Alex Massie

Location, location, location

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Daniel Drezner praises Elaine Sciolino, who is leaving Paris after five years as the New York Times' correspondent, as a "fine reporter/observer". Not so fast, cautions Arthur Goldhammer:

Her swan song reminds us why she will not be missed. For our national newspaper's chief correspondent, France means above all sexy underwear, friendly butchers, nasty haberdashers, handkissing, and other quaintnesses. La grande Nation is a dotty old aunt best captured in droll anecdotes.

Now, to be sure, Madame Sciolino's farewell despatch is meant to be whimsical, even jolly. Alas, it's simply cliched, banal and, appallingly, stuffed with name-dropping. More to the point, it's also supposed to demonstrate how peculiarly funny and odd the French are. One has the sense that five years in France have neither led Sciolino to like or understand the French.

So I'm in Goldhammer's camp. That's fine. These are occupational hazards and I suspect that her editors in New York are at least partially responsible for Sciolino's glib and frothy take on France*. But, as anyone who has been a foreign correspondent knows (or should know), one of the jobs is, from time to time, to tell editors that they're wrong and that, no, the paper ought not to be peddling easy cliches. This can be difficult, but it needs to be done as, I rather suspect, Americans who read the foreign press's coverage of the US can readily understand. It's easy to write about a gun-toting, racist, obese America full of gay-hating religious crazies but indulging those stereotypes to excess scarcely advances either a reporters' understanding of America or that of his readers. There has to be an at least an attempt to ask why as well as what.

And, as in real estate, location matters. Sciolino lived (in an NYT-owned apartment?) in Paris's 7th arrondissement. Now if you wanted to choose a dreary and boring and unrepresentative part of the city to live in, well, the 7th would be on your shortlist of neighbourhoods. It would be like living in the dullest corner of the Upper East Side and thinking this gave you a window onto America.You could scarcely choose a worse place to live.

This is less of a problem for Washington correspondents since they're dealing with politics, but as a general rule it would be no bad thing if fewer foreign correspondents lived in New York and more of us moved to St Louis or Knoxville or Atlanta or Phoenix. My suspicion is that their journalism and their understanding of American life, society and culture would improve.

*Not everything has to be earnest, of course and there's plenty of room for quirky tales of eccentricity etc etc. The NYT's Sarah Lyall (whom I've praised before) is an excellent example of how one can simultaneously be light, affectionate and perceptive. Take, for instance, this very droll piece on why Slough is so ghastly.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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