Despite globalism, international news coverage is becoming a foreign concept

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Updated: February 11, 2011 - 7:29 PM

Counterintuitively, in this era we've turned inward, which heightens the risk of policy blunders.

John Rash

John Rash

Photo: File photo, Star Tribune

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Watching the White House play catch-up on recent events in the Middle East, a news consensus emerged: Intelligence agencies knew too little about conditions in Cairo and Tunis -- let alone the rest of the world.

Maybe media outlets shouldn't be so critical. They were also caught off guard, because their best source of intelligence -- foreign correspondents -- have become increasingly rare.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Globalism and the World Wide Web were going to make media, and thus us, citizens of the world.

But instead of the press entering an international era, it became more inward-focused, with "hyperlocal" news strategies preempting global news-gathering.

The broadcast networks have reduced their overseas press presence to the point that an analysis by the American Journalism Review (AJR) listed only NBC as having an active Cairo bureau.

Stories with a foreign dateline represented only 12.7 percent of 2010 network newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors ABC, CBS and NBC.

And much of this coverage was reactionary reporting on crises such as Haiti's major earthquake and Chile's trapped miners, which got the most and third-most coverage in 2010, respectively.

The only Mideast story in the top 10 was Afghanistan, which ranked second (Iraq didn't crack the list). Iceland's volcano was fifth, but the pan-Arabic political earthquake didn't register.

The de-emphasis of foreign coverage is reflected in the network news star system as well. Worldly reporters in trench coats standing in Red Square used to become anchors.

Today the networks promote talk show hosts who have been sitting on couches, waiting for the next guest from the Green Room. Peter Jennings' successors, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, came from ABC's "Good Morning America," where the foreign affairs discussed typically involved celebrities like Jude Law and Sienna Miller.

Cable was supposed to change all this. And at least initially, internationalism built CNN's brand. Its reporters braved Baghdad bombings during the Gulf War, and it routinely ran reports from other global news outlets.

Some CNN stars even used to have a foreign accent. But now, instead of Christiane Amanpour, who got ABC an exclusive interview with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he stepped down, CNN had to turn to Piers Morgan, who lurched from lurid questionings of the Kardashians to Cairo coverage in a matter of days.

This CNN identity crisis could also be seen in recent appearances of its current star, Anderson Cooper. In the course of two weeks, he got beaten up by Pee Wee Herman in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, then took real punches from pro-Mubarak mobs in Egypt.

Cooper's on-the-ground Cairo coverage was what CNN does best, and the resulting ratings rise proves once again that hard news, not soft features, can win against higher-rated Fox and MSNBC.

TV networks are not alone in largely abandoning consistent foreign reporting: Newspapers have also cut back. AJR reports that 20 papers have cut foreign bureaus altogether since 1998, and now get most of their coverage from the Associated Press or other syndicated services. (The Star Tribune has no foreign bureaus.)

National newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today still invest internationally. But reflective of American journalism today, USA Today has five foreign correspondents, according to AJR, and 27 entertainment reporters, according to a leaked staffing chart.

Just like nature, news abhors a vacuum. So over a decade National Public Radio has increased international coverage by nearly tripling its foreign bureaus from six to 17. And an innovative Internet site,, was launched two years ago as an international online newspaper.

It reached 10.3 million unique visitors last year, with 60 percent of them American. But its users are a virtual United Nations, coming from 220 countries in a typical month, according to CEO Philip Balboni.

"Consolidation of [media] ownership, declining standards, and crumbling economics made choices essential ... and closing foreign bureaus was the easier choice," Balboni said.

These choices have consequences for news consumers -- and also for policymakers. Recalling his days as vice president, Walter Mondale said via e-mail that he valued journalism "produced by on-the-ground, gifted reporters, often with native language skills, who were often ahead of the secret information that I read carefully as part of my job.

"I'm not criticizing the [intelligence agencies] and other sources of inside information, but I did often find that the public-record account appearing in the great papers, and sometimes on the networks, would often appear earlier, and with greater detail and texture, than did the classified materials provided to us."

It's doubtful that Vice President Joe Biden could say the same thing today.

The diplomatic damage caused by the slow reaction to the story in Cairo can be contained. But, as Mondale notes, the consequences of the public and elected officials being uniformed are more serious.

"The war in Iraq was started at a time when the public was largely uninformed about that nation," Mondale said, later adding that "much the same could be said about the decision to go to war in Vietnam."

More contextual coverage of the world -- before crises erupt -- can help us, and those we elect, avoid the intelligence failures that create such mistakes.

The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter @rashreport.

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