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All the News That Turns a Profit
26 October 2001
Excuse me if my professionocentrism is showing, but I believe the American media deserve a good chunk of all the blame that is going around for Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Here we are trying to figure out "Why Do They Hate Us?" at this late date. One is tempted to reply, "Where have you been?"
The American media, notoriously provincial country to begin with, have been getting noticeably worse in recent years, with the amount of time and space devoted to the rest of the world shrinking to an ever smaller percentage of the total, while we go relentlessly full-bore, for months at a time after Monica Lewinsky, Elián González and Gary Condit.
If you spend a few days listening to British Broadcasting or Canadian Broadcasting, you will note the striking difference simply in the amount of information presented. I think provincialism is a universal characteristic -- at least I've never been anywhere it didn't exist -- but it is especially annoying when it comes from a capital. Think of American attitudes toward New York before Sept. 11 -- admiring resentment? resentful admiration? -- or our perpetual resentment of Washington, which never seems to understand the rest of us. Little slights, differences and cultural misunderstandings are magnified when they come from a center of power -- I can think of a couple of lulus when we seriously offended Mexicans out of sheer ignorance. Multiply this by genuinely clumsy interventions with no understanding of how destabilizing our presence can be, and you get a lot of resentment.
The extent to which American media (honorable exception to the usual handful of great newspapers) have cut foreign coverage in recent years has been the subject of much hand-wringing in media journals. On network television, it was down to 6 percent of total news, according to a recent speech by Dan Rather. Peter Arnett wrote a classic article on the subject in the November 1998 issue of American Journalism Review, "Goodbye, World." And the reason is disgraceful. Thirty years ago, the publisher of a good size city daily expected a return of 7 to 8 percent. Today, there is virtually no competition, and getting less than 20 percent is considered a failure.
A news organization has only one way to cut costs, and that is to cut news gathering. As foreign bureaus have been closed and even networks of stringers (local journalists) fall into disrepair, the effects cascade. Because we so seldom hear or see news from abroad, when we do, it seems to have nothing to do with us.
Economic crash in Asia? Revolution in Indonesia? What's for dinner? People everywhere are mostly interested in the weather and football -- we're not singular -- but we do have an unusually narrow world view compared to other western countries. We've been told this before, frequently: The difference is now we know the consequences.
As the ownership of American news media becomes more and more concentrated, with all outlets subject to judgment by some 25-year-old hotshot on Wall Street as to whether they "meet earnings expectations," the pressure to cut news gathering gets worse. As far as the media conglomerates are concerned, newspapers and television networks are just "profit centers." If they can make more with a niche-market magazine for knitters, they will. That the media have a public responsibility so important it is protected by the Constitution gets lost in the profit chase. Our leaders may have other sources of information -- though the intelligence community has not covered itself with glory -- but they, too, are influenced by the daily media blat. No wonder we were asleep at the wheel.
And the whole problem is about to become worse as Michael Powell, a free-market Republican and now head of the Federal Communications Commission, sets about deregulating media (It worked so well with the S&Ls and California electricity.) Forbes magazine is predicting a merger frenzy in 2002 as Powell prepares to repeal the ban on crossownership of TV stations and cable operators in the same market, crossownership of TV and newspapers in one market, and the 30 percent cap, limiting one cable to 30 percent of the nation's subscribers or 35 percent of the television audience.
In a moment of painful irony Tuesday, Powell was discussing the need for back-up broadcasting capability after the World Trade Center attack knocked out many radio and television antennas, and said, "Public policy should minimize having all of your eggs in a single basket."
Yes, Mr. Powell, it should.