U.S. news to refocus on election after Games

Television is about to pull off a magic trick that would render even David Copperfield envious: In the blink of an eye, all of China will disappear.

The Olympics have been called the U.S.’ biennial geography lesson, but a strange confluence of events made the build-up to Beijing especially prominent — and will cause its vanishing act to be even more sudden.

Controversy regarding China’s human-rights record and mystery surrounding the country inspired multiple networks to ride piggyback on anticipation as the Games neared. ABC even took a break from “Primetime: Crime” and other salacious newsmagazine morsels with a special hosted by Bob Woodruff, while much of NBC News — including “Today” and “Nightly News” — relocated to Beijing.

At home, though, the silly season of electoral politics, relentless fascination with missing persons and cost-cutting pressures assailing television and print foreshadow the rapid retreat that’s sure to come.

As the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism observed, cable news’ talk-oriented approach “tends toward the political and the controversial, with a clear focus on crime and celebrity mixed in.” And increasingly, that sets the agenda for the rest of TV news.

Put those trends together with a historic U.S. election that has boosted cable tune-in, and unless French President Nicolas Sarkozy strangles his singer wife, Carla Bruni, before being caught with a prostitute following a high-speed chase, the world will disappear faster than Keyser Soze did in “The Usual Suspects.”

Granted, China and the U.S. remain inextricably linked economically, Russia marched into neighboring Georgia, and troops continue fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as CBS correspondent Lara Logan griped in a moment of candor on “The Daily Show” as she bitched about the difficulty of garnering airtime for those wars, “If I were to watch the news that you hear in the United States, I’d just blow my brains out.”

Besides, war pales next to a good sex scandal, as the cable nets demonstrated when former presidential candidate John Edwards admitted to an extramarital affair. Even MSNBC — the network supposedly “in the tank” for the Democrats — pounced with the kind of vigor that could have prompted a casual observer to confuse it with Fox News.

Further hastening the post-Beijing amnesia, this year’s Olympics will segue directly into the back-to-back Democratic and Republican conventions, monopolizing the cable news space for the next two weeks. By then, the election sprint will have begun; un-retired quarterback Brett Favre will be playing football again; and let’s face it, some celebrity will have been arrested doing something.

Beyond vagaries of the calendar, deep cutbacks at newspapers represent another wild card. With major dailies laying off staff at an alarming rate (especially alarming to those of us still working at newspapers), overseas coverage is being compromised. Another recent Pew center survey, “The Changing Newsroom,” found that two-thirds of U.S. newspapers have reduced their commitment to foreign news.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, has slashed its editorial staff from 1,200 during its heyday to 700 after the latest round of cuts. Editors insist they haven’t abandoned their ambitions, but to quote the old song, something’s gotta give.

Big stories can obviously flare up — unforeseen disasters, regime change in Pakistan, saber-rattling by and toward Iran — but with so few paying attention, it’s easy for what happens beyond U.S. borders to fade out of sight and mind. So while networks react to breaking international news, their default position has become the titillating and freaky: Lost coeds or toddlers, divorce by homicide, celebrity gossip and political mud-slinging, as partisan hacks opine from the safety of cozy studios.

Recognizing the void this slide has created, a few alternative outlets have stepped forward. In addition to “BBC World News America,” some PBS stations will begin carrying “Worldfocus,” a nightly half-hour devoted to global reporting and issues hosted by NBC News’ Martin Savidge, scheduled to premiere in October.

In the main, though, such voices remain a relative peep. Meanwhile, NBC has been capitalizing on its heightened tune-in to signal plans for a literal Olympic-to-election baton pass, running campaign-coverage promos for MSNBC that close by dramatically intoning, “America’s greatest race … starts now.”

And with that, let the inward-looking, navel-gazing, tabloid-chasing games begin.

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