Nieman News

The story of terror that broke on Sept. 11 is greatly instructive for students of journalism — in school and in the professions.

I know you are talking about it, as people are everywhere. I know you are talking about it as young people, saddened by death and the sense of loss, and fearful of what the future holds.

I know you also are talking about it, reflecting on it and writing about it as students of journalism. I hope you are asking questions, as journalists must.

As we think about the lessons of Sept. 11, there are important questions to be raised about journalism in a time of turbulence and terror.

The question to begin our discussion: Why have local newspapers and television news broadcasts been indifferent to international news during an era in which ethnic conflicts have killed millions and globalization has touched nearly every American community?

The decline in international news coverage began as the collapse of the Soviet-style communism brought an end to the Cold War. The networks shut down overseas bureaus, electing instead to parachute correspondents and camera crews into developing hotspots.

By 1991, when our attention turned briefly to the Persian Gulf War, the networks had reduced their presence in the Middle East to such an extent that CNN, with Peter Arnett in Baghdad and with its continuing coverage, was able to establish itself as the premier news channel.

Through the decade of the 1990s international coverage was intermittent, often making the top of the news hour only when the shooting started. We saw this in such incidents as the downing of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in 1993 the ethnic wars in the Balkans and the terrorist attacks in 1998 on the U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Coverage of these stories was extensive but episodic.

Once an event had been reported on and analyzed, the network news shows and the columns of local newspapers shifted their attention once again to stories editors and news directors thought Americans cared more about: scandals, celebrities and local crime, fires and fluff.

The presumption that the world has become more like America, that the world turns on American ideas and ideals influenced the decline in foreign reporting, even at a time when immigration has made our country increasingly diverse.

American self-interest shapes the lens through which the press covers international news, thus often depriving Americans of perspectives and points of view held in other parts of the world. A study in 1997 at Harvard University found that during the 1970s network television devoted 45 percent of its total coverage to international news.

This was near the end of the Vietnam War, a time in which the prestige of the news divisions was near its pinnacle, and few front office objections were raised to maintaining news operations around the world.

By 1995, the Harvard study showed, foreign news represented only 13.5 percent of the total coverage decline of more than 70 percent.

Such a finding reflected repeated network decisions to cut staff, close bureaus and seek ways to do more with less. In fact, the networks ended up doing less with less.

This shift in focus came during the great economic boom that was building during the 1990s. The big story day after day seemed to be about business: open markets, capital formation, high technology, and the rising stock market.

Meanwhile, the struggles in democracy and the religious and civil strife that were taking place in many countries newly free of communism seldom made page one or the top of the news hour.

The quest for market share was a demonstrable influence in television news. The expression 24-7 entered our vocabulary as the catchword for a new kind of programming.

The format was talk and entertainment that related to the news of the day but that did not require an investment in original reporting.

The primetime newsmagazines quickly became profitable, providing relentless coverage of stories such as the O.J. Simpson trials, Princess Diana, President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and, most recently Gary Condit and Chandra Levy.

The major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, along with CNN were faced with the need to maintain their shares of an increasingly fragmented audience.

They chose to copy the formats of their new competitors, rather than stay with the staple of hard news on which they had built their reputations over the years.

The alarming shrinkage in the space local newspapers devoted to international news prompted the American Society of Newspapers Editors and The Freedom Forum in 1999 to examine this decline and build a case that enhancing world coverage is an opportunity for newspapers.

Edward Seaton, editor of the Manhattan, Kansas, Mercury and president of ASNE at the time, wrote: “Research shows that international news is in the top tier of reader interests, and this job has been conceded to us. Network television, local television and commercial radio have significantly reduced their international coverage. Even the weekly newsmagazines have cut back dramatically.

“Readers know that the global marketplace affects their jobs, their pay, their neighborhoods and even what they can buy at the Wal-Mart. Often, in local stories, readers are not getting the depth, the explanation and the context they expect from their newspapers.”

The shifting emphasis in news coverage away from international news that had been building for more than a decade surely contributed to the uncertainty and confusion over why terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11.

Martin Baron, the new editor of The Boston Globe, told David Shaw, who covers the news media for the Los Angeles Times: “I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in the Muslim world, and in that sense, I think we do bear some responsibility.”

A project on the State of the American Newspaper, conducted at the University of Maryland School of Journalism, could account for only 282 foreign correspondents for all of the nation’s daily newspapers.

One-third of that number work for three major metropolitan newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Another third covers the international financial story for The Wall Street Journal. This means that the rest of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the U.S. have fewer than 100 foreign correspondents among them.

The largest providers of international news are the wire services.

The Associated Press operates approximately 100 bureaus around the world and files a voluminous, broadly based daily report. Only a tiny fraction of those stories ever find their way into the pages of our newspapers.

The absence of a substantial daily international news report is explained by decisions made in local newsrooms.

Editors have been persuaded that local news is increasingly important — no one can argue that it is not — and adding space for city and town news often means cutting columns for international news.

The foreign story suffered this fate at a time in which the United States stood alone as the world’s superpower and the nature of globalization, immigration, terrorism, international drug cartels and the spread of disease were having a significant, direct impact on Americans. Another question: Does the U.S. news media have the resources to cover a complex and complicated war on terrorism?

In the days following Sept. 11, news organizations were left to reconcile the decisions they had made to reduce international coverage with the reportorial and financial demands of a story that now stretches before us for an unknown period and to unknown places and unfamiliar people.

During the first two days of coverage, commercials were dropped and regular programming was given over to news. Early estimates are that television broadcasters lost nearly $100 million a day in local and national advertising because of expanded coverage.

The cost of reopening foreign bureaus, staffing them and equipping journalists in the field with the latest gee-whiz technology for transmitting sound and visual images will have a significant impact on the bottom line.

The New York Times described this as one of the largest international media deployments, costing news organizations about $25 million in the first week, as journalists arrived in such places as Bahrain, Yemen, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In a war without obvious battlefields, in which combat may well be hidden from view, the bill for coverage will have many elements.

The Times reported that shipping and set-up costs for satellite communications equipment can be as much as $70,000 for each uplink and about as much per week to maintain it.

Transmission fees from remote areas can be $2,000 for 15 minutes. Helicopter rides, $8,000 satellite telephones capable of transmitting photos, hotels, meals and, yes, bribes to local authorities to buy access are all part of the cost.

Analysts estimate that local newspapers gave up half of their weekly ad revenue and took on the added cost of hundreds of extra columns of space for coverage.

While most local newspapers will rely on the wire services for reports from the Muslin world, there will be continuing pressure on ad revenue as the economy tries to recover, and a continuing need for additional news hole.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorists’ attacks, newspapers showed significant gains in readership. Many papers published extra editions that sold out. On Sept. 11 and 12, Gannett reported nearly 3 million more single-copy newspapers were sold than in the previous week.

This tells us about the basic value readers place in their local newspapers.

Weekly newsmagazines rushed to press with special issues, distributing millions of copies, and tore up the budgets for their regular issues that were published the next week.

Prime time network television viewing was much greater than normal; an average of 30 to 50 million viewers a day watched during the first four days.

Analysts estimate, however, that the circulation gains and the additional viewers will not offset the revenue shortfalls that are expected to be a consequence of an uncertain business climate for some time to come.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington came in the midst of a very difficult year for the news industry. The operating revenues of major newspaper companies and the news divisions of television news organizations have declined this year, reflecting a downturn in the U.S. economy that precipitated a loss of advertising.

Lower operating revenues influenced many news companies to cut costs by laying off journalists and other employees or reducing their work force in a more permanent way through early retirements and buy-outs. Additionally, in the case of newspapers, news space has been reduced.

These actions have been extensively reported and analyzed. But the coverage has been deceptive to the extent that the stories often fail to note that most publicly traded news corporations remain highly profitable. Instead, the headlines emphasize declining revenue and earnings, and cutbacks in the newsgathering workforce.

During the first six months of this year, according to John Morton, a widely respected media industry analyst, the publicly traded newspaper companies reported operating profit margins averaging 19 percent.

And as the third quarter results are being reported in coming days, you will read about lower revenue and lower earnings, but there also will be substantial profits — a continuing statement about the fundamental strength of newspapers.

These financial results are down from the 24 percent average return newspaper companies posted in the previous year, but the fact is that newspapers remain among the most profitable industries in the world.

As a comparison, supermarkets average about 1 percent return and the margin of earnings in automobile industry’s Big Three is substantially less in good years.

Critics argue that newspaper company executives are focused only on the short-term — essentially the earnings estimates for the next quarter — and order cutbacks in news coverage and staffing to keep profits at unusually high levels. In the weeks since Sept. 11, Americans’ continuing reliance on newspapers is a reaffirmation that news is the soul of newspapers, the reason why readers read and why advertisers buy space. In their presentations to Wall Street analysts about newspapers as an investment, newspaper executives have little to say about the role of news and value of news at the heart of their business. In their emphasis on advertising, circulation and revenue they have failed to make the case on Wall Street why news is so relevant to the success of newspaper companies. Their presentations ignore the need for greater investment in news and the acknowledgement that probing, enterprising journalism is expensive. As we look ahead to an uncertain economy and a period in which the primacy of news cannot be challenged, the newspaper industry has an opportunity to change the story it tells Wall Street and the way it presents itself to investors. It is an opportunity to develop a theme built around the special place of newspapers in our democratic society and the essential role of news as a solid long-term business strategy that can produce a record of vital public service as well as a robust bottom line. U.S. news organizations are known for their good work in turbulent times.

On the Sunday after the attacks, Michael Getler, ombudsman at The Washington Post, wrote that the newspapers he saw “all had risen to the challenge, with strong, solid, well organized coverage of an event like no other in a long, long time…American television news also performed with great skill and professionalism, providing riveting coverage that was hard to pull away from and that is vital to an informed public during such a crisis.”

Online news sites were seen as contributing effectively to the coverage.

Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post media critic, suggested that the Internet “really came of age during this terrible crisis. They blanketed the story with all kinds of reporting, analysis and commentary, and provided readers with a chance to weigh in as well.”

It has been said that Sept. 11 was the day gossip died. Perhaps. At least for a while we have been spared the chatty rumors and scandalous innuendoes about the behavior of people in public life. In the face of this mind-numbing tragedy, who cares any longer?

Trivia seems for the moment to have been driven underground or hung up in the wind. For how long we don’t know. Forever, would be desirable.

The inevitable polls, which measure how much Americans tune in, gave the news media high marks. In a Pew Research Center sample, 89 percent of those surveyed gave the coverage a positive rating.

This reflects a sharp reversal of a recent trend in public opinion that Americans increasingly had little or no confidence in the news media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.

The infusion of old values focusing on real news, real issues and real problems gives fresh prominence to serious reporting and insightful interpretation.

Newspapers and broadcast news organizations are regaining relevance in their collective roles of informing and enlightening a nation in crisis. It suggests a way by which journalism can renew its historic public purpose and redeem itself as a public trust.

Journalism on such a course will restore credibility with readers and viewers, and, at the same time, may become seen among young people once again as an exciting and rewarding way to spend one’s working life.

In a time of national tragedy, Americans instinctively turn to their families and friends, their religion and the patriotic fervor that is part of our national tradition.

Patriotism can take many forms: flag-waving, non-partisan leadership, pledges of sacrifice in the defense of our country, greater respect for government, even strains of jingoism in the press.

In such a tumultuous time, another question students should pose is: Does patriotism have room for a press that is watchful over the exercise of power?

When this nation is on a war footing, many of our traditional checks and balances are displaced by a well-intentioned instinct for national unity.

Congress gives the President a blank check to increase our military capability, to provide humanitarian aide to Afghan refugees and economic stimulus at home.

The normal checks and balances within our form of government have been waived, at least for now.

Congress is giving the President what he says he needs, with few questions asked. Issues that promised highly partisan debate — such as the missile defense system — and issues that were not on the table — such as increasing wire tap authority — are moving through Congress at a fast pace.

It is left for the press to be the check on government, to ask the probing, penetrating questions. This watchdog obligation is one the press takes seriously.

Recent comments by White House officials have suggested strongly that the press should get with the program.

Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, reacting to a remark by Bill Maher of the TV show Politically Incorrect, wagged his finger as he said, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that.”

The State Department attempted to persuade the Voice of America’s to cancel a scheduled broadcast of an exclusive interview with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and a defender of Osama bin Laden.

And most recently Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser, asked leaders of five broadcast news organizations to show restraint before airing unedited propaganda tapes calling on people to kill Americans.

The news executive agreed, apparently without dissent.

These actions remind many senior journalists of a news briefing by Secretary of State Dean Rusk in early 1968, just after the U.S. forces had been dealt a stunning setback by the Tet offensive in Vietnam. To a question from ABC reporter John Scali, Rusk demanded, “Whose side are you on!”

Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek, said in an interview that “the press has to maintain our skepticism and we have to continue to report as aggressively as we ever have…One of the great things that we are fighting for, that … is under attack by these terrorists, is free speech and a free press.”

The government may regard the control of information to be in the public interest and may strive to filter what Americans learn about military action.

This thinking was shaped by the Vietnam war, when the reporters were free to move with combat units, enabling them to provide realistic coverage indicating that the war was not going the way the government said it was.

The military saw this free flow of information as negative coverage that helped turn American citizens against the war.

From the bitter Vietnam experience, the military developed a new strategy for dealing with the press.

The new Pentagon model was patterned after the strategy employed by the British during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982.

In carrying out military actions in Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf, the U.S. government has followed the British script by sanitizing visual images of war, controlling media access to combat zones, censoring information that could upset readers or viewers, and excluding journalists who would not write favorable stories.

Tensions between the press and the U.S. military increased during the Persian Gulf War as a consequence of restrictions on coverage that limited the public’s right to know about political decisions and military actions in that conflict.

During 40 years of the Cold War, the press was slow to discover that deception was an instrument of power in the government, an instrument designed to deceive our adversaries as well as our citizens.

There are some who believe that had the press been more aggressive in serving its watchdog role, the United States never would have gone to war in Vietnam.

As we learned, years after these conflicts, the manipulation of information is less for national security reasons than to serve political and propaganda objectives and protect the images of those in power.

Tensions are rising again between government and the press, as reporters prepare to cover U.S. military strikes and covert intelligence activities against Osama bin Laden, his protectors and terrorist regimes throughout the world.

Will truth be a casualty again in this time of war?

To conclude, I’d like to go back to a point I made at the beginning of this talk: that this developing story of challenge and war can be very instructive for students of journalism.

In times of war or national crisis, Americans tend to view things differently. Our faith in government, for example, has risen.

How quickly we appear to have moved from a generation of belief that government should be small and lean, that the private sector and the market could solve many of our national problems, that political debate should be ideological and highly partisan.

We now seem to be looking to the government to protect us, to bail out the industries most severely impacted by the attacks on Sept. 11 and to hail a spirit of bi-partisanship.

Part of the new national mood is to rediscover how essential a free press is to our democracy and how effectively it is serving the American people in a spirit of public trust when they truly need to be well informed.

We don’t know how long this war might last. Our national leadership is talking in terms of months and years. If that is the case, a new generation of journalists will rise to cover the story.

Some of you will be part of that new generation of journalists. It is my hope, in fact, that one legacy of Sept. 11 will be a resurgence of interest in journalism education as more and more young people see the purpose of journalism as service in the public interest.

For those who you who have made this commitment or who are contemplating it, please use your time here on this campus, in this building to acquire the authoritative knowledge of the world in which we live and the world whose story you will tell.

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