Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
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Vanishing Foreign News
By Repps Hudson (SAIS '74)
Illustration by Kim Barnes

When I visited Japan three years ago with other journalists to discuss how the American media cover foreign affairs, my colleagues from such publications as U.S. News &World Report, USA Today, Foreign Affairs, and National Journal spoke proudly to their hosts about the breadth and depth of their coverage.

Yes, they were well-attuned to the rapidly shrinking world and the need to keep readers informed of developments from Northern Ireland to South Korea, from the Falklands to Quebec. The more rapidly the news could be reported, the better. Their readers expected as much from the serious print media, my colleagues assured their Japanese counterparts.

As the sole representative of a metropolitan newspaper in the Midwest, I had a different tale to tell: We were--and are-- burying foreign news in favor of sports and local and state coverage.

At the time, I was in charge of local and state political and government reporting, and for me, that newly found emphasis was just fine. If I could talk my fellow editors into giving my reporters space in the front A section, so much the better. What did I care if the St. Louis mayor's race knocked off Page One yet another story about the Japanese trade imbalance? What else did our readers want to know about the tedious tragedy of Bosnia? Saddam Hussein defiant yet again? So what! The mantra around the city desk of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch then was, and still is, blunt: Fix local news or die.

Once I left the desk and became a more general reader again, my interests returned to a broader perspective. I wanted the newspaper to give me balance in its presentation. I wanted the most important stories from near and afar.

As Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Associated Press reporter, noted in a recent cover piece for the American Journalism Review, "International news coverage in most of America's mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point." Arnett, one of CNN's star international reporters, focused on a striking example: The city editor of the Indianapolis Star, for whom a great front page is all local news. "I am a partisan of local news," Thomas Leyden told Arnett. "I want the local story to be played. I fight with everyone if I have to."

It hasn't always been that way. During the Vietnam War, the Star featured many front-page stories about the conflict in Southeast Asia, as well as the hydra-headed Cold War confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. For several decades, the Post-Dispatch, Joseph Pulitzer's first newspaper, focused on international reporting, burnishing its reputation as a first-rate daily. So what's going on in St. Louis, Indianapolis, and in city rooms of newspapers all across the country, if you get away from the coastal giants, like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal?

Several things. Arnett, who won his Pulitzer covering the Vietnam War, was chronicling the conflict that reminded most Americans that, in the depth of our souls, we are isolationists. We may want to travel in the world and enjoy the cornucopia of relatively free trade, but we don't like bearing the costs of trying to maintain a world order. That attitude dominated U.S. politics during the 1930s, when Americans were fighting the Depression and became disillusioned by the rise of totalitarianism after World War I, the "war to end wars." They wanted to turn their backs on the ugly affairs brewing in Europe and Asia. Today, with Vietnam and the Cold War in the rearview mirror, that isolationist attitude is back. For better or worse, Americans' reflexive reaction has been to retreat from commitments abroad when they do not see how their short-term interests will be served. Editors in countless news planning meetings know this, and they are spurred on by declining or flat circulation figures. That's why they say: Fix local news coverage above all else. Readers want to know about what concerns them most, and the assumption is that they care most about their own neighborhoods. Foreign news does, of course, have important connections to the lives of every American--but it takes more work on the part of reporters and editors to explain those connections.

If nothing else, the Cold War gave foreign coverage a framework and a news hook. Insurgents in Central America, for instance, could be assigned a pigeon hole: for the United States or against it. Wire editors could sell stories to their colleagues about the left-wing Sandinistas taking over in Nicaragua because the revolution fit nicely into the us-vs.-the-communists framework being used to judge stories. It also helped that Nicaragua was not too far from the Sunbelt population centers of Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas. Proximity almost always sells a story.

As newspaper people today, we are failing, in that we are forgetting an important part of our jobs: To be aware of world events and to tip off readers before those events blast their way onto Page One--over the opposition of city editors.

Have midsized regional newspapers surrendered foreign coverage to CNN and the national editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today? It seems that way. Mark Willes, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, has noted that "everybody in their [sic] own interest group is increasingly going after niche sources of information." For the LA Times, "it is an absolute social imperative that we find a way to expand our reach. So whether people agree with us or disagree with us, at least they have a common source of information about which to engage in the dialogue."

Willes is saying that today more than ever, it's the role of a major newspaper to present the world to its readers, lest they fail to have the knowledge needed to make necessary decisions. The costs of maintaining correspondents abroad can be prohibitive for most papers. But that fact shouldn't deter wire editors and their superiors from giving foreign news sophisticated play. The Associated Press and such news services as the New York Times and the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times still provide a wealth of stories from which editors can choose. It's up to them to see beyond their circulation zones to give readers the information they need to understand the complex world in which we live.

It's one of the paradoxes of our time, it seems, that we can get a superficial impression of almost any culture in the world by shopping for cheaply made clothes at Wal-Mart and watching "Headline News" on CNN. What we don't get, and what newspapers are not telling us because we no longer demand to know, is the sense that the world beyond the boundaries of the United States is of our concern and sometimes difficult to understand. It takes effort, occasionally a lot, to figure out other cultures and societies. But that's part of the unwritten obligation of the citizens in a democracy such as the United States--a democracy with global interests and responsibilities. And what better way for the average citizen to learn than through a consistent diet of reading intelligently edited newspapers with a balanced perspective on news?

Repps Hudson (SAIS '74) is a writer in St. Louis.