Nets scramble to solve Egyptian riddle

Consistent reporting lacking when it comes to int'l news

Days before relinquishing oversight of CBS News, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus sounded indignant regarding criticism that U.S. networks no longer cover the globe particularly well.

“People talk a lot about the fact that networks don’t cover foreign news … as much as they should and they’re closing the bureaus and all that stuff,” he told Broadcasting & Cable, “but I am just continually amazed that whenever something happens in this country but particularly outside this country, the way the broadcast networks and the cable networks respond. And if you look at the kind of coverage … to say that there isn’t a commitment to foreign news or that the networks aren’t in a position to cover it, is just silly.”

With all due respect, bull.

Broadcast and cable networks have indeed responded with much laudable coverage of the popular uprising in Egypt, cobbling together feeds from international sources and freelancers, while parachuting anchors — at times braving considerable risk — into the region. Nobody should diminish that, certainly.

Still, spackling together coverage in the midst of a crisis is a far cry from delivering the kind of consistent reporting that would actually help U.S. viewers make sense of the Middle East, or any other flare-up beyond their borders.

The best analogy for what these networks are doing is like getting off the couch and suddenly trying to run five miles after not exercising for years. You might finish the race, but there’s no way you’ll do it as well, or efficiently, as if you’d been training and using those muscles.

Yes, there are key correspondents, like NBC’s Richard Engel, to call upon. But news divisions once employed top-line anchors — Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather come to mind — with strong international credentials. As for cable news, while CNN maintains a strong worldwide presence, Fox News Channel and MSNBC have both found it far easier — and less expensive — to rely on talk-oriented programs fronted by studio-bound hosts.

Technology — from Skype to tiny portable cameras that dispense with the need for cumbersome crews — have enabled TV to bring pictures to their audience, quickly, from virtually anywhere on the globe. Yet freelance one-man-bands or sightseeing anchors offer a poor substitute for what the military would call “boots on the ground,” and having reporters familiar with the local topography.

In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising that ABC’s “This Week” anchor, Christiane Amanpour, scored a coup by landing an exclusive interview with embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Despite the second-guessing that followed her hiring, the former CNN reporter has put considerable time into the Arab world, when much of the American media couldn’t find Cairo on a map.

Granted, there is strong, in-depth international coverage to be found, but it’s largely confined to little-seen provinces like PBS’ “Frontline” and HBO — whose latest documentary, “The Battle for Marjah,” offers a maddeningly complex account of the U.S. military’s campaign in Afghanistan.

Premiering Feb. 17, “Marjah” highlights Marines’ painstaking efforts to minimize civilian casualties, as well as a cultural chasm that’s not easily bridged. Subtly illustrating this conundrum, filmmaker Ben Anderson keeps cutting from tranquil aerial views to sobering ground-level reality.

“They think they’re helping,” a local Afghan says of the Marines, “but they’re making it worse.”

Network execs have a vested interest in the public thinking that a sustained international presence isn’t necessary — downplaying the value of experience, institutional knowledge or specialized reporting. The same mentality spills beyond television, by the way, as newspapers have been forced to make hard choices, shedding specialists and shuttering bureaus.

Of course, networks can fall back on the defense that their audience exhibits scant interest in the rest of the world. A recent Pew Research Center survey concluded that increased public interest in Egypt “did not keep pace with the growth in media coverage,” and in an earlier poll, 52% of respondents said they had heard “little or nothing” about the anti-government protests. To them, Simon Cowell leaving “American Idol” qualifies as big international news.

Audience complicity in the shallowness of news coverage hardly merits a “breaking news” alert. But making the claim that U.S. networks, in their scaled-down form, are well-positioned to document events overseas? Now that is just silly.

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