A world of unreported news

Special to WorldTribune.com

The following was originally published on , April 5, 1998

Robert Morton, The Washington Times

Does foreign news still matter now that there is no apparent Soviet threat to U.S. national security?

Should Americans debate the implications of the famine in North Korea’s totalitarian never-never land, the proliferation of nuclear weapons fueled by the continuing fire sale on Russia’s only assets, or the continuing and massive repression of religious minorities in still-communist mainland China?

Robert Di Niro and Dustin Hoffman in the 1997 film “Wag the Dog.

In the judgement of new editors, producers and their bosses, the answer seems to be no.

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 10, she turned the globe she had brought with her so that the Eurasian continent faced the panel. Looking at the world from that angle, she explained, put the Iraqi crisis into perspective. That Mrs. Albright needed a prop to focus the minds of U.S. Senators and the television audience on the world outside Monica Lewinsky’s Washington is telling.

The plotline of the movie “Wag the Dog” featured a virtual war with Albania fought only on the television screens for a nation of couch potatoes to divert the public mind from a presidential sex scandal. Albania was chosen by the Hollywood producer hired by the fictional White House spin doctor, because of all the nations about which Americans knew little, Albania was deemed the one they knew least.

Does the surreality of this notion not bring to mind the prospect of another war with Iraq? What do Americans really know after all about Iraq and its neighbors, their history, culture, and politics? And were it not for CNN, how would they experience the sound effects of smart bombs allegedly rattling Peter Arnette’s hotel suite windows?

Since the Berlin Wall was toppled and the Cold War ended, the nation’s news media have come to view foreign news the way George Bush did broccoli.

One study showed a 63 percent decline in minutes of news from foreign bureaus on the three major network news programs between 1992 and 1996, according to Stephen Hess’ book, “International News and Foreign Correspondents” (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.).

Surrounded by vast oceans to the east and west, and low-key nations to the north and south, the United States is a relative paradise free of hostile neighbors, rich in natural resources, and obsessed with the American dream machine which drives the economy to ever new heights.

Are a quarter billion Americans suffering from an information deficit of news about the remaining five-and-a-half billion global villagers outside their privileged compound? After all they are served by 1600 daily newspapers, more than 7,000 weeklies, 1,200 television stations, 10,000 radio stations, and 11,000 journals and magazines.

How about the quality of international news in the 1990s?

“When we examined international news on U.S. television by country, we found that no country, with the possible exception of Russia, was explained and presented coherently enough so that attentive viewers could believe they understood how life was lived there,” Hess wrote.

“International news was being reported on by ‘parachutists,’ reporters of no fixed address whose expertise was in dropping in on people trying to slaughter each other,” he continued. “This was an economical system of news gathering and one guaranteed to make the world appear even more dangerous than it is.”

In most daily newspapers, foreign news is treated as if from another galaxy, unless American troops or diplomats are involved. With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Times, and The Washington Post, even big city newspapers carry little more than a page of international news – often briefs – drawn from the wire services.

What international news there is comes skewed in favor of violent content and according to geographical location. A study for the Journal of Communications by William C. Adams concluded that in terms of the coverage of natural disasters, “the globe is prioritized so that the death of one Western European equaled three Eastern Europeans equaled 9 Latin Americans equaled 11 Middle Easterners equaled 12 Asians.”

Newspaper editors usually blame their readers for the news diet they consume. People aren’t interested in foreign news, the argument goes. Readers want local news, sports and advertising. And let’s not forget the comics and obituaries.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry suggests that it might be newspaper editors and publishers, rather than the public, that have lost interest in and cut budgets for overseas coverage. The decline in foreign news coverage may have contributed to public apathy on news of the world beyond our borders, he said over coffee in his office at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Or have the press barons and newsroom managers been correctly perceiving the public’s lack of interest? The question of whether the “chicken or the egg came first in that case is an interesting one,” Perry said.

Whatever the reason for diminished world news coverage, most foreign policy experts agree that Pax Americana is not the real story. Even Hillary Clinton upon returning from a tour of the former Soviet Union last November lamented the complaints she regularly heard to the effect that most Americans know nothing of those countries and their struggles.

“I wish more Americans would focus on it,” she said.

Dr. Peter Duignan, an expert on Africa and Europe at the Hoover Institution argues that the world is just an unsafe for democracy as ever.

“The Cold War may be over,” he said, “but the problems aren’t. After all what were the three original and simple purposes of NATO? Keep Germany down, the Russians out, and the U.S. in Europe. They are still true today.”

Former Reagan administration domestic policy advisor Martin Anderson complains that boredom and apathy is encouraged by news reports that read like State Department briefings. “People want to know what it’s like to live and do business in other parts of the world,” he said. “Most coverage is a cure for insomnia.”

The saga of the Clinton presidency is a dramatic masterpiece surely equal to the fervid imaginings of any novelist who has ever walked this planet. But in an age of the globalized economy and an expanding cyberspace frontier with no boundaries, the American press risks losing relevance. Its role is still to provide its readers a window on the whole world, and not only that sub-culture now occupying government housing on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in the nation’s capital.

Robert Morton is Managing Editor of the National Weekly Edition of The Washington Times and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.