One of my favorite books is a how-to manual on becoming a freelance foreign correspondent. There's something endearingly credulous about the kind of person who would buy a how-to book about such an involved and multifarious discipline. But that's me ... endearing and credulous.
The book is called (swingingly) The World On A String: How To Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent by Al Goodman and John Pollack, veteran journalists. There's a foreword from Wolf Blitzer, who was Senior White House Correspondent for CNN in 1997. It really is a good book, chock full of great information on everything from choosing your region wisely and finding stories to pitching new outlets and filing expenses. There's even an appendix listing plug types and voltage by country. Everything a neophyte needs.
But what I really like about the book, the reason it appeals to me so strongly, is that, intentionally or not, it serves as a detailed and credible description of a lifestyle I can't help but idolize. There's nothing more romantic-seeming than the life of a foreign correspondent, nothing as brazen, nothing as manly in the Hemingway sense. I've dipped my toes deep enough, reported overseas just enough, to know that the foreign correspondent lifestyle is actually incredibly stressful, compounding the most harried and high stakes parts of journalism and freelancing. The authors of the book aren't coy about any of that. But the lifestyle still beckons me, still seems like the distilled essence of adventure.
All this has been on my mind as I've been thinking about James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and also about Matt Power, whose death was accidental but no less tragic. Like everyone who works in the media, I have thoughts about the professional culture that these journalists worked within, and like everyone who draws breath, I can neither fathom nor shake the darkness of the executions of Foley and Sotloff. The second part, I think, should never be fathomed fully, because wrapping our minds around something like that would degrade us somehow, scratch our humanity. The first conversation, about the professional culture and increasingly anemic infrastructure of the Fourth Estate, needs to continue, and urgently, and it needs to survive the here-and-then-gone attention span of the news cycle. It already seems like that conversation has dimmed.
But what I feel some license to say, and which may seem obvious or pandering to the point of being fatuous, is this: those guys were heroes. They were young men attracted to a certain kind of life, and unlike many of us, they threw themselves into it with bravery, talent, and dedication. There's such a stigma associated with idolizing that living-on-a-razor's-edge drive, and there's good reason for that stigma. But there's also good reason to stand in awe of the people who attempt a life that's unbounded by the restraints that most of us have agreed to live by, people that live life with the world on a string. That is unquestionably brave, and in service to a higher purpose like journalism, it's heroic. I'm saying nothing new, but it's just something on my mind on a gray morning in Los Angeles, looking at my bookcase, seeing that familiar spine.