Media Circus - Russian tanks invade Tokyo! See page C-32

American media are running less and less foreign news.

By Martha Ann Overland

Published July 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

to judge by what appears in the nightly TV news or the morning newspapers, the American people spend most of their time pondering their gallbladders and cheering for cat-rescue stories. Yes, there's still news out there. But hard news, and particularly hard foreign news, is increasingly being squeezed by soft family, health, celebrity and "lifestyle" stories.

While the fate of O.J. Simpson led every broadcast and headlined every newspaper for a year, the genocide in Rwanda quickly grew old and disappeared. Many nights, you won't even see a foreign story on the evening news. Bombs in Johannesburg? Crisis in Paris? Sorry -- but are you interested in the library crisis in Bangor? According to Andrew Tyndall, whose New York-based Tyndall Report monitors the three nightly network newscasts, there's only half as much international coverage today as there was in 1989. Last year, for example, NBC aired only 327 minutes of stories filed by reporters from abroad, compared to 1,013 minutes at the end of the Cold War.

Why does the media bury foreign news? The short answer is that the audience isn't there. "The readers, the viewers, the listeners are much less interested in news outside the U.S. than news inside the U.S.," says Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and former editor of Time magazine. In the post-Cold War era, says Loeb, "we are looking inward ... we can't influence French elections but we can affect the local school board."

Yet today it is more important than ever that Americans learn about the world, argues Raymond Bonner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times. "Look, we are a very introspective nation. This is what is so paradoxical. We are becoming more and more isolationist as the world is getting smaller and as we become more dependent on the rest of the world."

Behind the diminished coverage, of course, is money. As news companies have been acquired by giant corporations, news has become just another entry on a profit and loss ledger -- and foreign news has been the first to go. Within a few years in the late '80s and early '90s all three major television networks were bought up by corporations whose engines are fueled by profits. NBC was purchased by General Electric, CBS was taken over by Westinghouse and ABC was sold to Disney. It didn't take long for executives to figure out that the foreign news bureaus were black holes that sucked up money. So they slashed and burned budgets, closed down bureaus and sent correspondents and their expense accounts packing. Now entire continents are covered by a handful of stringers. Even family-owned papers such as the Washington Post were not immune from cost-cutting pressures. After the paper went public, profits that might have gone to expand coverage would have to be split with shareholders who wanted a return on their investment.

Michael Moran, who returned from working abroad last year to be the international editor of MSNBC's Internet service in Redmond, Wash., bitterly complains about the corporate influence on American news coverage.
"This change really drove me out of the country," says Moran. "Look at the television industry. Every major network has shut down foreign bureaus in the last couple of years. In some cases, such as CBS, it was an absolute rout." Critics like Moran argue that fewer people do any real reporting anymore. Now everyone buys their footage from foreign news outfits and dubs their own voices in. The role of the journalist as an arbiter, as an intelligent filter, says Moran, is fading away.

"I would disagree," says Allen Alter, head of CBS's foreign desk in New York. "I don't think our mission has changed." Alter concedes that the network news divisions are run with much more of a business sense than in the past. But then, he says, journalists used to live high on the hog. Now stories and expense accounts must be justified as with any other business.

Alter stresses that CBS still puts more international stories on the air than the other networks. (Despite closing many foreign bureaus, CBS Evening News does carry nearly twice the number of stories with international datelines than NBC. CBS is also consistently the loser in the ratings war.)

Alter and others at the networks dismiss charges that American news organizations are letting the public down by airing fewer international stories. Expenditures have to square with interest, says Alter, and the surveys show there is diminished demand for foreign news. "I can't deny the numbers," says Alter. "They are down. It's an uphill struggle all the time."

But Loren Jenkins, head of the foreign desk at National Public Radio -- who won a Pulitzer Prize winner for his foreign reporting at the Washington Post -- says such arguments are "just a bunch of bullshit. Who is to say what people want?" he says. "It's not the responsibility of the media to gauge what people's desires are."

Journalists like Jenkins bristle at the idea that consumer demand should drive editorial decisions. There are some things, he says, that people just ought to know. Americans may not be interested in this month's elections in Algeria, but the fact that we get a lot of natural gas from that country and that they have a huge migrant population in Europe are reasons to cover the story. "A lot of people may not listen, and that's fine. But it's our responsibility to provide the coverage. By not covering these stories those people (in TV and newspapers) are just copping out and are trying to maximize their profits."

NPR, not beholden to advertisers or ratings, has been labeled "elitist" in the past for such attitudes. But it's hard to argue with its large -- and growing -- audience share. On many days international stories fill up as much as 40 percent of NPR's air time. Yet no other news medium, except possibly the Internet, can boast NPR's 24 percent audience growth in the past five years. Coincidence? Possibly. But some -- like Jenkins -- argue that people have turned to NPR because of its foreign coverage.

One ABC producer, who asked not to be named, says it is unrealistic to expect the news to solve all the world's problems, or even cover them all. "We do as much as we can under the constraints we are under," he says. "ABC still has to be a money-making outfit. It's unfair that we are supposed to have the responsibility to educate people."

When Henry Luce ran Time, adds Marshall Loeb, he said his purpose was to produce a great magazine and make a nickel too. Loeb has nothing against anyone making a nickel, but he believes the cost is becoming too high. "We have become a lot less proud of our news," Loeb says. "Ask not for whom the bells tolls -- it tolls for thee."

Martha Ann Overland

Martha Ann Overland is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C. She has worked for the New York Times, the New York Post and National Public Radio.

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