The Shrinking of Foreign News

Garrick Utley. Foreign Affairs. Volume 76, Issue 2, March/April 1997.

Television’s foreign correspondents do not travel light. Off camera, their distinguishing feature is the small mountain of equipment traveling with them, which sets baggage handlers to dreaming of large tips and airlines to calculating budget-busting excess-weight charges.

The financial burden of that luggage is only one factor making the network television foreign correspondent an endangered species. New technologies in cable and satellite TV have turned the stable, predictable, almost automatically profitable television marketplace into a competitive cauldron in which journalism must increasingly compete with entertainment programming. This has prompted a redefining, or at least a questioning, of the traditional news agenda in the post-Cold War world. Producers and network executives believe the American mass audience’s interest in daily events beyond their nation’s borders is declining, so little such news is offered-which exacerbates the high cost/low return (or low visibility) nature of international coverage today. On-screen sightings of foreign correspondents grow rarer in the place where the most people would see them-on the networks. According to the Tyndall Report, total foreign coverage on network nightly news programs has declined precipitously, from 3,733 minutes in 1989 to ,838 minutes in 1996 at ABC, the leader, and from 3,351 minutes to 1,175 minutes at third-place NBC.

A partnership with the camera The image of the correspondent reporting from some troubled land has become firmly imprinted in viewers’ imaginations, particularly since 1963. Televised coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy bonded viewers to what was beginning to be called a “medium,” which could convey human experience and emotions as they could never rise off the printed page. A Roper poll that year found for the first time that television was the main source of news for more Americans than newspapers. Moreover, in 1963 NBC and CBS expanded their nightly news programs from 15 minutes to 30. Some at the networks wondered whether there was an audience-and, therefore, sponsors-for the longer newscasts. More pressing yet, would there be enough news to fill the half-hour? One solution was to build up foreign coverage and the role of foreign correspondents.

From the beginning, a television foreign correspondent performed three functions. First, he-it was a mostly male club-was a journalist reporting the story. He was also the report’s producer, deciding what events or visual elements needed to be filmed and what interviews recorded to make the story. In the half-hour format, reports initially ran a minimum of two and a half minutes and often three to five minutes, compared with one and a half minutes or even less today. Reports required a narrative line with the reporter as storyteller, which brought up the correspondent’s third role, more image-driven than the first two but equally essential: he was a familiar figure who established the news program’s “presence” in the story. Merely by being there, the correspondent gave the network credibility, demonstrating to viewers that his organization spared no effort or expense to be on the scene anywhere in the world where important events were taking place.

Almost immediately, however, it became apparent that the correspondent had a partner with a will of its own: the camera. If television’s greatest strength was the transmission of human experience rather than facts, analysis, or concepts, the correspondent ran the risk of becoming little more than a caption writer for the moving pictures. Vietnam brought the issue to a head, as sounds and images of Americans at war resonated in living rooms stateside. Even as they enjoyed the status and visibility television bestowed on them, the correspondents in Vietnam found themselves losing editorial autonomy and the pictures’ compelling force taking over. Recognizing the immense power of the new visual language, television journalists eventually reached an accommodation with it.

TV Covers the Earth

Then as now, the question facing the foreign correspondent was whether television news, besides offering drama and emotion, could add, if not to viewers’ detailed knowledge of the world, at least to their awareness of it. The answer, I believe, is that it has, although the effect is difficult to quantify. Television had an impact on public opinion, which in turn affected the government’s formulation of foreign policy, during and after the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in , the terrorist attack on the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1982, and the killing of American troops in Somalia in 1994. Amid the background noise of the beating of nativist drums and ideologues’ declamations, there are few signs that a majority of Americans seek a return to the “splendid isolation” or the Fortress America of the pre-television era. Many factors have contributed to that relative openness to the world, but TV has played a central role.

The growth of network television news coincided with a broadening of the foreign news agenda. Until the 1960s, correspondents (print and electronic) were based primarily in the European capitals and Tokyo. Those covering Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the rest of Asia were allotted few column inches and little airtime, regardless of what was going on in those regions. In the 1960s, however, that changed rapidly, not only because of the longer network newscasts but also because of the growing prominence of the Third World and the nonaligned nations movement, both seen in the context of the Cold War rivalry. The 1955 Bandung Conference, trouble in Indochina, the Congo crisis of 1959-62, and armed conflict between India and Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s meant that correspondents could no longer remain in familiar capitals working their traditional sources. For all the expertise and language skills they had acquired, news was occurring far from London, Paris, or Tokyo.

Travel became a key part of the foreign correspondent’s job description. The advent of the Boeing 707 halved the time it took journalists to get to another continent. In the 1970s the routine use of communications satellites made same-day coverage possible, increasing the incentive for reporters and camera crews to race off to breaking stories in remote locations. Newscasts saw a marked shift from overseas feature and background stories to hard news. They gained the immediacy of broadcasting “today’s news today,” at the cost of the more explanatory coverage that had been part of the evening news of earlier years.

For the foreign correspondent, instant satellite communications left little time for developing expertise in a specific country. Reporters became known as “firemen,” flying from one international conflagration to the next. In March 1978 I was based in London, working for NBC News. On a Monday morning of a quiet news period, I had no plans to leave the city. By Saturday, I had covered South Moluccans seizing hostages in the Netherlands, the Israeli incursion to the Litani River in southern Lebanon, and the kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in Rome, and had returned home-three stories in three countries on two continents in five days.

Cold War Consumers

The mass public in the United States has never shown much sustained interest in what is happening abroad. Throughout the nation’s history, the American sense of self-containment has rarely been challenged, and then only by direct threats to U.S. interests. The Barbary pirates “terrorism,” the War of 1812, and the sinking of the Maine were international punctuation marks of the nineteenth century. In this century, too, Americans’ interest in foreign affairs has generally been limited to war and the threat of war. The longest of these conflicts, the Cold War, coincided with the growth of television, from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.

For those four decades, the East-West conflict was the global environment in which Americans lived. As long as nuclear weapons were aimed at American communities, the question of personal security took on an international dimension. Journalists quickly discovered that they could sell their editors-because their editors could sell the public-almost any story pegged to a Soviet or communist threat, from crises in Berlin to Vietnam to Angola. The dynamics were not unlike those in the defense industry or in politics, where a new weapons system or an anticommunist crusade could always be justified as part of the Cold War struggle.

Afghanistan is a vivid example. In the 1980s the war there received extensive television news coverage so long as the story was about Soviet expansionism. After the Soviet Unions withdrawal in 1989, news coverage in general and network television coverage in particular plummeted, even though Afghan factions were fighting each other with brutal intensity. Not until last October, when Taliban forces occupied Kabul and cameras recorded the excesses of the victors and their vision of Islamic law-hanging bodies and women ordered to stay at home-was the American news appetite whetted again.

The passing of the Cold War era has left many institutions adrift, searching for a new order or definition, and television news is no exception. Without stories from abroad that could be presented as part of an overall threat to American security, newscasts suffered a severe loss in an increasingly competitive medium that thrives-perhaps depends-on drama and conflict to attract and hold an audience’s attention. The external threats (say, ICBMs) have been replaced by what many perceive as the threats at home (a mugger on the street corner, drugs, children born out of wedlock).

Paradoxically, broad viewer interest in world affairs is declining from its modest Cold War heights just as U.S. global influence is reaching new levels as the result of several administrations’ efforts to expand trade, businesses’ need to expand overseas, and the global dominance of American popular culture, all driven by American leadership in the development and exploitation of new technologies. Today more Americans than ever before are working and traveling abroad, from CEOs to sales reps, students, and tourists. International trade is equal to about one-quarter of GDP.

Americans who see themselves as global players (or are merely curious about foreign affairs) find that more international information is available than ever before, from sources targeting smaller audiences. Satellites transmit daily television programs from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America to niche and ethnic markets in the United States. One can choose from among on-line computer services or download volumes of free information and comment from sites on the World Wide Web. Television offers numerous business and financial channels and the all-news channels CNN, which began broadcasting in 1980; MSNBC; and the fledgling Fox Newsmany of which operate around the clock. The Public Broadcasting Service’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” also maintains a journalistic sensibility attuned to international affairs, although it cannot provide much in the way of on-site coverage. National Public Radio and Public Radio International offer extensive international reporting for a fraction of the production costs required in television.

Journalism’s Baggage

More than the other news media, television is caught between the declining interest in international affairs and rising costs and competition. It is the most expensive medium for news, and production costs for international reporting are particularly high. A correspondent for a newspaper, magazine, press agency, or radio station or network is engaged in what is basically one-person journalism. He or she can travel to the scene of a story alone, cover it alone, write it up alone, and transmit it alone via telephone, fax, or E-mail.

Television is of a different organizational magnitude. The basic working unit in international television news consists of a correspondent, a field producer, a cameraperson, and a sound engineer, plus some 600 pounds of camera and personal equipment. If a report is to be prepared for satellite transmission, an editor and an additional 600 pounds of editing equipment come along. (Because American television’s technical standards are incompatible with the systems the rest of the world uses, the networks must bring all their own equipment.) The cost of this journalistic caravan, including hotels, per diem expenses, car rentals, and local support staff, begins at around $3,000 a day. Airfare and excess-baggage charges can easily reach $12,000. Then there are “extras” like satellite fees. New digital technology, including smaller and lighter cameras and editing equipment, will eventually reduce costs, but there is no indication that the networks would use the savings to increase international coverage.

Network news divisions are currently spending up to $50 million a year on foreign coverage. While only a fraction of overall network news costs, this is an extremely exposed part of the budget at a time when the cost of television news is already under scrutiny. Advances in cable and satellite distribution systems have caused the broadcast news and information market to fragment, spawning fierce competition. Each of the new services competes for market share among attentive viewers who in the past had only the networks to watch if they wanted to feel informed. At any given moment each of the new channels may have an audience one-tenth or even one-twentieth that of an evening newscast. But together they have cut the networks’ share of the television news market approximately 25 percent from the peak years, at the same time that the networks’ overall market share has been eroding.

The decline has pushed network news producers to the apparently logical, if journalistically undesirable, conclusion that foreign news is expendable unless it is of compelling interest to a mass audience. The new litmus test at network news programs is whether viewers (in the producers’ opinion) will instinctively “relate” to the story. As in other industries, as choice increases, power shifts from the producer to the consumer.

The drive to reduce overseas expenditures has also led to alliances among broadcasters and the growth of television news agencies. The exchange of news video provides worldwide coverage with greater cost efficiency but sacrifices the depth and perspective that an on-the-scene reporter can provide. It is at this juncture that the new competitive pressures collide with the journalistic ethos of the foreign correspondent as well as the expectations of viewers interested in international affairs.

The network news programs and, indeed, news programs in general ought to consider not only whether their response to market forces can sustain good journalism but whether it is a sound longterm business decision. The programs’ producers can claim to be focusing on their customers, or at least the largest portion of them. The editorial downsizing, narrowing of focus, and increasing homogeneity of content, however, give viewers searching for broader exposure to the world even less reason to watch the programs. It is a slippery slope.

These days, a television broadcasting company will maintain a costly worldwide operation only if it has a news service that requires (and can help amortize) its international coverage for its audiences in the United States and abroad. The Cable News Network, with its separate domestic and international news services, falls into this category. The new MSNBC (a joint venture of software power Microsoft and NBC) and the Fox News Channel face the challenge of building major international news operations to match CNN. Among the Big Three networks, only ABC News has kept its overseas operation largely intact.

They Reap What They Show

As a few of the most ambitious television news organizations expand internationally, a new shadow looms over the foreign correspondent. With the 1996 merger of Time-Warner and Turner Broadcasting, the parent of CNN, all the major American news divisions are owned by transnational corporations. The financial benefits are clear: Jack Welch, chairman and chief executive officer of NBC’s parent company, General Electric, and Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox, could provide heavy backing for their start-up news channels. Deep pockets count for a lot in the race to create global television empires. But the drive to penetrate new markets and build media imperia raises serious concerns for international reporting and broadcasting. Authorities in the countries on the receiving end often see the news beamed in as politically or culturally undesirable, even subversive. When interests clash, as they inevitably do, good journalism is likely to be sacrificed. The trend is already established.

Item: Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Hong Kong-based Star TV satellite system in July 1993 was the keystone of his strategy for dominating satellite broadcasting from the Pacific to the Middle East. The main attraction was China’s booming economy and potential consumers. Star TV, however, carried BBC World, the British international television news service. Chinese authorities did not want the BBC’s coverage, or that of any other autonomous television news service, entering China. Murdoch bowed to pressure from Beijing and dropped BBC news from Star.

Item: In July 1995 the Walt Disney Co. stunned the media world by buying Capital Cities/ABC. At the press conference announcing the deal, a reporter asked Disney CEO Michael Eisner how he viewed the synergy between the two companies. Eisner’s response took on a global dimension: “There are many places in the world, like China, India, and other places, that do not want to accept programming that has any political content. But they have no problem with sports, and they have no problem with Disney kind of programming.” Political content, however, is what much of news coverage is about, at ABC or anywhere else. Politics even enters the sports arena, as NBC discovered, and films, as Disney has been reminded. Last year Disney came under intense pressure from China not to release a Martin Scorsese film about the Dalai Lama that the Chinese government believed would be hostile to its claim to Tibet. Disney announced that it would not back down and abandon the film, but Beijing had fired a shot across the company’s bow.

Item: At the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Atlanta last summer, NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas angered the Chinese government with his remarks as the Chinese team marched into the stadium. Costas said, according to an NBC transcript, “Every economic power including the United States wants to tap into that huge potential market, but of course there are problems with human rights, property rights disputes, the threat posed to Taiwan.” Costas also mentioned suspicions that performance-enhancing drugs could be behind some of the achievements of Chinese athletes. China’s state-run media and its Foreign Ministry attacked Costas’ comments. A month later NBC issued a statement apologizing “for any resulting hurt feelings.” The statement continued, “The comments were not based on NBC beliefs. Nobody at NBC ever intends to offend anyone.”

But the Chinese government did not ease its pressure on NBC, whose owner, General Electric, and GE’S partner in the MSNBC news channel, Microsoft, both have extensive commercial interests and ambitions in China. The Foreign Ministry declared, “Any news agency in the world should respect and comply with the most fundamental professional ethics and not produce reports which distort facts. It is hoped that NBC will draw lessons and make sure that there will be no recurrence of things like that.”

Commercial and other pressures have long been known to have a chilling effect on the independence of reporters and their employers. Increasingly, it will be the foreign correspondent who feels the chill as she or he reports from countries where markets have become free before the flow of information has. Unlike the traditional publisher or owner with whom reporters and editors could discuss a sensitive issue after climbing a flight of stairs, the new owners, because of the vastness of their organizations, are distant physically and in their priorities. Censorship is not a new experience for foreign correspondents. But what they will face in nations whose leaders seek the profits and products of the global market without sacrificing political control can be as effective and more insidious: self-censorship. As GE tries to sell more jet engines to the Chinese, and Microsoft more software, how confident will NBC or MSNBC reporters feel about interviewing dissidents? If Disney builds a Disney World outside Shanghai or Hong Kong, will ABC News producers and reporters have second thoughts about taping an investigative report on corruption in the ranks of Chinese government and party officials? As NBC and Bob Costas can testify, these are no longer hypothetical dilemmas.

Everyone Is a Reporter

The growing tension between journalistic and commercial priorities may never be fully resolved. But whatever direction events may lead journalists, the role of traditional news organizations is likely to shrink further. The flow of information from fax machines to the Internet and through other technologies already developed or still undreamed of will overwhelm efforts to control it. Today and in the future, anyone sending information from one country to another is a de facto foreign corespondent. The number of correspondents, accredited or not, will rapidly increase. Equipped with camcorders and computers, they will send out and receive more and more foreign dispatches. Even in countries where governments try to control the availability of video on the Internet, ingenuity and ever smaller satellite dishes will enable some, perhaps much, news and information to get through.

Given the global commercial and technological changes facing television news, in a world where almost anyone can be a foreign correspondent, what will be the role of the traditional bearer of that name? When the Internet and on-line services offer full-motion video, network newscasts will feel even less compelled to provide coverage of foreign events to a mass audience. But those interested in what is happening abroad will find a selection of information even broader and deeper than cable news channels now offer. Layering of information video, sound, text, and graphics-will give the news consumer unprecedented choice, as well as editorial control. And the person providing that information could be a new type of foreign correspondent, or perhaps the old type with new means of communication.

Rather than dashing around the world to provide an on-screen presence, the correspondent will be judged on the quality and depth of knowledge he or she possesses. Foreign correspondents will have to be versatile and informed journalists who can write commentary for videotape as well as for print, knowledgeable specialists who closely follow a country, region, or topic and can appear on camera or on line to talk about it and respond to questions and comments. They will have to be able to communicate interactively with an audience whose members will be informed, engaged, and more demanding than the passive television viewers of today.

Those Americans who actively seek more knowledge about the rest of the world and how their country or business fits into it will be better served. Since they will likely be opinion makers-and voters-public discussion of foreign affairs could conceivably improve. Unfortunately, the debate would not include the broader public that is not plugged into the wider world.

What is being lost, or at least weakened, has long been forecast: the role of a few television network news organizations as a unifying central nervous system of information for the nation, and the communal benefits associated with that. Some may mourn the loss, especially those who grew up with network news. (More than half the audience for the evening network news programs is 50 or older.) Viewers and social critics may debate whether the gains accompanying the growing diversity and flexibility of news and information delivery outweigh the losses. But quite aside from the fact that nothing can be done to stop the technological advances, the benefits in choice and content are clear.

It is always tempting to ascribe a utopian future to societies that are being profoundly altered by new technologies. Still, for the fraternity of foreign correspondents, the forces of change could offer a road back to their traditional craft. The foreign correspondent of the future may wear the obligatory trench coat or safari jacket of yesteryear. But underneath it, she or he will have to possess a depth of expertise to satisfy the increasingly demanding, informed, and technologically equipped consumer of the information age.