Television coverage of world affairs has been reduced to a diet of dissociated disasters and human interest. Now here is a plea for more serious news-gatheringby Suzanne Franks / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
Bad News by Tom Fenton (HarperCollins, $25.95)
In May 2000, Mohammed Atta went to a US department of agriculture officer in Florida and tried to get a loan for a “crop dusting” scheme. He told the loan officer, Johnell Bryant, that he wanted to replace the six seats in a twin-engine aircraft with a chemical tank. She rejected the application as impractical. Atta meanwhile noticed an aerial photograph of Washington on her office wall and offered to buy it. He asked her to identify key landmarks: the White House and Pentagon. As they chatted, Atta asked if she had heard of an organisation of people called al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who would one day be known as “the world’s greatest leader.”
None of these details rang any bells with Bryant at the time. But after 9/11, she recognised Atta’s picture and went to the FBI. Her recollections confirmed that al Qaeda had originally intended to use small planes packed with explosives rather than hijacked airliners. Bryant was mortified that she had not been able to alert anyone before the disaster. But as she said to ABC news: “How could I have known?” Tom Fenton, a CBS reporter for 34 years, argues that if journalists had been doing a better job, then people like her would have heard of Bin Laden and al Qaeda and lives could have been saved.
For most people, news comes via the television—and it is the impoverished state of foreign coverage on television that Fenton laments. The paradox is that as communications have improved and it has become easier to report from far away, we are less inclined to do so. The end of the cold war precipitated the decline in foreign coverage. Wars and troubles abroad were no longer explicable in a simple framework and appeared to matter less. Expensive foreign operations were closed. This trend was more extreme in the US, where it coincided with a relaxation of federal rules on editorial regulation. Simultaneously there was much corporate restructuring, with the emergence of giant media empires. News became a tightly budgeted operation.
Fenton outlines how foreign coverage is frequently a “packaging operation” (nowhere more so than Iraq). Disconnected agency pictures are voiced over by a presenter far away and cut with the occasional studio interview. The result is boring and confusing for viewers. When they switch off, this supports the claim that there is “no appetite for foreign news.” Fenton argues for a return to informed coverage by correspondents based on the ground. He criticises the present diet of foreign news as “dreary presentation of dissociated news disasters and human interest fluff items.” In the first ten months of 2004, CBS Evening News ran only four stories on China: a look at a fake Chinese edition of Bill Clinton’s autobiography, an item on stem cell research and two stories on pandas. There is a more sinister aspect to this. Fenton suggests that critical stories on China never appear in the US because American corporations, including those who own NBC and Fox, have invested billions there.
We in Britain can hardly be complacent about international coverage. An influential survey, started in 1989, monitors the amount of factual programming on British television featuring abroad. Last year’s volume, entitled The World on the Box, seemed to tell a reassuring story. The total hours of foreign coverage had not changed. However, nearly a third of what was classified as foreign consisted of television lifestyle shows, or reality shows like I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! which happened to be based in a foreign location. Strip away all this and look at the amount of serious coverage, especially of developing countries, and there has been a sharp decline. The programmes are also increasingly exiled to minority digital channels—like BBC4, which Richard Hoggart calls “a buying-off channel.” In 2003, ITV did not feature a single international programme under the categories of politics, development, human rights or environment. This year will see an improvement because of the current Africa fest and pressures of BBC charter renewal, but there is no reason to believe it will last. Ofcom is even proposing that the obligation on ITV and Channel Five to feature “matters of international significance and interest” should be waived.
Fenton makes a powerful argument for taking foreign coverage more seriously, and provides suggestions for improving news-gathering. It is a plea against commercially driven public ignorance. At one point he itemises all the significant developments in far-off places that television news barely feature. It is a fascinating, if alarming, tour d’horizon. Bad News is not the most elegantly written book, too often using the staccato prose of a typical US news bulletin. But it conveys an important message with a sense of urgency.