Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kim Murphy, Laura King, Others Excell

Even as the L.A. Times becomes a Pulitzer finalist for its Iraq coverage, new assignments in the Middle East bid to raise the paper's reputation at a time when cost cutting by Tribune Co. has threatened the quality of much of what the Times does.

It is a tribute to Marjorie Miller, the foreign editor, that Times foreign coverage seems only to have gotten better in this period of pressure and uncertainty. But there are heartening signs she is being supported by both the new editor and publisher, James O'Shea and David Hiller.

The Middle East is obviously key to understanding of the world today. What is going in the region stretching from North Africa all the way east to the Indian subcontinent is presently at the center of international affairs, the scene of war and cruel barbarism, and these conditions are likely to continue. But other locales, such as Russia and Korea, have great importance too.

Three of the Times foreign correspondents, all of them in comparatively new assignments, have distinguished themselves in recent months.

Kim Murphy, while nominally based in London, continues to rove widely in the Middle East. She first got her foreign spurs in Cairo 15 years ago, and now has great knowledge of the entire region. During last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah, she contributed valuable reporting from Syria. More recently, she wrote several outstanding stories from Iran.

Murphy, it should also be noted, continues to cover many interesting stories from the British isles. Just this week, her lengthy piece on the feudal government of the tiny island of Sark was riveting. Earlier, she had a leading hand in the coverage of the poisoning of a former Russian KGB operative living in England.

But this Pulitzer prize winner, won for her Russian coverage while assigned in Moscow, is most valuable in Iran at a time when its nuclear ambitions appear to threaten not only Israel but many other countries, including our own. And her educational background -- she got her B.A. from Minot State in North Dakota -- shows you don't need an Ivy League undergraduate education to become an outstanding journalist.

Laura King, formerly assigned to Israel, has taken up a new assignment in Istanbul, ranging all the way east to Pakistan and Afghanistan, with aplomb. She is one brave reporter, and her story this week from Peshawar detailed what happens when Muslim fundamentalists take control. There is every indication that the border regions of Pakistan, in addition to Afghanistan, are becoming a vital theatre of war. The Times is lucky to have King covering this area.

Writing in Friday's Times of the tribal area of Waziristan, across the Pakistani border from embattled Afghanistan,King told the story of the young teacher at a Muslim religious school who was speaking out against what the Times calls "militants" and I call "terrorists" there. "Then one day last week," she related, "the schoolteacher's corpse, with the head severed from the torso, was found in a bloody sack dumped beside a desolate road. A note on his mutilated body called him a spy for America."

King also reported, "Civilians (in Waziristan) are increasingly subject to the stringent Islamic prohibitions and punishments of Taliban insurgents, foreign militants and members of radical Pakistani organizations, whose influence is breaking down traditional tribal leadership, people in the area say.

"In some locales, barbers are being warned against trimming beards. Singing and dancing are discouraged, and music has been banned. Motorists who play their car radios face fines or beatings. Schools, particularly those educating girls, are under constant threat. Movie theaters have been ordered to close."

Certainly, it is vital that Times readers be kept informed about these barbaric forces, seeking to return the whole world to the Dark Ages. We can only pray that King will be safe.

Meanwhile, as previously recorded, Megan Stack has been doing a fine job of covering the sectarian rivalries in Lebanon. Now, she will have even greater scope in her new assignment in Moscow during a period when new strains have arisen in the relationship with the United States and Western Europe, and the Putin Administration is nearing the end of its two terms.

The Times has many good foreign correspondents. A new team is just taking hold in Iraq, and all of this is most important for the future of the Times. The ousted editor, Dean Baquet, in interviews just before becoming Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, observed that he felt coverage of the war was as important as covering the beginnings of the 2008 election campaign, and, as usual, Baquet is right.

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