How to Read Today’s Unbelievably Bad News

August 20, 2012

An unshocking admission: I’ve made some ungodly-embarrassing retraction-worthy journalistic mistakes over the course of my career. Almost every journalist does. It’s hard to write about complex events at once quickly, without boring your readers witless, and without making mistakes. One example in particular embarrasses me; I’ll share it with you at the end of this piece.

For now, I point this out to set the stage: When I criticize my colleagues, as I am about to do, I hardly mean to suggest that I do so from a platform of unblemished faultlessness.

But criticize I must. Something has gone very wrong in American coverage of news from abroad. It is shoddy, lazy, riddled with mistakes, and excessively simplistic.

Above all, it is absent.

Many things are to blame for this. In 2009, I wrote a piece for City Journal observing the disappearance of international news from the American press. It is a long-term trend. A number of studies suggest a roughly 80 percent drop in foreign coverage in print and television media since the end of the Cold War. it seems to me—based upon my casual perusal of the American media—that the trend is accelerating.

I asked, in that essay, “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.”

These points seem all the more true now. In-depth international news coverage in most of America’s mainstream news organs has nearly vanished. What is published is not nearly sufficient to permit the reader to grasp what is really happening overseas or to form a wise opinion about it. The phenomenon is non-partisan; it is as true for Fox News as it is for CNN.

Yet this is odd. In the era of the Internet, mobile phones, social media and citizen journalism, it has never been easier to learn about the rest of the world. So why have American news collection priorities changed so dramatically? What effect does this have upon American national security? The answer to the first question is complex; the answer to the second is simple: a bad one.

During the Cold War, every major American newspaper and television station covered foreign news, particularly from the Soviet Union and Europe. American television networks set the standard for global news coverage and—this is important—they drove the global news agenda. All the major networks had bureaus across the globe, staffed by correspondents who had been on the ground for years. Whether they were in Berlin, Cairo, Istanbul, or Moscow, they knew their region, they knew the people, they spoke the local languages, and knew the history of the stories they covered.

In that golden era of Cold War journalism, even small local papers had bureaus overseas. They hired foreign correspondents, paid them a living wage, and sent them—and their families—to foreign countries with generous expense accounts and housing allowances and a budget for interpreters and fixers. Their reports ended up on the papers’ front pages, or, in the case of television news, at the top of the hour. Working in a bureau, learning from the bureau’s old hands, and having the time to get to know a country and a region deeply enabled reporters to do the things reporters need to do: connect dots, notice anomalies and details and trends, sense weird moods that outsiders—even seasoned journalists—simply cannot sense in their first week in a foreign country. This is intuitively obvious. Consider where you work. How likely is it that an underpaid temp could show up at your company and within three days understand its culture, power structure, personalities, gossip and unspoken rules? How likely is it that a foreigner who speaks no English could do it? How likely would he be to intuit that the accountant is cooking the books? How likely would he be to know that a big management shakeup is in the works?

You can’t replace the kinds of insight you gain about a foreign country by living in it and living in it for a very long time. The following kinds of experiences, for example, help a great deal when you’re trying to understand another culture and write about it intelligently: being a victim of a crime (that’s how you really learn about a country’s criminal justice system); opening a business (that’s how you really learn about the economy and the investment climate); being sued or harassed for what you’ve written (that’s how you really learn how free the press is); experiencing a medical emergency (that’s how you really figure out what the health care system is like); taking up a sport or a hobby (that’s how you really learn how politics there are conducted) and seeing, day after day, the difference between what’s in front of your eyes and what the local media reports—no less what the international media reports. Moreover, it takes years to acquire good, trustworthy sources. But it only takes hours to acquire bad, untrustworthy ones, because they are trying to find you: The people who want to spin you are looking for naïve, fresh-off-the-boat foreign correspondents, and they know exactly where to find them.

In the Cold War era, US network news coverage was delivered worldwide: ABC fed Britain’s United Press International Television News, NBC fed Visnews, also based in Britain; CBS had its own syndication service. Few national news stations outside of the United States had the capacity to cover international news, but the United States did. During the final decades of the Cold War, for example, CBS had 14 massive foreign bureaus, 10 smaller foreign bureaus, and stringers in 44 countries. CBS has since shut down its Paris, Frankfurt, Cairo, Rome, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Beirut, and Cyprus bureaus. The other large networks have downsized similarly. US news stations have decided that some places aren’t worth covering at all. We have almost no coverage out of India, for instance—disasters, yes, but nothing else. Likewise with Africa. As for the Middle East, we hear an enormous amount about Israel, but ask yourself what you’ve heard, recently, about Libya—a country where we recently toppled the government. Does it not seem odd to you that almost no one is reporting on the aftermath? More than ever, news is reactive: There is no coverage before a story breaks, even if people on the ground could have spotted it coming a hundred miles ahead. So Americans are shocked when an emergency occurs overseas (or, for that matter, at home, as on September 11)—because they had no idea it was even a situation.

In the event of a massive breaking story—such as the uprisings in Tahrir Square—the networks parachute their people in. They bone up on the story by reading the local English-language newspapers (and in any country where English isn’t widely spoken, it is important to ask: Why does it have an English-language newspaper? The answer, usually, is that the paper is trying to sell a particular version of local events to investors and to English-speakers—a version, needless to say, that is not necessarily the whole truth). In this scenario, the US correspondent functions as a talking head: He repeats the locally-produced news story in front of a camera. In other words, the pattern has now been reversed. Whereas local news stations once relied upon American networks for global coverage, American networks now rely upon local news services for their global coverage. Many dedicated and talented freelancers pick up some of the slack, but there is no substitute for the support of a fully-staffed local newsroom with collective decades of institutional knowledge—and as someone who has been trying to earn a living as a freelancer for many years, I can promise you that the job insecurity is enough to discourage many talented people.

According to the American Journalism Review, at least eighteen American newspapers and two chains have closed every last one of their overseas bureaus since 1998. Other papers and chains have dramatically reduced their overseas presence. Television networks, meanwhile, have slashed the time they devote to foreign news. They concentrate almost exclusively on war coverage—and then, only on wars where US troops are fighting. That leaves the big four national newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post andThe Los Angeles Times—with independent foreign news coverage. But they too have closed foreign bureaus in recent years. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times shut down 43 percent of its foreign bureaus. This is especially significant because the Los Angeles Times provides foreign coverage for all the Tribune Company papers.

But couldn’t this be seen as a good and inevitable thing? Aren’t local news services inherently more qualified to provide this coverage? Isn’t it obviously more cost-effective to rely upon them? Yes, and no—but mostly no.

First, the system has not yet been replaced by a platform of highly-competent local news agencies that share a commitment to the basic codes of journalistic conduct that even the sleaziest of American papers take for granted—by this, for example, I mean that one shouldn’t just make up quotes, or grossly alter them to change their meaning, and that one should at least try to confirm rumors before reporting them.

Second, there is little diversity. Without much exaggeration, we can say that Al-Jazeera has replaced American television news as the global driver of the television news agenda, and not only in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Cuba, for example, is unexcelled by any American media outlet. Compare its coverage over the past year to CNN’s, for example.

But Al-Jazeera is Qatar’s foreign-policy arm, not ours. Qatar is entitled to have one, as is any nation. Still, if no one else is offering an equally compelling, in-depth counter-narrative, Qatar’s prejudice’s, priorities and view of the world will win by default—and theirs are not necessarily yours. Recall this article by Tuvia Tenenbom on the role played by Al-Jazeera in fomenting the Arab uprisings:

“Al-Jazeera understands the power of pictures. It was a marvel to watch how it used this power after Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Al-Jazeera got its hands on a couple of soldiers who kissed demonstrators, plus two policemen who were seen crying—or almost crying—during the same demonstration. This video was shown again and again and again and again, creating the feeling that the “Army and Police are with you. Keep on going, Tunisians!” Once Al-Jazeera decided a situation was so, it could be made a reality. No one could argue: it was Democracy in the Making!

But in all the tumult, no one remembered to ask: “Why is Al-Jazeera not championing democracy in Qatar?”—where Al-Jazeera is owned by the rulers there.”

I don’t entirely agree with his analysis: These events were, paradoxically, contingent (in the sense that they were triggered by a series of coincidental events) and over- determined (in the sense that the pressures on these regimes were so enormous, for so long, that they were at some point bound to collapse.) Al-Jazeera is just one part of the story—demography, the spread of a fuzzy notion of democracy (for which we can take much credit, for good or ill), the age of the dictators in question and the youth of the populations of the countries in question; rising global food prices—these and many other factors are all part of the story. But yes, Al-Jazeera played a key role, and not necessarily a salubrious one.

Yet Al-Jazeera should not be excoriated: It’s a superb, highly professional news gathering organization without which we’d have almost no in-depth television news coverage of the Middle East. The problem is not that they exist, it’s that they’re the only ones who exist. American broadcasters have simply given up on covering the region in a serious way.

Second, the local press is often not free, or if it is relatively free, it is not necessarily good. If you read only English, there’s a huge barrier to understanding the opinions expressed in foreign newspapers. Machine translation is still in its infancy. The larger context necessary to make a local story comprehensible to Americans is rarely provided, for example, by a Turkish newspaper—Turkish newspapers cater to Turkish audiences who already know the context, and if a Turkish newspaper is publishing in English, it is not because the editors enjoy dabbling in foreign languages; it is because it wants to sell a version of a story to you, prospective foreign investor and influencer of your government’s foreign policy. That does not mean the paper has your best interests at heart.

Take, for example, Turkey’s Today’s Zaman: Although it’s published in increasingly good English, it would be a remarkably poor idea to rely upon in it exclusively for news from Turkey. The Zaman media brand has a very particular identity. It is associated with Fethullah Gülen’s religious civil-society movement and surrounded by controversy. It has an agenda. All stories published in Today’s Zaman must be understood in this context. It takes a great deal of experience to understand who the correspondents at Today’s Zaman are, what political tradition they come from, and what their articles really mean. Most Americans would have no idea how to interpret any of this. “Interpretation” is what foreign correspondents are supposed to do, and once did. They knew how to read the local press, they understood the partisan biases of the news organs in question, and they learned the correct strategy for reading a local story and getting the most real news—news of relevance to Americans—out of it. They don’t do this anymore.

So what’s happened here? For one thing, the Internet and other technological revolutions in news gathering have resulted, to put it simply, in giving consumers who are in no position to determine what’s newsworthy too much power to decide what they think is important. News consumers may now customize the news they receive to an extraordinarily high level of precision and ignore everything else. Because stories are no longer bundled together in a single physical item—the newspaper—the reader no longer has to slog through, or at least cast his eyes over, stories about high-level meetings on nuclear disarmament in order to get to the sports page. We choose each item with a mouse-click—bye-bye, P5+1, hello, Jerry Sandusky.

News producers rely increasingly on independent companies to sell their ads; they are now dependent upon aggregators (such as Google) and social networks (such as Twitter) to bring them a large part of their audience. Consumers read stories that interest them; the aggregators, noticing that a consumer liked a story, offer them more of the same—stories, in fact, as similar as possible to the ones they just read. Obviously, readers end up having their biases confirmed this way, rather than being exposed to stories that might disconfirm them.

Similarly, sharing stories on Facebook and Twitter means, by definition, receiving your news from people who have been pre-selected to be very much like you in their political instincts—but not people who have been pre-selected to be good news editors. Recently, for example, a Facebook friend posted a news item on my page with great alarm. The story came from Pamela Geller’s ludicrous website. Its headline: JIHADIST “REBELS” IN SYRIA HANG CHILD AFTER KILLING FAMILY MEMBERS. Now, it is almost certainly true that some of the rebels are committing atrocities. But in this case—much to my amusement—neither Geller nor my Facebook friend had taken the time to look at the source of this report, which happened to be the Ahlulbayt News Agency. What’s that? Well, look it up. Postal address: 6th St., Jomhouri Eslami Boulevard, Qom, Iran. For someone who really doesn’t care for Muslims, Pamela Geller is oddly content to trust them—ones from Qom, no less!—to report with neutral dispassion on this situation.

And this is how bad it’s become among people who are interested in the foreign news to begin with. The people who understand how to target content and advertising to fit users’ interests are not foreign news specialists. They’re software programmers and technology companies. Most wouldn’t recognize a significant foreign story if it bit them in the ass. Thus most Americans will be aware of Madonna’s views about Pussy Riot, but will have no idea that the leader of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, has declared that Georgian homes in the region will be completely demolished and its villages renamed. They won’t, for that matter, have the first clue who Leonid Tibilov is, or why this story might be significant. Nor will they hear about the equally attractive and brave young women of Turkey’s Vardiya Bizde platform, who have also protested—and protested, and protested, always peacefully, thedetention of their fathers and husbands in Turkey’s so-called “Sledgehammer” case—but alas without ingeniously describing themselves as “Pussy Riot,” without desecrating a religious site, and without using awful music to make their point. Moreover, they protest in Turkish, a language no one outside Turkey understands. If Americans were receiving non-stop coverage of their sad, pretty faces, they would be just as disturbed as they are by the Pussy Riot case, I’m sure. But you won’t know a thing about them unless you’ve lived in Turkey for quite some time; and you won’t know about it from reading the Turkish press, either, particularly since journalists who cover these issues here tend to find themselves fired or locked up.

We are in a recession, and Craig’s List killed the advertising model for local newspapers. Local papers no longer have the resources to pay for foreign correspondents and their housing and their staff. It’s easier and cheaper to run wire-service stories. It makes perfect economic sense for local papers to focus on local news. But obviously, the reliance on wire services grossly reduces the diversity of reporting and reinforces the echo-chamber effect—it’s all Pussy Riot, all day, and it’s springtime or a nightmare in the Arab world, and who knows what’s happening in China, not me, for sure. Nor is the slack being picked up by bloggers: Their domestic focus is almost identical to that of the mainstream media, suggesting that the mainstream media is still driving the agenda.

This is not solely an American problem, by the way. A report titled “Shrinking World” published by the Media Standards Trust suggested that international reporting in UK newspapers has decreased in the past 30 years by nearly 40 percent. Let me point out a particularly disturbing line from that report: “In such a setting, it’s no surprise that UK-based correspondents rely on news sources from the country of origin as well as newswire content like that provided by Business Wire to fill in the gaps, turning the loss of foreign correspondents in UK newspapers into a gain for PR professionals and their clients.”

Let those words roll around in your mind—”a gain for PR professionals and their clients”—and think about what that entails. What it entails is this, as I’ve noted before:

‘Wikileaks is at it again, this time, leaking a (promised) two million-plus emails from the Syrian regime, which has in the past eighteen months tortured, raped and killed at least 15,000 of its own citizens. And look what we have here: A memo explaining how to get away with it from Brown Lloyd James.

Brown Lloyd James, according to its website, “is managed by an elite group of distinguished former news executives, top-level White House and Downing Street political advisors, high-profile entertainment industry executives and experts in international affairs. Our staff have been at the right hand of presidents, prime ministers, media barons – and yes, even The Beatles.”

Among their areas of expertise is “reputation management.” As their promotional material helpfully explains, “Things happen in the course of global events that can quickly change your public image. A positive reputation and image are powerful strategic tools and effective insurance policies should something go wrong. Brown Lloyd James has the skills and experience to manage and control fast-moving and potentially volatile situations.”‘

Now, obviously, this is a problem.

It’s foundational to the American idea of press freedom that the press performs an important role in a democratic polity. The press, in principle, checks the power of government, nourishes a marketplace of ideas and initiates debate. Jefferson famously remarked that “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” To be engaged as a citizen in a democracy requires understanding what your government is doing. Foreign reporting is as essential as domestic reporting to the cultivation of an informed electorate that can reward or punish its leaders appropriately at the ballot box for serving or failing to serve their interests.

Yet survey upon survey indicates that Americans are not at all well-informed about foreign news—they are still stumped by questions, for example, asking them to name the two main branches of Islam. The European debt crisis has attracted scant interest or concern among the US public, despite the obvious risk it poses to the United States’ own economic recovery. The American public needs reliable information about what’s going on overseas because America is a global power, and what happens overseas affects them; likewise, what Americans do overseas affects billions. Yet study upon study suggests that knowledge about international affairs has declined significantly over the past 20 years—unsurprisingly, because news coverage has declined.

College graduates now know much less about the world than their peers did in 1989. The same goes for high school graduates. These graduates will obviously be less competitive globally when their jobs are shipped overseas. But this is not even the most disturbing aspect of the trend. Not only does a democracy require a polity that’s sufficiently well-informed to have opinions about foreign policy and know whether the government is executing their desires, it requires policymakers who are sufficiently well-informed that they might have the first clue how to execute them. Most of what they know about foreign countries comes from the same media, and this includes policy-makers at the highest level.

The lack of competence in covering foreign news shows, and it shows painfully, if you live in one of the many countries that is now badly covered by the US press. I was thrilled when I read that The New York Times had sent Jeffrey Gettleman to Turkey to cover the Syrian crisis, having always admired his reporting from the Horn of Africa. I shouldn’t have been. One of his first pieces involved a grotesque conflation of Turkish Alevis with Syrian Alawites—a conflation the significance of which was well-explained by Stephen Schwartz (who tactfully refrained from mentioning Gettleman’s name), and by Susae Elanchenny, who didn’t.

Anyone who follows Turkish politics closely will know that the Alevi issue is significant and sensitive, and that this is no trivial mistake. The Times issued a belated correction, but only many days later, and not before the damage was done. What was the damage? Among other things, it fueled anti-American conspiracy theories in Turkey. The truth, obviously, was that a journalist who wasn’t properly equipped to report on this story landed, spoke to other journalists who provided him with the skeleton of the piece; thought “sectarian conflict” sounded like a plausible things to write about; and figured Alevi and Alawi look the same—what’s a consonant, after all. Besides, he was on a deadline. No one in America, or very few people, will know that what happens in Malatya is not at all the same as what happens in Syria, although they would instantly realize that something was very wrong with a news report hinting at imminent sectarian clashes arising in Florida owing to Mitt Romney’s Pennsylvania Amish roots. The story published by the Times sounded just as absurd to Turkish ears, and given the unduly high esteem afforded here to the Times and American brands, generally, the conclusion seemed logical: Americans are far too advanced and powerful to make such a mistake by mistake, so the conflation must have been deliberate and nefarious.

The damage done to Americans’ understanding of this issue was also grievous. Correction notwithstanding, the impression with which Americans came away was that Turkey was on the verge of “sectarian conflict,” a term most Americans associate with anarchy and beheadings and suicide bombings in Iraq. This simply isn’t correct. There is conflict here, certainly, but this is absolutely not the right image of it, nor even the right conflict: The conflict about which Americans should be worried, should the Syrian crisis spill over—and it is—is the Kurdish conflict. And why should we care? Suffice to say that if you are asking that question, you have not been well-served by your newspapers.

This is not to say that Turkish journalists, or foreign reporters of long-standing, do not make egregious mistakes as well. The Economist’s Amberin Zaman, in a recent piece that mercifully distinguished clearly between Alevis and Alawites, repeated the myth that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first Sunni leader to visit Ali’s shrine. In fact, he was the fourth to do so. This mistake is repeated over and over—but it is still a mistake. It is, again, the echo chamber at work.

And this brings me to the point with which I began: mistakes I have made. I point out Amberin Zaman’s error with great humility, for I too have misled my readers. In a 2010 piece for Standpoint titled Press Freedom Alla Turca, I described Amberin as a columnist for Today’s Zaman—which, as I’ve explained, is a suggestion fraught with a very particular meaning in Turkey. She wrote to me, very politely, to point out that she was not and never had been a columnist for Today’s Zaman, although her articles for the German Marshall Fund had been reprinted by the newspaper.

She was absolutely correct, and I promised her that I would ask Standpoint to issue a correction. I meant entirely to do so, but—very simply—I forgot. I’ve got no better excuse. I put it on a list of things to do, but as so often happens, other things came up. She politely reminded me again, two years later. I felt awful when I saw that, and sent the magazine an e-mail right away asking them to correct it, which they did.

There was no conspiracy involved, just carelessness–and again, Amberin, I’m sorry. But there is a moral. If you are asking, “How should I read the unbelievably awful news from abroad?” The answer is, “with utmost caution.” No matter where it comes from.

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