October 25, 2001
The Global Minute
Suddenly, we find that an alternate universe shadows our world. Its inhabitants see our culture as their poison, our politics as their oppression, our freedom as their threat -- The question is how we could have been so blind. Only now is most of America learning about fundamentalist Islam. Just one year ago, when then-candidate George W. Bush didn't know the name of President George W. Bush's best friend, the president of Pakistan, the public's response was, "So what?" So, this: Our blissful ignorance turned out to be deadly.
What are the reasons we revelled in ignorance? Americans, ensconced on a continent oceans away from Eurasia, have been historically inward-looking.
Another reason can be found by looking at one American institution that has changed drastically since the attacks: television news.
As the hype correctly states, more Americans get their news from television than from any other source. Journalist Edward R. Murrow saw this potential long before anyone else, in 1951, when CBS showed the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge simultaneously: "No journalistic age," he said, "was ever given a weapon for truth with quite the scope of this fledgling television."
For some time now, that weapon has been woefully dull. Remember pre-Sept. 11 CNN? Squeezed between Gary Condit, the Beltway infighting, sports, weather, business and entertainment news was something labeled, "The Global Minute." That's it: 60 seconds to fill us in on what was happening with the other 5.9 billion people on this planet. Where were they suffering? Whom did they hate? What did they need? Weeks could go by without hearing a peep about South America or Indonesia, not to mention Afghanistan. Once I even timed a global minute. It lasted 49 seconds.
CNN was not the greatest offender -- at least it spared a minute for the rest of the world. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, other networks sharply curtailed their spending on international coverage. News divisions were no longer seen as the standard-bearers of network quality: they had to turn a profit, or at least cover their costs, same as soap operas and game shows. CNN scaled back too, though with about 30 foreign bureaus, it stayed ahead of the networks.
And it stayed way ahead of our local television news. KCBS, KTTV, KNBC, KABC and KCOP used serious coverage of international news as a segue between Tom Cruise's marital problems and freeway car chases. In the happy/glitzy world of local news, an in-depth look at oil policy or Third World ideologies went out with John Chancellor's overcoat.
The stations argued that they were giving the viewers what they wanted.
Maybe so, but they were also abdicating their responsibility as for-profit licensees entrusted with public airwaves. When former Sen. Gary Hart released his commission's report two months ago on the probability of domestic terror, how many stations covered it? If he had another affair while researching terrorism, then he would have gotten some airtime.
How did this sad, pre-Sept. 11 state of affairs come to pass? Television news producers are generally smart and committed people who spend an inordinate amount of time defending the product they create. They blame the penny-pinching network executives. Network executives blame the bottom line: Advertisers pay for ratings, not civics lessons.
And so the chicken faces the egg. Are we ill-informed because we don't care, or do we not care because we're ill-informed? I know that Jewish Americans, who do care about the Middle East and other faraway lands, are often ill-served by facile evening news coverage of Israel and its neighbors.
The solution is really simple: make international news as gripping and as relevant as it is. Nowadays, TV news is having no problem doing that: CNN and other outlets are giving us good, even courageous coverage at considerable expense.
It may be, when the lull comes in this war, that we will yearn to flip on TV news and see nothing but amazing animal rescues. But a lot has changed in America in the past six weeks, and judging from the high Nielsen ratings that CNN and MSNBC have been getting, so has our taste for global news. It's true that sex and celebrity sell, but so, it turns out, do life and death.