President Bush has declared a world-wide war against terrorism that by his own admission could last for years. Thus Mr. Bush has globalized his promise to wipe out terrorism and has created a whole new journalistic challenge for our foreign press corps.
But we, the people, have a problem. As this historic drama unfolds overseas, the American foreign press corps has been weakened by budgetary pressures at a time when a full-court press by top-knotch journalistic professionals is needed more than ever to keep us well and truly informed. However, during the nineties news organizations closed down many foreign bureaus and cut back on the number of American citizens on their foreign staffs.
The Overseas Press Club bulletin recently addressed the problem with the headline, “Surprise! You Need Overseas Bureaus to Cover Overseas News!” William Holstein, a wire-service veteran, wrote that it was bitterly ironic to see after September eleven the tv networks scrambling to restore some of their foreign coverage. He said, and I fully agree, that the quality of overseas coverage has declined since the fall of the Soviet Union and with more news organizarions run by entertainment-minded executives the American media have been in retreat from the unspoken commitment to be the overseas eyes and ears of this democracy.
The corporate bean-counters argued that after the Cold War tv news viewers seem to have lost interest in foreign news if it didn’t involve an oil shortage or American service persons in harm’s way. The TV budget people decided that this meant lower ratings which meant lower advertising income which meant cutting costs which meant that the expense of foreign bureaus became one of the first targets. One major tv network, for example, closed 10 of its 17 bureaus.
More importantly, also lost was the experience senior foreign correspondents acquire in residence which gives them a perspective unavailable to a reporter or celebrity anchorman sent in—or as they say—“parachuted” from the States to cover a story. Otherwise, in a dead bureau area, some media rely on the local hire of foreign nationals whose perception might not be what an American correspondent would see. Their reliability is questionable no matter what their credentials.
Right now we need the very best and experienced correspondents in the Afganistan military and diplomatic arena because the Bush administration has imposed the tightest lock-down on news coverage. That’s a spin-language way of saying censorship and lack of access.
The problem is that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made himself the arbiter of what the public has a right to know. He has reduced the reporter to the role of stenographer relaying only what the Pentagon says.
But that is not enough. Associated Press Chief Louis Boccardi, also in the Overseas Press Club Bulletin, said “It remains the job of the free press to report as fully and fairly as it knows how—and to do that in ways that properly balance all the other values that have to be considered—not the least of them is national security.”
In President Bush’s global war against terrorism, this is a supreme challenge for the experienced veteran foreign correspondent, not one to be left to temporary “parachutists”, low budget neophytes, or foreign stringers.
This is Bill Seamans.
–Bill Seamans is an award-winning journalist and a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.