Times deputy foreign editor speaks to journalism class

Los Angeles Times Deputy Foreign Editor David Lauter told journalism students Wednesday that the recent trend of “consolidation” in foreign coverage, which has led media outlets to leave only a handful of reporters in a given country, is bad for the public.

“The fewer eyes you have on the situation, the less info you can get,” Lauter (Miriam ’09) said. “The more there’s consolidation, the less the public finds out.”

The security needs of covering Baghdad have also made it harder for freelance reporters or bloggers to fill the void left by retreating media institutions, he said. Conditions have since become so violent that nearly every reporter needs an armored car, armed bodyguards and a chase car, he said.

Lauter’s former Baghdad bureau chief started out as a freelancer in Kurdistan, at the beginning of the war.

“Now you’d get killed in a day,” he said.

He commented on the irony of newspapers such as the Boston Globe cutting foreign bureaus entirely while the costs of foreign coverage are lower than ever due to dramatic advances in technology.

Lauter also spoke about the difficulties of sending reporters to dangerous or impoverished countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. When covering countries like Cuba and Iran, he has his reporters take special precautions, such as calling the office every morning at a certain time so that the lack of a call will indicate trouble.

Much of his job often entails assessing the risk to a reporter in covering a war zone or a hotbed of political unrest. In covering the crumbling regime of aging dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe this month, the reporter had to obtain a tourist visa because the country does not give work visas for foreign journalists. However, holding a tourist visa means it’s illegal for a reporter to do any work.

“Journalists work by talking to people,” he said. “Every time she [the reporter] talks to somebody she’s subject to arrest, and Zimbabwe is not a country where you want to be arrested.”

Countries like North Korea often must be covered by interviewing refugees alone, making it difficult to get an accurate sense of the political and cultural climate, Lauter said. In Nigeria, “they no longer shoot journalists. That’s an improvement,” he said.

Another aspect of Lauter’s job is dealing with the bureaucratic governments of the countries the newspaper covers. His office has recently been involved in a dispute with the Iraqi government in which the Prime Minister has demanded that private security guards receive new weapons permits, but the Interior Ministry has yet to issue them.

Since the permits they need are unavailable, the bureau is stuck: If the security guards do their jobs, they could get arrested, but if they don’t carry weapons they can’t do their jobs, Lauter said.

Lauter started working for the Los Angeles Times in 1987 in Washington, D. C. as a reporter, and he covered a number of presidential campaigns as well as the first Bush administration and half of the Clinton administration before moving to Los Angeles.

“I got to cover the policy half of the Clinton administration and missed the scandal half,” he said.

Several seniors asked about bids by private investors to purchase the Los Angeles Times.

“There’s no such thing as a good owner,” Lauter said. “They’re bad or worse.”