Our Dimming Vision of World Affairs

As we enter 2010 and a new decade, a good question to ask is how well our news organizations are reporting on and how well we are comprehending significant events and developments throughout the world.

One of the greatest costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the struggle against international terrorism has been that as these subjects have attracted greater news coverage and public attention, they have done so at the expense of the attention we in the U.S. pay to what is going on in the rest of the world.

Moreover, over the last decade, just as the United States has become increasingly dependent on its interactions with other countries, the number of foreign correspondents employed by U.S. news organizations has continued its precipitate decline. For example, the New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe, laid off the Globe’s entire roster of distinguished foreign correspondents in 2007.

Significant coverage of developments in Latin America by major U.S. media is virtually non-existent. In earlier times there might have been political outcries of “Who Lost Venezuela?” or “Who Lost Bolivia?” But today no one seems to notice or to be paying sustained attention to developments in these countries. In Brazil, a highly-regarded international human rights organization reports that the police in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have been responsible for the deaths, including a high number of extrajudicial executions, of some 11,000 people in the last six years. (See Juan Forero, Washington Post, December 8, 2009). But in Washington, no one seems to notice, or care.

Even in countries where the U.S. is at war, news coverage is not always as good as it should be. The media missed the story in Afghanistan for the better part of the last eight years, while today cutbacks in coverage sharply limit detailed analytical reporting from Iraq.

An additional factor affecting our vision of foreign affairs is the decreasing knowledge of history that is characteristic of both readers and journalists today. Relatively few of the foreign correspondents who remain seem to have the deep interest in and knowledge of history and diplomacy that their predecessors, such as James Reston, so often displayed.

There are obvious and notable exceptions to these generalizations, to be sure. Indeed, today there are reporters and correspondents who meet the highest standards of the profession. But there are not enough of them, in enough places.

As a result, our vision of the world has dimmed. Our ability to discern significance out of the glut of information arriving from all corners of the world has diminished. Absent highly-trained foreign correspondents who know the countries and regions, and often the languages, of the places where they live and from where they report, we have fewer independent lenses through which to view the world. Instead of keen and analytical reporting by knowledgeable experts, we are forced to rely on quotes from “trusted officials” and their take on events.

Such correspondents are uniquely qualified to provide us with the analysis and nuanced understandings of trends and developments in other countries that enable us to understand the significance of current events–including things that are not happening. A journalist with a deeper understanding of the society from which he or she reports can choose the right people to interview, ask incisive questions in research and interviews, and knowledgeably interpret the answers that are received. Their dispatches go beyond reports of bombings and military casualties, or accidents and natural disasters. At best, they provide a cumulative base of insights and analysis that informs our understanding of events and developments that are of real and lasting significance.

In effect, as we enter a new decade, when we need to see more clearly than ever before where we are going, our vision grows fainter. Our vision of the world is dimming due to the decrease in original reporting from foreign correspondents, as well as the skewed concentration of remaining resources on news of terrorism or other eye-catching news of the moment, often reported without the context or even reference to previous reporting on the subject.

What can be done to resolve this problem is far from clear. A necessary starting point, however, is to recognize that the problem is one of critical national importance.

The Trenchant Observer

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