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A Bleak Outlook on the Impossibility of Sustained Foreign Correspondence

Interviewee: Lewis Simons, 1970-1971 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
October 15, 2009


As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Lewis Simons recalls his revealing report on corruption in the Philippines but anticipates a coming downfall of international reporting. For more on the initiative, visit

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

On June 23, 1985, the San Jose Mercury News began running a three-part series of articles by Katherine Ellison, Pete Carey and me under the headline "Hidden Billions: The Draining of the Philippines." The series was the result of our six-month investigation into how President Ferdinand E. Marcos, his wife, Imelda, and eight of their associates had stolen vast sums from the impoverished nation and hidden it around the world.

Precisely eight months after the last article ran on the front page of the Mercury News, Marcos fled into exile in Hawaii. Between those two events a sham election and a stunning "People Power" rebellion had rocked the Philippines and seized the imagination of people everywhere. Our reporting played a central role in stirring masses of Filipinos to vote against Marcos and to take to the streets of Manila, where they faced down his tanks. Representative Stephen Solarz (D-NY) wrote: "Your series made history...Few articles have registered so profound and positive an impact upon the course of international events. You helped set in which resulted in the triumph over tyranny in the Philippines."

I was based in Tokyo in those days and became deeply involved in covering the Philippines immediately after the assassination of Marcos' arch foe, Benigno Aquino. In the course of my reporting, I began hearing rumors of real estate the Marcoses supposedly had acquired under elaborate cover in midtown Manhattan and elsewhere. I urged my editor, Jonathan Krim, to allow me time to dig. Eventually, with Ellison and Carey working in the United States and me in the Philippines, we succeeded in penetrating the complex financial networks the Marcoses and their cronies had set up. We had begun listening to vague rumors and ended up publishing unassailable, documented facts.

I've never been more proud of a story.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

The Vietnam War.

While several names are obvious, I see the relentless probing of this misbegotten, bungled nightmare as a triumph for all American journalists of the era.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else's--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

In dismal contrast with [the previous question], I've never been more discouraged and pessimistic about the future of journalism in the United States.

I anticipate that within the next few years, most newspapers with even modest pretensions at seriousness will cease to exist. I believe that we face an open-ended period of rumor-mongering and opinionated blather. Under the circumstances, I'm afraid that foreign correspondence will become not just an unaffordable luxury but an impossibility.

I hope I'm wrong.


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