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Media Coverage and our Understanding of International Politics

"Why Are We So Lousy at Foreign Policy?" asks Prof Ernest J. Wilson in America Abroad:
We have a particular blind spot when it comes to nationalism in its various forms. From the Congo to Vietnam, American foreign policy mandarins kept confusing nationalism with communism. Ho Chi Minh and Patrice Lumumba become blank canvases on which policy makers could paint the face of their favorite bugaboo. Today, nationalists are called terrorists instead of communists.
He gives a few answers to that question, including the famous quote from the late German-American political scientist Karl W. Deutsch: "Power is the ability not to have to learn." Wilson explains: "Whether it was the Romans or the French, big empires get willfully ignorant and woefully arrogant."
FP Passport provides one illustration by pointing out that "foreign correspondents for American newspapers have become a dying breed, with their number sliding repeatedly in recent years," as FP Passport reports:
In 2000, American newspapers employed 282 foreign correspondents. Following 9/11, that number went up slightly, to 304. Then, newspapers like the  Baltimore Sun and New York's Newsday (both owned by the Tribune) shut down overseas bureaus. So in 2006, that number fell by more than 20 percent to only 249. Today, with the Globe's announcement, that makes roughly 239. By my calculations, that means that there is only one foreign correspondent per 1.3 million people in the United States. Paradoxically, Carroll finds that people who are interested in original, international news tend to be highly-educated with greater incomes, making them attractive to advertisers. (The Wall Street Journal seems to get it -- nearly half of U.S. newspapers' foreign correspondents work there.)"
Is the German media better? I don't know. I think Germany's newspapers have cut the number of foreign correspondents as well in recent years.
The German media writes more about US policy in Iraq than about NATO in Afghanistan, although Germany is involved in Afghanistan. How many German correspondents are in Afghanistan or in Congo, Nigeria, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, or in Burma, and travel outside the capitals?
Perhaps I am wrong (please let me know), but it seems to me that there is more German media scrutiny of US foreign policy and more coverage of US debates on foreign policy than there is scrutiny of German and European foreign policy, although debates about our foreign policy are more important and much needed. How are we doing in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo? How well are our efforts in reconstruction, job creation, institution building, reconciliation etc? What should be done better, so that the Bundeswehr can return soon? Re Iran: Where is the debate about full economic sanctions?

Endnote: The courageous CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports "on the intense battle to wrest control of Baghdad's Haifa Street from the insurgency." CBS has the video on its
website, but does not broadcast it on TV. In an email quoted by Crooks and Liars, Lara Logan explains: "It is a story that is largely being ignored, even though this is taking place very single day in central Baghdad, two blocks from where our office is located. (...) If anyone has time to send a comment to CBS – about the story – not about my request, then that would help highlight that people are interested and this is not too gruesome to air, but rather too important to ignore."
Here's another video of Lara Logan reporting about US soldiers delivering aid to a Sunni neighborhood of Bagdad. Crooks and Liars has posted before about Lara Logan, when she "blasted the right wingers and Laura Ingraham in particular who were saying the media was biased against the war and afraid to leave their hotel balconies to report all the wonderful stories in Iraq."
Related post in the Atlantic Review from June 2005: "Dream on America" about The Globalist's assessment that the "real crisis [of American journalism] is about an increasing unwillingness to tell hard truths when it really matters." Fair assessment?


German Joys on : European Coverage of the Iraq War

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The folks over at Atlantic Review quote an assessment of the Globalist: the American media shows an increasing unwillingness to tell hard truths when it really matters. The Globalist was writing in 2005 -- now, I'd say the tendency is


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Pat Patterson on :

In fairness to Big Media, which I'm one of its critics, is that they have been reducing the number of full-time staff and substituting the use of part-time and cheaper local stringers. I believe that during the land campaign of the 2nd Iraq War reporters could get high risk insurance through the US government but that is no longer offered. Cynically one of the main causes of these cutbacks is the cost of the insurance premiums that would have to pay to cover its full-time reporters and what appears to be no loss of prestige for a paper that does not have an office in every hot and cool spot in the world. Local stringers are not provided with this coverage which saves a lot of money, and of course the coverage remains "just" as good as before.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

Thanks, Pat. I appreciate your many comments. I agree, local journalists might be as good as American/German correspondents. They might even be better, but I don't know if American/German readers trust local journalists as much. I should have dug a bit deeper and looked at the amount of foreign news rather than just the number of foreign correspondents. According to the working paper by Jill Carroll (mentioned in the post), the decline in the number of foreign correspondents has "meant drops in the amount of foreign news" in newspapers, but not in CBS, ABC and NBC television. Quote from her paper: [i][b]Coverage of foreign affairs dropped from 27% in 1987 to 14% by 2004, according to a month-long study of 16 newspapers’ front pages [/b]by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The same study found the [b]nightly broadcast news devoted 19% of all stories to foreign affairs in 1987, slowly dropping off to 10% by 2002 then spiking to 25% in 2003 before dropping again to 14% in 2004.[/b] Even as the numbers of foreign bureaus shrink, and overall bulk of coverage appears to be diminishing, foreign news is still among the largest segments of news coverage, although by a smaller and smaller margin. The 2005 annual report by the Project found that among the newspapers studied, foreign affairs coverage was roughly the same as domestic affairs coverage in 2003 and 2004, whereas in 1977, 1987 and 1997 foreign affairs went from three times as much coverage as domestic news to about a third more than domestic news. But the picture is different for [b]television news. For CBS, ABC and NBC[/b], foreign coverage in general rose after the 9/11 attacks in the three categories that have been measured by The Tyndall Report since 1988. Stories about US foreign policy, international stories unrelated to US foreign policy, and stories filed from foreign bureaus all rose sharply after the 9/11 attacks after steady declines in the 1990’s. [b]The number of minutes from stories from foreign bureaus rose from 1,382 in 2000 to 2,772 in 2003 and then 2,358 in 2005.[/b] Time devoted to stories about US foreign policy totaled 1,254 minutes in 2000 then jumped to 4,111 minutes in 2003 and evened out at 2,358 minutes in 2005. Some 2,127 minutes in 2000 were devoted to stories from overseas that didn’t involve US foreign policy. The number increased to 2,871 in 2003 and continued to climb to 3,030 minutes in 2005.[/i] Full working paper as pdf at Harvard: [url][/url] She argues in her working paper that a) Americans are interested in foreign news, b) American don't feel well informed, and that c) foreign news can be profitable for media companies. Pat, I think US companies should be able to afford the insurance premiums for sending correspondents to Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria etc. Perhaps the correspondents could learn to speak with a German, Canadian, Australian accent, if that is necessary for security reasons. Is it necessary? I don't know. I thought US journalists could convincingly argue to local populations that they help to inform Americans about what is going on, i.e. they should be grateful for having a journalist cover their stories...

JW-Atlantic Review on :

Okay, since their circulation is going down, paying for insurance might be of concern. But: Perhaps they can increase circulation and get more advertisers by improving foreign news coverage? Yes, that does not sound very likely to me, but that is what Carroll argues: "Carroll finds that people who are interested in original, international news tend to be highly-educated with greater incomes, making them attractive to advertisers. (The Wall Street Journal seems to get it -- nearly half of U.S. newspapers' foreign correspondents work there.)"

Don S on :

"foreign correspondents for American newspapers have become a dying breed," This is true, but it's also the wrong measure to use. American newspapers are a dying breed. The once-mightly LA Times is in extremely parlous state due to dropping circulation, and even the Old Gray Lady (the NY Times) is feeling the pressure. Smaller and more regional newspapers are in tough shape also. But.... this is a little like measuring UPI (the now defunct press agency) and using it as a measurement. UPI probably had more than 1000 reporters in 1950 but none today (because it went out of business). What you really need to ask is what replaced UPI. Or in this case what is replacing the LA Times. Ie 'new' media. CNN, Fox, ITV, and their counterparts globally. More or fewer correspondnets? I suspect fewer - but with far more reach per correspondent.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"American newspapers are a dying breed." Really? I have read that they sell less copies, but don't understand why. Do Americans read blogs instead of newspapers? Do American correspondents in Germany get fired because of Davids Medienkritik, the Atlantic Review and other blogs? I hope not. Bloggers depend on newspapers. Most newspapers tend to be much better than most blogs in fact checking and original reporting etc. The blogosphere is cool. It is great to read a blog from someone living in Bagdad, Tehran, Yangoon, Caracas etc, but it takes some time to figure out which blogs are good and reliable and balanced. How bad is the crisis of American journalism after recent scandals? How much do Americans trust and rely on blogs? Isn't the rise in blogs exaggerated? Moreover, perhaps American read the websites of the newspapers rather than buy them in print? Thus, a decline in circulation does not necessarily mean that "American newspapers are a dying breed." Do you know of any studies about all this? I don't understand your comments on UPI. They are still here: [url][/url]

Don S on :

The very name news carries significance in this context. 'Dead tree' publications too married to their newsprint are dying. Other publications are going online with some enthusiam. I believe the Washington Post is doing comparatively well, for example. This involves a different business model, and provides opportunities for new organisations. Only a few years ago I bought both the Times and the Daily Telegraph daily - now I probably buy them twice a month (if that). Usually on the weekends because I love the travel sections and some of the special magazines included then. Almost never on a weekday unless I'm far from a PC. Wehre do I get my news? The same sources as before. The websites of major newspapers,, the beeb. They are far more timely but it's the same content - plus it's gratis. The single exception is the NY Times, which has placed it's contents behind a 'Berlin Wall'. You must pay to get most NY Times and I can't be bothered. Everyone else is using advertising to finance operations. This has two major advantages. I kill fewer trees and use many fewer resources (petrol, chemicals, wood, etc) to get my news. And I don't have to dispose of a couple heavy bags of newspaper waste to go to the landfill every week (which is a pain anyway). Given my former habits I extimate that I have cut my waste by 25 or 33% since 2002. You may call me a freeloader but I don't agree. I'm saving the planet (also don't own a car), and the cost of delivery to a consumer like me is hugely less to the news organisation. Why should I pay to subsidise dead-tree mastodons? The UK Times has more than doubled it's price in 6 years - but online readers should pay perhaps 10% of the paper price or less. Nothing when one considers ad revenues.

JW on :

"Wehre do I get my news? The same sources as before." So you use newspaper websites instead of print editions. The online services of the newspapers need material from foreign correspondents... If they employ less correspondents, then...

Don S on :

Ah, but the structure matters, Joerg. In 1980 I got my daily news from the Milwaukee Journal, so the number of foreign correspondents the Journal had might have mattered. Today I get my news (particularly my foreign news) from the Washington Post, the CNN website, and the NY Times to a degree. What we are seeing is a process of consolidation. I think it will go further; the NY Times will publish a national edition with local content in each of theor markets. Whether they call that product the NY Times or the Boston Globe matters little. What this may mean is fewer foreign correspondents but a greter reach for each correspondent. Actually my concern is not so much about foreign coverage - larger news organisations will have the resources to maintain correspondents in ever more specialised places; not only Bonn or Berlin but also Stuttgart. No, what worries me is the depth of local coverage that a national newspaper will be able or willing to provide.

Don S on :

The comment on UPI has a very simple point. In 1950 the AP and UPI were without doubt the largest and most domionant US news providers because they provided most of the US with their foreign news and really most news outside of the area covered by the local newspaper. As TV and later cable came on and as local newspapers expanded their staffs of foreign correspondents, UPI and Ap decilined. If you measuered US foreign news coverage in 1950 and 2000 by the number of foriegn correspondents employed by the wire agencies you would have missed the entire story, which was TV, cable, internet, newspaper,s news magazines, etc. You are doing the same by myopically looking only at newspaper's foerign correspondents.

David on :

Could this be the future? A group of top jounalists have left the Washington Post, lined up major investors, and this week launched [url=]Politico[/url] - a completely Web-based newspaper focused on Washington politics. As a political junkie, I'm ecstatic, and hopefully they will over time expand their coverage on foreign policy issues.

Don S on :

I agree. Not perhaps *the* future* - but one of many futures Could you see a group of top columnists like Tom Friedman of the NY Times seceding and setting up on an ad-supported website? I could. I might even be willing to pay a derisory fee for something like that.

Howard C. Berkowitz on :

Apropos of the lack of quality in some foreign news reporting by smaller media outlets, I still remember a self-described foreign correspondent cry, breathless with excitement, "The Former Yugoslavia is becoming Balkanized!"

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