Despite two wars involving more than 200,000
U.S. troops and a global economic crisis, foreign-related news coverage by the
three major U.S. television networks fell to a record low during 2008, according
to the latest annual review of network news coverage by the authoritative Tyndall
Squeezed out by intense coverage of the presidential election campaign and
the domestic consequences of skyrocketing oil prices and the subsequent credit
crisis, international and overseas events received by far the least attention
from the 30-minute evening news programs of the three networks the primary
source of national and international news for most U.S. citizens of any
since the report was first published in 1988.
"This was an exceptional year for domestic news, so the test will be whether
the foreign coverage rebounds in a year when there is relatively light domestic
news, or whether this marks a real turning point in insularity in the mainstream
media," Andrew Tyndall, the report's founder and publisher, told IPS.
"It could be that when there's not a big election and the economy isn't
in the toilet, international news will be back in the news," he said. "Or
it may be that people interested in global news are getting it more and more
online, and the TV networks may be saying, 'We'll just let individuals who are
interested in this stuff get it on the Internet.'"
An estimated 23 million U.S. residents watch the 22 minutes of evening news
the three networks broadcast on an average weekday evening. Although cable news
including CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC has made important gains in
the number of viewers who watch them, the audience for the network news is still
roughly 10 times larger.
The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press,
published late last month, found that some 70 percent of the public in 2008
relied on television as a main source for national and international news last
year. The same poll found that the Internet surpassed daily newspapers as a
main source of national and international news, particularly for younger adults,
for the first time last year.
In a given year, the three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC devote
a total of nearly 15,000 minutes to national and international news, or about
22 of the 30 minutes devoted to their evening news programs
During 2008, the most-covered story by far was the presidential election campaign,
which captured a total of nearly 3,700 minutes, the most coverage given to any
presidential campaign since at least 1988, according to the report.
Economic coverage from the mortgage meltdown and the unprecedented rise
in gasoline prices to the mid-September credit crisis and the subsequent bailout
package accounted for nearly 2,800 minutes, also the most in the last
21 years and about 1,000 minutes more than the coverage given the last two U.S.
recessions in 1990 and 2001.
International-related coverage totaled just over 1,900 minutes for the year,
close to the levels that prevailed in the mid-1990s, according to Tyndall, when
the Republican-led Congress succeeded in curbing the internationalist agenda
of then-President Bill Clinton, particularly regarding the U.S. commitment to
the United Nations and other multilateral forums.
"Everybody said after 9/11 that huge mistakes had been made in the nineties
in concentrating too much on domestic news and not having a global outlook,"
he said. "There was an enormous attempt made [by the networks] to cover
the rest of the world, especially the Islamic world, but it's gone downhill
so much compared to last year, which already had the least international coverage
of any year since 2001."
Of the top 20 stories in 2008, the Iraq War, for which more than 130,000 U.S.
troops remain deployed, was the highest-ranked overseas story, claiming a total
of 244 minutes from the three networks and placing it in seventh place, behind
the campaigns of President-elect Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton,
the financial bailout, oil and gasoline prices, and the plunge in the stock
That 244 minutes, however, was a mere fraction of the networks' 2007 Iraq War
coverage which totaled nearly 1,200 minutes. In a special report issued last
July, Tyndall traced the precipitous decline in Iraq coverage to September 2007
after the then-U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, successfully defended
his "surge" strategy during congressional hearings.
From 2003 through 2007, the three newscasts devoted an average of 31 minutes
each week to the war; last year, however, the average was only six minutes.
The New York Times reported just last week that the three networks have
stopped sending full-time correspondents to Baghdad. Indeed, of the 244 minutes
devoted to the war last year, only 88 minutes were reported from Iraq itself.
The Beijing Summer Olympics was the next most-covered foreign news story, at
236 minutes, ranking ninth overall, although most of the coverage focused on
medal wins by U.S. athletes. Moreover NBC, whose sports division had exclusive
broadcast rights to the U.S., devoted substantially more time to Beijing coverage
than the other two networks.
The only other foreign story to appear among the report's top 20 was the war
in Afghanistan, which ranked 17th, with 126 minutes, tied with total coverage
of tornados that struck the U.S. during the year. 2008 was by far the deadliest
year for U.S. and NATO troops in the seven-year Afghan conflict, and the likely
increase in Washington's deployment of some 35,000 troops there to some 60,000
over the next six months or so could propel that war into the top foreign-based
story for 2009.
Other top international-related stories included the Sichuan Province earthquake
in China that preceded the Olympics (119 minutes, of which 94 minutes were reported
from China); last month's terrorist attack on Mumbai (70 minutes, of which 40
were reported from India); Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (65 minutes); the Russia-Georgia
conflict (53 minutes, of which 44 were from a foreign dateline); the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (47 minutes); and the situation in Zimbabwe (47 minutes, of which 26
were reported from the region).
The sharp decline in international affairs coverage by the networks drew concern
from Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "It's ironic
and paradoxical that at a time when we have a financial crisis that is global
in nature, this country is fighting two wars, and the destinies of the population
is more than ever linked to events that happen beyond the national borders of
the United States, that the networks decide to cut back their foreign coverage,"
Naim added that newspapers, whose circulation and advertising revenue have
fallen steeply in the last two years, were also closing overseas bureaus. "This
is bad for the nation but good for a magazine like ours," he said.
Indeed, a report issued in July by the Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism
found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. newspapers have cut back on the space devoted
to foreign news.
(Inter Press Service)