Television journalism, ever slipping toward the edge of oxymoron, is teetering fast. A decade ago, CBS News was in the habit of proudly proclaiming: “We Put America on Top of the World.” Then, along with the jingoist ring, there was at least curiosity about what goes on beyond these borders. Today, shame must have discouraged that advertising campaign, for now, CBS-like its competitors-keeps America peering inside its own navel.
According to the Tyndall Report , which monitors network newscasts, foreign news coverage by the three networks fell 42 percent between 1988 and 1996.
On one randomly chosen recent evening, I zapped among all three network broadcasts and found not one item on anything happening outside the United States of America. Along the way, NBC’s two-and-a-half-minute “In Depth” (sic) segment, concerned with that burning question of our time, the season’s wild weather, did include a voice-over mention of “Europe” while a film clip showed high waves beating against some unspecified shore. That same piece featured a special report from the forecasters at the Farmer’s Almanac . Or does fairness require that we include Volkswagen’s release of an upgraded Beetle, mentioned in all three broadcasts, as foreign news?
The biggest Federal budget expenditure after Social Security and Medicare is $268.2 billion for the military. (When Congress passed the budget last summer, total network coverage was zero minutes, zero seconds.) That $268.2 billion is supposed to prepare for fighting two full-scale wars at the same time. These wars, logicians might note, would pit the United States against foreign enemies. The most fearsome candidate-fearsome enough to be brandished about as a reason to expand NATO eastward-remains Russia.
But meanwhile, like a desperate phoenix flapping around amid the shards of the evil empire, this same Russia is in a state of convulsion. People starve while billionaires revel. The contrast is blinding enough to have persuaded the erratic President Boris Yeltsin to take note of it publicly. Yet, during the entire month of December and the first five days of January, here is the sum of what America’s three network news shows ran on the subject of Russia:
· CBS: nothing.
· ABC: Dec.10, an item on Boris Yeltsin going to the hospital.
· NBC: Dec. 8, a Rob Reynolds report on the economic misery of many Russians. This was no great shakes at explaining why so many Russians are hurting-explanation is not the networks’ strong suit-but at least it was an acknowledgment that the second-largest possessor of nuclear bombs is a country of not-so-quiet desperation. The New York Times is not doing better from Moscow these days.
In this case, a weak bravo for NBC, then, which needs all the bravos it can get, since it is sliding rapidly into a feel-good swamp. In front of his spiffy new set, Tom Brokaw may speak his lines while on his feet, but, to spiff up the General Electric Company’s bottom line, he is on his knees, bottom-feeding. The Peter Jennings and Dan Rather productions are not much different, though the papers, obsessed by horse races, are fascinated by the microscopic differences in network news ratings, not the scandal the networks share. Sandwiched among trailers for the news to come after the commercials, and trailers for the news to come tomorrow, “news you can use” is barely more than news you can lose. The main characters who appear on the news are mad bombers and helpful doctors.
What doesn’t show up on the network scopes are reasons why anything happens. The same point holds, in spades, for local coverage. The burst of a crumbling, century-old water pipe on lower Fifth Avenue does not (as yet) spur investigations as to how many other such pipes are ready to blow, or what city agencies are doing (and not doing) about them. Our eye-witless news shows are content to display pictures of the big puddle.
According to a Roper Starch Worldwide survey sponsored by the three networks, 69 percent of adult Americans in 1997 considered television to be their main source of news. (This figure has held roughly constant for 20 years, while the evening broadcasts have been supplemented by “magazines” or supplanted by cable, on-line and Internet services.) The conclusion is irresistible, that a sufficient number of Americans are content enough to keep peering inside their navels that the stillness is not shattered by sounds of vigorous protest. Messrs. Jennings, Rather and Brokaw, the Walt Disney Company, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and G.E. can all keep their alibis polished as shiny as their Emmys. They’re just giving most people what they’ll swallow.
And now a few words in behalf of beleaguered political correctness:
If the forces of political correctness have the likes of me on their side, they’re plainly on their last legs, but two recent items are worth noting. First, Steven Spielberg’s limping Amistad opens with the on-board uprising sequence during which the slave rebels speak to each other in African tongues, unsubtitled in any language, while the Spanish officers speak to each other in Spanish, subtitled in English. In fact, we don’t see the Africans subtitled until they start making (welcome) jokes at the expense of the pious Quakers who’ve come to check them out. If, to give him his due, Mr. Spielberg thought he was making the point that the Africans spoke different languages, reflecting diverse origins, and could not understand each other, the point is not whether they could understand each other (they couldn’t understand the Spaniards, either) but, rather, whether they’re intelligible to the audience. They’re not. Instead, the Spaniards communicate meaning while the Africans utter incomprehensible syllables. Tarzan lives.
Second, The New York Times of Jan. 6, in an Associated Press dispatch from Algeria about recent massacres, refers to “the Muslim insurgency.” Now, the insurgents are surely Muslim, but so are their opponents, so the label “Muslim” for some of the world’s most murderous is inept as well as ignorant. To be sure, more than American ignorance is at work, since China’s news agency, Xinhua, habitually resorts to the same distorting lens; the Chinese Government is no slouch when it comes to ethnocentrism. There’s an easy fix. The French use the word islamiste when they mean Muslim totalists or fundamentalists, as distinguished from the majority of Muslims. In English, then, why not “Islamist”?