With so much of the staff at the San Jose Mercury News bogged down in the picayune details of murder trials, runaway dogs, the Grammys and other stories of the moment, Daniel Sneider's writing assignment is refreshingly ambitious.
Last April Sneider became the paper's first full-time foreign affairs columnist, at least in the recollection of longtime editors at the paper. Writing twice a week about how the world is knitting itself together economically -- while rogue elements simultaneously threaten to blow it apart -- Mr. Sneider has entered a relatively lonely field. His is a position no other newspaper in California can boast, and one of only a few to grace editorial pages nationally.
"I've always thought that the interest in foreign news is greater than most news organizations believe it is," said Mr. Sneider, 52, who's been a foreign correspondent for a variety of news organizations for nearly 30 years and most recently the Mercury News' national and foreign editor. His mantra is that that the economy and social life of Northern California is intimately entwined with the Pacific Rim through trade and immigration. We ignore foreign affairs at our own peril.
The Mercury News has never been one of the nation's biggest players in overseas reporting, but in 1986 it won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the corruption under the Marcos regime in the Philippines.
The paper has just two staff foreign correspondents and a handful of others who work for Knight Ridder, the corporate chain to which the paper belongs. Two other Kight Ridder correspondents, Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Andrés Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald, also write foreign-affairs columns.
Raising the profile of the Mercury News
Mr. Sneider's appearance on the editorial page seems aimed at helping to raise the profile of the Mercury News as a serious source of information and opinion about world affairs.
"The initiation of Dan Sneider's column is noteworthy because it's so rare," said Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight professional journalism fellowships at Stanford, and a former city editor at the Mercury News.
"My sense is that when newspapers today start columns, they're more often than not local -- sometimes resolutely 'local,' as in they can't deal with anything that happens outside the city limits. The Mercury News' decision to start this is recognition that what happens overseas is of great importance, directly and indirectly, to the people who read the Mercury News."
A unique 'West Coast' point of view
The reason for the column, Mr. Sneider said, is to define what's important in the world from a West Coast point of view. He sees China, not the Middle East, as the big story of the 21st century, and considers all of Europe to be "Old Europe."
Recent columns grapple with what's on everyone's lips -- namely the Bush administration's debunked claims on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But Mr. Sneider is always searching for a new issue that columnists Thomas Friedman at the New York Times and Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post have overlooked. He writes a lot about nuclear proliferation. Mr. Sneider's other major topic, economic globalization, is perpetually apropos. His dispatches from India, where American companies are out-sourcing technology jobs for a fraction of the cost, drive the point home to San Jose.
"Here in Silicon Valley, we understand that we live in a globalized economy," Mr. Sneider said in an interview from his corner of the windowless offices of the Mercury News' editorial board. "National security is not just a matter of guns and bombs, or even terrorism. The rise of China as an economic power poses all sorts of other issues for us. I think the East Coast media tend to focus overly on very narrow definitions of national security. They neglect economics. They neglect globalization for the most part."
Mr. Sneider stands a chance of being heard in Washington. His columns are syndicated to 400 newspapers over the Knight Ridder/Tribune wire service.
Larry Jinks, who served as editor of the Mercury News and later, until 1994, as its publisher, said Mr. Sneider's column is an important addition to the paper.
Mercury News loses foreign bureaus
He said it partly made up for Knight Ridder's decision to absorb the Mercury News' bureaus in Mexico City and Tokyo, leaving the paper itself only one roving correspondent and a bureau based in Vietnam. But he understood the motivation behind the consolidation -- other papers in the chain felt left out. "It's always a kind of a problem for papers that didn't have foreign correspondents to feel they have a special relationship with the bureaus," Mr. Jinks said.
The son of a foreign service officer, Mr. Sneider grew up mostly in Japan and Pakistan. He spent much of his early career traipsing around Southeast Asia, and got as far west at the Caucuses. He was the Tokyo, Moscow and then San Francisco bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, before joining the Mercury News in 1997.
Foreign news goes in and out of fashion
So Mr. Sneider had been reporting international news long before it slammed back into the American consciousness on Sept. 11, 2001. And he's been in the field long enough to experience the frustration of seeing editors above him drop front page emphasis on news from a country as soon as it ceases to be a flashpoint. That happened with Afghanistan, he said, when American war activities died down there. Mr. Sneider, however, was able to keep the story alive on inside pages.
Mr. Sneider is particularly haunted by the threats of nuclear war and terrorism. That's why he keeps writing about the critical role of the United States in finding a solution to the diplomatic crisis with North Korea, which has declared that it's been building a nuclear bomb.
Paying attention to 'rogue allies'
That's also why Mr. Sneider recently cautioned the Bush administration that it ought to pay more attention to "rogue allies" such as Pakistan, which has admitted its senior nuclear scientist has been sharing nuclear technology far and wide.
He intends to travel about six times a year. With luck, Mr. Sneider heads next to Iran. He had planned a 10-day trip before the Ministry of Islamic Guidance last month barred more than 8,000 candidates from competing in the upcoming elections. But he doesn't know if he'll be able to go. The ministry is also charged with giving journalists travel permits.
He hopes to write about the interaction between Islamic belief and democracy, the Iranian nuclear program and how average Iranians perceive Americans.
"I think it's important that Americans understand what other people think of us," Mr. Sneider said. "When I go out and travel, one of the things I always try and do is to turn the telescope around. Here's what Indians are saying about United States foreign policy. Here's what Koreans are saying. Here's what Indonesians are saying.
"Everywhere I go I write those columns, and I find that sometimes people
get irritated by that. Of course they don't like what they hear. Sometimes I
don't like what I hear, but my point is you need to understand what people are
thinking. It's not an 'agree' or 'disagree' question. It's an understanding
question. You can't possibly act in this world if you think that it doesn't
matter what other people think."