in America. My visits were productive also because they reminded me of the degree to which American politics have been shaped by fierce confrontations – of which the Civil War was only the most violent outbreak.

Europeans tend to be simultaneously over-awed and ill-informed about America and often regard it with with a largish dollop of schadenfreude. An American friend visiting Britain told me irritably last month that she was fed up with people telling her with some relish that “American politics are all about race and British politics all about class.”

There is some truth in this, but both countries are a lot more complex and interesting than that. Moreover, the European view of what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic is often tainted by wishful thinking and naivety, seeing the likes of Bill Clinton as a sort of American version of a European social democrat rather than the affable opportunistic rogue he undoubtedly is. Barack Obama’s eloquent speeches were often taken at face value outside America, though his rhetoric was mostly about as good as it ever got during his years in the White House.

Beneath the Radar

FTX, which includes the US crypto exchange has filed for bankruptcy in Delaware, after a flood of customer withdrawals led to the imploding of Sam Bankman-Fried’s $32bn empire. I could never understand how the cryptocurrency phenomenon differed from any other get-rich-quick scheme since the South Sea Bubble. Like any bubble, it is self-feeding so long as the expectation of the investor is that prices will go higher, and the enterprise will crash off a cliff as soon as confidence evaporates – as it now appears to have done.

As with all enterprises that resist regulation there is usually a good reason why those in charge do not want anybody to have too close a look at the books. Another sure sign of somebody intending to take investors to the cleaners is a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo concealing the simple Ponzi-like nature of what is going on. Of course, investors don’t have to be taken in by this hokum; they just need to believe that they can sell to somebody else at a higher price.

Here is one of many accounts of the latest crypto debacle. Cynics may also like to look at this IMF report into the Albanian pyramid scheme that collapsed in 1997, provoking a civil war in which 2,000 people were killed.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).