Coverage of international news by the U.S. media has declined significantly in recent years in response to corporate demands for larger profits and an increasingly fragmented audience.
Having decided that readers and viewers in post-Cold War America cared more about celebrities, scandals and local news, newspaper editors and television news executives have reduced the space and time devoted to foreign coverage by 70% to 80% during the past 15 to 20 years.
I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in [the Muslim] world and, in that sense, I think we do bear some responsibility.
Several prominent journalists say these cutbacks might have contributed to the uncertainty and confusion among many Americans about why terrorists committed so heinous an assault on Sept. 11. "I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in [the Muslim] world and, in that sense, I think we do bear some responsibility," says Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe.
James Kelly, managing editor of Time magazine, says even "relatively sophisticated Americans could be forgiven for thinking that the world was becoming more like us. After all, how many stories have we read in recent years about yet another McDonald's opening in Ulan Bator? But much of the world was becoming angry at America and turned off by these exhibitions of American power."
This is not to suggest that the U.S. news media completely ignored either the hostility toward the United States in much of the Muslim world or the possibility that these attitudes could lead to terrorist attacks here.
Several major news organizations carried substantive stories on both these subjects in the years leading up to Sept. 11. Many of the stories focused on the potential of Iraq, North Korea and Iran to wage nuclear or biological warfare against the United States. Others cited only this country's continuing support for Israel and the movement of U.S. troops on Arab soil during the Gulf War as reasons for harsh Muslim attitudes toward this country. But some stories were both more sophisticated and more precise.
In January 2000, Newsweek wrote of the U.S. as "the biggest and softest target for the dangerous resentments of . . . religious fanatics who regard the spread of Western culture as blasphemy." That article asked if "Osama bin Laden has a network ready to strike" and said the FBI and CIA, "after years of feuding," had been cooperating to battle terrorism. The final sentence: "We will find out soon enough if they failed."
Early this year, on Page 1 of the New York Times, an Islamic militant trained in Afghanistan and jailed by rebels fighting the Taliban said that if he were released, he would "go to London, Paris or New York and blow up women and children for Islam."
In August 1998, "60 Minutes" broadcast a story on "Afghan freedom fighters, armed and trained by the CIA, [who] turned out to be fanatical Muslim fundamentalists who are now using terrorism to make war on the United States."
A series of Page 1 stories in The Los Angeles Times in 1996 focused on the "thousands of young men from throughout the Islamic world who flocked to Afghanistan and underwent military training" as terrorists.
An Emphasis on Crime, Sex and Scandals
But these stories represent only a tiny fraction of overall news coverage in the American media. In recent years in particular, they were overwhelmed--on the air, in print and in the nation's consciousness--by stories on the O.J. Simpson trials, Princess Diana, President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and Rep. Gary A. Condit and Chandra Levy.
Time's Kelly says the nation's news media will have to change, even if only temporarily, in response to the terrorist attacks. "Coverage of the Mideast and the Muslims over the next few weeks will make the race to cover Rep. Gary Condit . . . look like a lazy police beat," he says.
Indeed, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson says the attacks helped his network rediscover its "true mission and the vital importance of what we do . . . to be reasoned and calm and to cover international news in a serious way."
Most media in the U.S.--like most Americans--have historically shown less interest in foreign news than have the media and citizens of many other countries, in part because America has long been strong and secure and relatively isolated. But the amount of time and space devoted to international news here have declined still further in recent years.
Time magazine has reduced its foreign correspondent corps from 33 in 1989 to 24 this year. ABC News has decreased its foreign bureaus from 17 to seven in the last 15 years. The other networks also have cut back. Even CNN--the network created to cover all the news, all the time, with a foreign press corps that grew steadily from its founding in 1980--began to shift away from hard news, both at home and abroad, this year. In what Isaacson acknowledges was an effort to "chase ratings" against all-news rivals Fox and MSNBC, CNN was moving toward more entertaining, provocative talk about the news, as well as increased "soft news."
Last year, an industry initiative called the Project on the State of the American Newspaper found that there were only 282 correspondents working abroad as full-time staffers or on exclusive contracts for all the nation's daily newspapers.
More than one-third of those work for the Wall Street Journal, which focuses primarily on financial news. The nation's three major metropolitan dailies--the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post--each have 20 or more foreign bureaus that provide substantial international coverage. Together, they account for almost another third of the 282 foreign correspondents. The remainder of the almost 1,500 daily U.S. papers have fewer than 100 foreign correspondents among them.
Some regional papers in areas with rapidly growing immigrant populations have increased coverage of the countries that provide those immigrants. The Dallas Morning News has done that in Mexico, for example, and the San Jose Mercury News has done it in Vietnam.
Many news executives say they don't have to maintain large overseas contingents today because modern transportation and communications technology make it possible for them to cover stories and move staff quickly when a crisis erupts.
But as Peter Arnett, the longtime foreign correspondent for CNN and Associated Press, wrote in 1998, that approach means that for most Americans "there is no international news available anywhere unless there is a major crisis. . . . Individual papers that once rightly bragged on their own foreign affairs coverage--Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the Detroit News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to name a few--virtually gave it up."
A 1998 study by UC San Diego found that only 2% of total newspaper coverage focused on international news, a drop from 10% in 1983.
The amount of time that network television devotes to international news shrank from 45% of total coverage in the 1970s to 13.5% in 1995--a decline of more than 70%--according to a 1997 study by Harvard University. The Tyndall Report, which monitors the content of network news shows, says ABC, CBS and NBC combined carried only 1,382 minutes of news from their foreign bureaus last year, a plunge of more than 65% from 1989.
This deterioration has taken place as the U.S. immigrant population is burgeoning--44% of the nation's 30 million foreign-born residents arrived here in the 1990s--and at a time when the globalization of commerce, communications and culture have made the people of once-diverse nations, including this one, increasingly interdependent.
"The sad irony is that we've identified globalism as one of the dominant issues in the world today, and yet one of the first things many editors cut back on is foreign news," says Stuart Wilk, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News.
Cuts Started After End of Vietnam War
Maintaining a foreign staff is expensive. But reductions in foreign coverage cannot be attributed solely to high costs. The Associated Press--with 95 foreign bureaus--the New York Times News Service and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, among others, have continued to provide reams of foreign copy daily, at no extra charge, in the package of news and features they provide their media clients.
But beginning in the late 1970s, after the Vietnam War ended, and increasingly in the late '80s and into the '90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, most news executives decided that Americans weren't interested in international news.
And yet, when the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked Americans in 1996 what kinds of stories they regularly followed, 15% named international news; that was 1% below Washington politics and just ahead of consumer news (14%) and celebrity news (13%).
If Americans really aren't interested in foreign news, that may be because the news media "haven't done a very good job of making foreign news seem relevant," Wilk says. "We have to realize that maybe the problem isn't foreign news so much as we how we cover foreign news."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times