I know the US Democratic contenders' debate is important, but how important, compared to, say, the imposition of martial law in nuclear Pakistan?
If the last debate was any indication, the University of Nevada's Las Vegas campus is right now crawling with reporters assigned to cover the presidential horse-race. According to Drexler University, close to 400 members of the media were "credentialed" for October 30th's debate. More than 200 news organizations covered it. One New York daily sent a "live" blogger and five of their editorial staff, including two political editors and a gossip columnist. (The Daily News's Heidi Evans authored an all-important sidebar on Hillary Clinton's ten-year old bout with deep vein thrombosis.)
As for Pakistan, we called around. According to their spokespeople, US networks are relying on just a handful of reporters to cover what could well be the world's most critical crisis. ABC alone, boasts two full-time producers in Pakistan: Gretchen Peters and Habibullah Khan. Philip Reeves, NPR's man on the story, is based in New Delhi. (Sariah Nelson, reports on the region from Kabul.) NBC opened a bureau in Islamabad two years ago but flew in Richard Engel, Middle East Bureau chief and correspondent to cover the crisis. CBS told us they retain one regular camera crew and use local or flown-in reporters "depending on the story." CNN has a bureau in Islamabad, but declined to offer details. Fox News may not have understood the question.
Talking on RadioNation this week, Jonathan Schell couldn't have put it more strongly. Even before the declaration of a state of emergency, there was an emergency. "The Pakistan of Pervez Musharraf has, by now, become a one-country inventory of all the major forms of the nuclear danger," writes Schell. Crude coverage has created a dangerous over-simplification: "The US media have set things up as strong man vs, terrorist," says journalist and author Ahmed Rashid on this Sunday's program.
Pakistan's journalists, always under pressure, have been fighting for their lives. President Pervez Musharraf's government has shut down local TV stations, stopped foreign cable newscasts and threatened journalists with imprisonment. On Thursday, two of Pakistan's four main national news channels returned to the air. It's unclear if the channel's owners agreed to the government's requirement that they sign a "code of conduct."
Sadly, US media don't need a "code of conduct" to keep them in line. Pakistan vs. Punditry? As far as the US media are concerned, there's simply no comparison.
Laura Flanders is the host of RadioNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians, out now from The Penguin Press.
© 2007 The Nation