Global News and the Vanishing American Foreign Correspondent
By Scotti Williston
Until recent years, American television news was global news. American network news coverage was delivered all over the world-ABC fed to UPITN, NBC to Visnews, CBS had its own syndication service. The networks' news coverage wasn't, therefore, just for an American audience. It performed the role of providing global news, because many of the national news stations around the world did not cover news outside their own countries. The networks had correspondents posted around the world, on the ground in Cairo, Nairobi, Paris, Moscow, and elsewhere. They were people who knew the region, knew the people, knew the history of the stories they covered. When I was CBS Cairo bureau chief in the late 1970s and early 80s, CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 mini foreign bureaus, and stringers in 44 countries around the world.
Now, CBS and the other networks have just a handful of foreign bureaus. Paris is gone, Frankfurt is gone, Cairo, Rome, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Beirut, Cyprus, all gone. They do not do foreign news. The feeling now at the networks is that you can fly someone in, get information from the local newspaper and wire services, and the presence of the foreign correspondent speaking in front of the camera will suffice. Some of this does go back to the way it was originally done in the film days when a correspondent and crew would fly in-but then, they would spend three or four days filming, before they shipped the footage out, so they really were plugged in to what was happening. Now, it's land on the ground, do your on-camera, and out again. The correspondent might not even go to the location where the story is happening. The pattern is reversed: instead of American network news being global coverage providers, the networks now get their foreign news from local services around the world.
There are, I think, three reasons behind the atrophy in global news coverage by U.S. news organizations. First, the moment news becomes a profit center, it is subject to market forces. In the late 1970s, for example, CBS News--for the first time in the history of any news operation in the US--declared a profit. At that time, a station was required to do a certain amount of public service broadcasting, and news was classified under that banner. That's how network news developed. Having a news operation that lost money was acceptable: it was a tax deduction that had the added benefit of fulfilling the network's public service broadcasting obligation.
When the Television Acts of the late 1980s and early 1990s were passed, public service broadcasting was no longer required. Now it's an open field, and stations, especially smaller ones, have dropped news because they just don't need it. Right now, on the network level, there is talk of news shows being cut back from 30 to 15 minutes-reducing news coverage to 1950s levels. The golden years of the 1970s, years that saw networks routinely financing Lear jets to zoom around the world covering stories, are gone. As long as it's public service, or being produced because it fulfills a legal requirement, the market is not an issue. The moment you make it a profit center, you have your good days and your bad days. The golden years of the late 1970s were followed by the catastrophes of the 1980s in the industry.
The second reason for the contraction is that, starting in the 1980s, the network share of overall viewers started shrinking. In business, there are two ways to maintain a profit: one is to increase output, the other is to decrease costs. The networks chose cost-cutting, shrinking news bureaus across the board in the US and abroad. They turned to "pooling," as in the old days-- one camera providing every network with the same footage.
This was made even easier by advancements in technology, like the evolution of the electronic camera and the subsequent move to videotape. Technology made pooling all the easier. All of a sudden, there were very few exclusive stories as competition was eliminated. Everyone got the output of one camera. More and more, networks relied on Reuters TV, agency coverage and CNN.
The bottom line was money. It wasn't that they weren't making a profit, they just weren't making high enough profits. Ownership, the business side of the network, has never been more involved in the running of the news operation-and the owners tend to see everything from a much more bottom-line point of view. News outfits use to have only one agenda --to cover and produce news. When networks were taken over by corporations like General Electric and Disney, news was only one among many products. The corporation produced refrigerators, toasters, stuffed animals, and news.
It was the same type of thing that happened when savings and loan operations were deregulated in the US; the new rules allowed companies that had never before dealt with an industry to own that industry. They tried to run news the way they might run programming, or factories. It can't be done. They tried to run news by making the bottom line more important than the story. In the 1970s and 80s we never had a finance person on location where the story was being covered; the producer paid the bills. Now, even on routine breaking stories, at least two people from the finance department are flown in to see where they can cut corners. Also, starting in the 1980's, staff was dropped, not because of ability, but by salary level. Unless employees were anchors, it was certain that those earning six figure salaries would be laid off.
The third factor is CNN. A few decades ago, CNN was "the fourth network," but now stations don't feel they can compete with CNN. CNN is the only one that can broadcast all the time; the networks can't take away from entertainment programming time. This meant that on big breaking stories, CNN would take the story; it had the capacity to beat everyone else. When it first came about, CNN was pushing to become part of the pools, arguing that since they were so small, they ought to pay a smaller share. The networks agreed to this. They didn't care because they thought CNN was no threat. The networks never anticipated that CNN would grow to the size it is today. They should have made CNN an equal partner and made them pay an equal share.
But CNN also has the problem that everyone expects it to be on top of breaking news. Breaking news is its specialty; without that, CNN has no audience. It's impaled on the same sword with which it slayed network coverage. CNN has tried magazine shows, but they were panned across the board-plus, it costs an awful lot to run a magazine show. It has recently reorganized, and I think this means they'll give up all alternatives to hard news and just focus on hard news. So far, CNN has approached the problem from the opposite direction: it was airing everything but hard news-travel, music, and especially financial news, which dominates CNN's offerings. I think they're going to concentrate on hard news and financial news.
CNN is going to have to make some changes in order to survive. It has the cameras on the ground covering the stories, but it doesn't have the same management-or the same level of talent it used to have. Yes, it has live coverage, but the coverage is not telling viewers anything. The correspondents don't know the areas they're covering. It's a combination of the phenomenon of parachuting people in and the repetition that is the curse of live coverage. This is happening, for example, in Middle East coverage. The people here now don't know Cairo. There are no more old Middle East hands. They fly in someone who gets debriefed-and these people don't know the area well enough to sense the heart of what's happening.
US news stations have also decided that some places just aren't worth covering. We have so little coverage out of India, for instance-disasters, yes, but nothing else. Same with Africa: it's only flood, famine, pestilence, and war. You don't hear the stories. In the Middle East, we know precise details of what's happening in Israel, we hear about the peace process, but nothing else. CNN does reports out of the Middle East, but nothing out of the ordinary line of coverage. It doesn't report about Egypt, it just uses it as a base. When was the last time CNN aired a truly Egyptian story that wasn't a trouble story?
I don't think it was as slanted when the network bureaus were operating. We fought to get our stories on the air, which just doesn't happen now. Part of the reason is that news has become "reaction coverage," more than ever before. There's no history before a story breaks. We're always shocked in the States when an incident happens somewhere, because we didn't even know there was a situation. Reaction coverage is part of why the news is losing its audience. The only shows giving viewers real information are the magazines, but those all have an agenda, a purpose, and it will be slanted much more so than traditional, supposedly even-handed news coverage. For all these reasons the quality of overseas coverage has declined.
Also of influence is the overlap between news coverage and entertainment. The networks are struggling because there is less viewership, and because they're trying to get the young audience. At the networks, news shows have been put on during prime-time programming because they're so much cheaper to produce than entertainment shows. Magazine shows are now being phased out because the American public is sick of seeing a magazine show every night-it's just repetitive. There are many frightening things that are happening that I'm hoping will change: some of the networks are requiring producers to see what a person looks like before the person is interviewed because entertainment is involved. At one network, the entertainment department sits in on news magazine show tapings, to determine its worth from an entertainment perspective. The CBS News website-not cbs.com, which is entertainment-oriented, but cbsnews.com-features a "CBSNews.com Special Report" on CBS's own Survivor II series-promotion of their own entertainment show, billed as news coverage.
I don't buy the theory that American audiences have simply lost interest in foreign news. On a local as well as a national network level, the same group of consultants has gone from station to station to station making the same recommendations to each, recommendations the stations have all adopted. We saw it with the Clinton scandal, in which the networks drove us crazy with every sordid detail, and yet every man on the street was saying "I don't want to hear it, I'm sick of it, I don't care about the man's indiscretions, I like him as a president." Some of his highest rating approval in the midst of this scandal. Still, judging by the coverage on the evening news, one would think Americans were ready to impeach him. And they weren't. The networks are just as partisan as politics itself. NBC is so anti-Clinton/Gore that in the middle of a story on the first time the budget was balanced, they did an insert story about Monica Lewinsky. The American public doesn't buy into a sensationalist perspective. And it is not disinterested in foreign news. In the New York area, the BBC and other international newscasts are carried on cable and are well watched.
I think some of these trends will start reversing themselves. The American public is going to start clamoring more for things it is not being told. The public knows it is too isolated-and Americans know they're criticized for not knowing what goes on in the world. One major reason for a reversal is that Americans are meeting more people from around the world, and that sparks interest in other places. There are large immigrant communities all over the country, and that has meant more and more international broadcasting within the United States. Russian TV, for example, is having trouble in Moscow, but it's doing well in the New York, where it broadcasts in Russian to Russian immigrants. Its shows cover American news stories, produced in New York, but in the Russian language. There are Indian, Spanish and Chinese broadcasts. This is certainly happening in New York and in smaller cities as well, those with large immigrant populations.
This is what is going to revive global news coverage in the United States.
Pressure from the American audience is the only thing that will be able to change news back again and ensure global news coverage in the United States. International stations, and international communities, will revive interest in international news. New Americans want to know what's going on in their country of origin; Americans want to know more about their neighbors, co-workers and classmates. Foreign language stations have the potential to expand into truly global stations. That would force the networks, eventually, to pay more attention to other parts of the world. TBS
Scotti Williston is a former Cairo and Rome CBS bureau chief and is currently visiting professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. Prior to working with CBS, she was assignment editor, producer, and crime reporter for WPIX Channel 11 in New York. She worked on Charles Kurault's "Sunday Morning" show on CBS, then with NBC's New York bureau. Williston is part of the judging panel for the Emmys and Dupont awards, has worked as an independent producer and consultant, and has lectured in journalism schools around the United States and aboard.
2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo