Less-than-Splendid Isolation


The world is vanishing from Americans’ awareness.

22 December 2009

If you get your news from the sources most Americans do, you will not know that India recently test-fired the Agni II, an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Nor will you know the test’s results, which were reported all over the subcontinent but not in America. You will probably be unaware of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow prison, or of who he was; the news was barely reported in the United States.

You will not know that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s trial for war crimes and genocide was suspended, since that doesn’t appear to have been reported in the U.S. at all. Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan combined have accounted for less than 5 percent of the news hole this year, according to Pew Research. Aside from China and Iran, which make occasional cameos, the rest of the world is disappearing from American consciousness, as the New York Times’s list of the ten most e-mailed articles routinely confirms. Top stories at last glimpse: “Catching Tuna and Hanging On for the Ride”; “Payback Time: Wave of Debt Payments Facing U.S. Government”; “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious”; and seven other domestic items.

The explanation for the decline of professional journalism is by now so familiar that it hardly needs rehearsing. (Internet, recession.) Harder to explain is the decline in the ratio of foreign to domestic news. The phenomenon is particularly striking if you live, as I do, in a country that has largely dropped off the media’s radar screen. It’s still more obvious if you’re a journalist: no one wants stories from Turkey these days. The spokesman for the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently addressed a group of journalists here. His topic—“Is Turkey drifting away from the West?”—should fascinate anyone troubled, for example, by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. No one from a major U.S. daily or news station attended, though journalists from Britain, Belgium, Spain, and Greece did. “The Americans never come,” the organizer said. I cannot give this story away to Americans. “Sorry, Claire,” wrote the editor of one news magazine, “but we’re not interested in Turkey stuff.”

If there’s coverage of Turkey at all in the U.S., it’s almost always superficial. Even if American journalists had come to the lecture, they wouldn’t have noted that it was funded by Fethullah Gülen, since nobody in America knows who he is. No one knows where Gülen’s money comes from, since finding out would require a massive investigative effort of the kind that no amateur journalist could possibly mount. It could be done by an old-fashioned, fully funded newsroom, and they’re not all gone; they’re just devoting themselves to line-by-line analyses of Sarah Palin’s autobiography.

The disappearance of international news is a long-term trend in the U.S., dating back at least to the late 1960s and particularly marked since the end of the Cold War. A number of studies suggest a roughly 80 percent drop in foreign coverage in print and television media since then. But the trend seems to be accelerating, a fact that should alarm citizens of any country that aspires to global influence—or to survival, for that matter.

Received wisdom holds that covering international news costs too much in a recession. But it shouldn’t. The cost of living is generally lower overseas. What do you need to cover the news besides a journalist, a pen, a notebook, and a computer with an Internet connection? The explanation that professional foreign correspondents have been displaced by amateurs is likewise incomplete. Bloggers, it’s true, now report some domestic stories better than the mainstream media do. But in Turkey, most bloggers insist perversely on writing in Turkish, and consequently almost none of what they write enters American consciousness. So American news consumers haven’t substituted their consumption of professional reporting from Turkey with a better, cheaper product. The results of a recent Pew survey suggest what’s really putting foreign correspondents out of business: isolationism among Americans, the survey found, has reached its highest level in 40 years. Foreign coverage doesn’t sell because there’s no demand.

Why has the U.S. increasingly forgotten that a wider world exists? One possible reason is many Americans’ sense that since September 11, U.S. efforts to get involved abroad have been (arguably) unsuccessful and (inarguably) unappreciated. Another is the demoralization of the American workforce. The U6 rate of unemployment in the States—the more expanded measure that includes those who have stopped looking for work and those unwillingly settling for part-time employment—is now 17 percent. Many people are now underemployed in jobs that offer little pride or satisfaction, suffering a general sense of aimlessness and disgruntlement. Such a mood discourages the cultivation of a lively curiosity about the world. Yet even the most isolationist American might want to ask himself whether it’s wise to snuggle into a cocoon of self-absorption. What I heard at the Turkish media event could in the long run prove more important to him than the latest debt figures—even if he’d rather not know about it.

Claire Berlinski, a contributing editor of City Journal, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.