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January 6, 2009

Networks' Int'l News Coverage at Record Low in 2008

by Jim Lobe

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 Report.

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 market.

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," he said.

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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