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A narrow news view in a great big world

President Bush has complained about those who would pursue isolationist policies, turning the U.S.’ gaze inward and ignoring the world.

Yet if this mindset comes as a revelation to the president, he clearly hasn’t been watching much television, where — despite the brief blip prompted by the Sept. 11 terror attacks — the viewfinder remains narrow, providing at best fleeting glimpses of distant shores.

All this was driven home during my recent 10-day stint in China, where the principal lifeline to news was CNN Intl., filtered through the net’s Hong Kong bureau. And lo and behold, that channel offered a far more rounded, thoughtful and robust look at the globe than anything one is apt to find on its U.S. counterpart or other domestic competitors.

CNNI also marked a significant departure from Fox News Channel’s international feed, which looked a lot like Fox News does in the U.S. — mainly, men with ties arguing, interrupted by doe-eyed women providing news updates. Somehow, I’m guessing it doesn’t play that well in Singapore.

By contrast, CNN’s international arm has the folksy feel of a local newscast — two anchors, weather, an ungodly amount of soccer coverage — but with an expanded view of what’s happening abroad to which one is rarely privy in the U.S.

News execs note a preoccupation with domestic affairs is hardly the exclusive province of the U.S., citing coverage in Australia and Europe, including the BBC. Still, the dearth of foreign news raises an age-old chicken-and-egg question — namely, is it not offered because the audience turns away, or are they not afforded the chance, as cost-conscious networks retreat behind the comforting excuse of public apathy?

Rena Golden, CNN Intl.’s Atlanta-based senior VP, defends the quality of domestic coverage — citing ABC News, CNN and National Public Radio as examples. She adds, however, that it’s “sort of a cop-out for us in the media” to say people won’t watch international news, especially with the furor surrounding issues like the Dubai ports deal and U.S. immigration policy.

“We’ve got to make really important stories interesting and relevant to the viewers that are watching,” Golden says. “It’s not about forcing spinach down people’s throats.”

This seemed especially true touring China, whose vast population and frantic growth — with construction sites virtually stacking up next to each other — begs for more attention from television. Still, before the visit, it was striking how little about the country could be gleaned from U.S. news broadcasts, which have a disheartening tendency to ignore international venues until someone blows one up or stages an Olympics there.

By any measure, China is a remarkable story, from the country’s wrestling match with a market-based economy to the challenges that go with housing and feeding 1.3 billion people — or, from a pure business perspective, 1.3 billion potential consumers.

Documenting this process, however, has largely fallen to the print media, a deficiency only partially remedied by an upcoming “Frontline” doc, Discovery Times Channel’s planned four-part series, “China Rises,” and a multipart “Eye on China” series, fronted by Hong Kong-based anchor Kristie Lu Stout, premiering this week on CNNI.

Notably, CNN — which dedicates an hour to international news during the day — hasn’t committed to airing more than snippets of that series, one that most Americans doubtless could benefit from seeing. Instead, when I tuned in the channel last week, there was Larry King asking Naomi Judd what it’s like to sing duets, and a correspondent on “Anderson Cooper 360” subjecting herself to electro-shock therapy, which — newsflash — hurt. (King has a limited presence on CNNI, whose menu includes condensing “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” into a weekly best-of hour.)

An intriguing item in the English-language China Daily reported on a Global Times survey that found two in three Chinese generally like Americans. Tellingly, 63% say they formed that opinion through mass media, with 21% saying American movies informed it.

Given the volume and quality of TV news coverage, an equal number of Americans probably would predicate their response on having seen “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero.” And if news outlets are going to wait until the 2008 Olympics come to Beijing to tackle China’s growing influence, then they’ll clearly be getting into the race with too little, too late.

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