Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
The Future of History
Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?
Sparked by Vice President Spiro Agnew's critical remarks last fall, there has been much discussion of the news media in recent months, particularly as regards their objectivity, their concentration of ownership and the like. These questions must be regarded as important regardless of one's political views. They deserve even more probing and wider examination than they have received to date. But to confine the debate to the issues raised by Mr. Agnew is grossly inadequate, for there are other equally or even more fundamental matters that need airing. How large are the resources this nation devotes to keeping itself informed on current events? How are they distributed by the media as a whole and by the major media separately as among major areas of attention? Are changes in the amount or distribution of these resources required to create a better-informed citizenry capable of making more intelligent decisions? It is strange that in this land of numerous and wealthy foundations so little effort has been made to provide a comprehensive overall picture of the organization and operation of the news media and an evaluation of how well they perform their functions. This article is intended to serve as a contribution to the needed larger discussion.
Domestic news, of course, usually dominates the media quantitatively. For most Americans, events in their local communities, their states, and finally in the United States as a whole are normally of greatest interest. A time of war is the great exception to this generalization. The young Americans fighting in Vietnam make that story of primary importance for this country's media, an importance enhanced by the violent domestic controversy about that struggle. There are other special foreign situations that from time to time command major public interest here: a war in the Middle East, a major purge in the Kremlin, the opening of a world's fair in Montreal or Osaka, the Olympic Games in Mexico City. But these are the exceptions. Even in this age of instantaneous communication, supersonic airplanes and ballistic missiles, most foreign developments are of secondary interest to domestic news for most Americans-and correspondingly for the majority of citizens in other countries.
This has one advantage for anyone interested in American journalism (using that term in the widest sense to cover all the media). Foreign news coverage is a smaller and more manageable area for examination than domestic news coverage. Thus most individual newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television stations do not have foreign correspondents of their own. They rely for their foreign news on the wire services and-in the case of network-affiliated radio and television stations-network correspondents. Most newspapers and stations that have no foreign coverage of their own defend this lack by arguing that their readers have relatively little interest in such news. The corollary of that lack of interest is lack of knowledge-sometimes quite an appalling lack of knowledge. Little more than a decade ago, for example, a sample study by The New York Times found that a substantial proportion of Americans did not know then that West Berlin was separated from West Germany by about 100 miles. Many who were aware of this fact, moreover, confessed they had learned it only a few days earlier when President Eisenhower appeared on national television to discuss the Berlin crisis and, with pointer in hand, indicated this geographic reality on a map. In the mid-1960s, a Council on Foreign Relations study found that a significant percentage of the American people did not know that Mainland China is ruled by a communist régime.
Americans who want to be well informed on foreign affairs can be, of course. They have available not only the diverse and abundant reports of the best domestic newspapers and magazines and of the electronic media, but also a large fraction of the information available to the rest of the world. Foreign publications-from The Economist and Le Monde to Pravda, Granma and the Peking Review-can be freely bought here or received by subscription through the mails. Short-wave broadcasts from numerous foreign countries can be heard clearly here; their reception is not jammed and is determined only by the quality of the receiver and by atmospheric conditions. At any given time, moreover, numerous Americans are abroad in many countries as tourists, businessmen, soldiers or-in the case of Cuba recently-sugar-cane cutters. Books on foreign affairs are turned out abundantly by domestic publishers, and most books published abroad in English or other languages can be easily imported. And the supply of lecturers on foreign affairs-Americans and foreign nationals both-is always abundant.
These considerations suggest a look at the total mechanism by which the world's supply of foreign news is collected and disseminated.
Quantitatively, the largest single factor in this activity consists of the major world news agencies-the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Agence France Presse, Tass, Novosti, Prensa Latina, Tanjug, Ceteka, the New China News Agency, etc. These have the largest numbers of correspondents and their reports-distributed through newspapers, radio and television-reach the largest audiences. All of these collect news in many countries and sell it-or distribute it at little or no charge, in the case of some communist agencies-in many countries. The largest news agencies distribute their dispatches in several languages and compete on an international scale. Some of these agencies are purely commercial organizations concerned primarily with making maximum profit. Tass and other communist news agencies are servants of the governments which own and control them, and which by no means put profit considerations first. These state-operated agencies are propaganda instruments, and the news they disseminate publicly reflects the policy objectives of their masters. They are really more analogous to the United States Information Agency, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe and other Western organizations which collect and transmit news abroad with government political purposes in mind. These latter organizations, it should be noted, also employ numerous correspondents around the world.
The resources employed by the large news agencies are substantial, but it is difficult to get really comparable and unambiguous data. Recently, an Associated Press spokesman said that his organization had a total of 1,000 full-time reporters, editors and photographers stationed abroad. In addition, it employs numerous stringers-i.e. part-time correspondents. In 1969, the AP had 30 reporters, photographers, etc. in Vietnam alone. A United Press International spokesman estimated that his organization had 850 full-time foreign news personnel, plus 1,486 stringers. A Reuters spokesman said his agency had 3,000 full-time correspondents in the field around the world plus 800 stringers. A mechanical addition of the figures would suggest that the three agencies employ over 2,000 full-time correspondents, plus several thousand stringers. These figures are useful as a rough guide to the magnitude of these agencies' effort, but much more detail is needed for analysis of any complexity.
A second major source of foreign news is the aggregate of print media, newspapers and magazines. One measure of the quality of a publication is the amount of money and manpower it devotes to collecting foreign news. In this country, the most extensive foreign news staffs are those of The New York Times, The Sun (Baltimore), The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal among newspapers, and of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Business Week among magazines. The New Yorker's foreign reportage has been outstanding for many years, while Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Republic and The Nation devote much space to foreign affairs. There is no need here to elaborate on the role of this magazine. Many specialized newspapers and magazines have one or more foreign correspondents. Science, for example, has a foreign editor and prints regular reports on foreign scientific developments, and The New England Journal of Medicine prints frequently, if irregularly, a London letter titled "By the London Post" written by a British doctor. The New York Times News Service and the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service sell their correspondents' reports to other newspapers here and abroad. Some information on the magnitude of these publications' efforts is available. Some months ago The New York Times had 39 full-time foreign correspondents and about 75 stringers. A recent issue of Time indicates that the combined Time-Life News Service has 47 full-time correspondents stationed in 27 different foreign cities. Newsweek last April 20 listed 24 correspondents in 12 foreign bureaus. Business Week recently reported that it had seven foreign bureaus and named eight persons associated with them; the magazine also had the use of reports of the McGraw-Hill World News Service, which includes 20 correspondents stationed in 12 foreign cities. Presumably all these magazines also have stringers whose numbers and locations are not published.
Numerous newspapers and magazines outside the United States maintain foreign correspondents. One need but think of the London Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Express, The Economist, The New Statesman and the Financial Times in England; Le Monde, Figaro, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Spiegel, Stern, Pravda, Izvestia, Borba, Politika, Rude Pravo and others on the European continent. In Asia, the Japanese newspapers lead the way, competing furiously in foreign coverage as well as other fields. Australian and New Zealand newspapers are very alert to foreign developments. The best South American newspapers attach great importance to foreign news coverage. Le Monde and the Neue Zuercher Zeitung attempt to circumvent the language barrier by publishing weekly and monthly collections respectively of English translations of some of their articles. Additionally there are specialized news services covering particular areas or subjects, as well as specialized publications presenting translations of foreign newspaper and magazine material; in this country, for example, there exist Atlas and The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, and in the Soviet Union, Za Rubezhom.
Third, there are the somewhat similar foreign news collection staffs of the electronic media. All major American and foreign networks maintain extensive staffs of correspondents and photographers outside their countries. The Columbia Broadcasting System and Westinghouse Broadcasting have sufficiently extensive news services-including foreign staff-to operate all-news radio stations, and undoubtedly the National Broadcasting Company and the American Broadcasting Company could do the same if they wished to. Moreover, the existence of communications satellites and the fact that there is a brisk international market in television film assure that news footage of an event like an Apollo launching is quickly and easily available to anyone around the world who wants it. Based on personal experience, I would guess that outside this country the British, Italian and Japanese broadcasters are the most enterprising in the foreign news field and invest the most resources in the task.
Finally, of course, there is a whole host of other miscellaneous sources. These include an army of free-lance writers in many countries (and their free-lance photographer fellow-spirits), anxious to sell material abroad. Then there are thousands of businessmen working outside their native countries and regularly preparing reports for their home offices on political and economic developments from Jiddah to Hong Kong to Santiago and points in between. Traveling academicians are almost everywhere in the world gathering material for scholarly studies, and sometimes also for popular newspaper and magazine articles. The United States Foreign Broadcast Information Service and its foreign opposite numbers make much information available by recording, translating and publishing the contents of foreign broadcasts.
In the absence of better data, I would record the very impressionistic estimate that around the world about 10,000 people are employed full-time, or full-time equivalent, in gathering, editing and interpreting foreign news for private and government media of all sorts. This estimate includes photographers for newspapers and television. On the assumption that associated costs-for salary, office space and supplies, travel and communications-average between $50,000 and $100,000 per full-time worker, this suggests that between 500 million and one billion dollars are spent annually for foreign news and picture coverage. Of this the largest single share-which may reach or exceed half the total-is probably accounted for by the spending of U.S. private and public agencies in the news collection and dissemination field.
The substantial sums spent on covering foreign news are allocated very unequally as between different parts of the world, at least by American publications. This can be seen immediately if a geographic breakdown is made of the distribution of the correspondents maintained by three leading American news organizations: Time-Life, Newsweek and Business Week-McGraw- Hill. Of the 99 foreign correspondents named in these magazines' mastheads recently, 47-almost half-were stationed in Western Europe. In Asia, including Vietnam, they had 20 correspondents, a little more than one-fifth the total. Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (including Vienna, which is a good monitoring spot for this area) had eight correspondents altogether, the same number as Canada. There were four correspondents in the Middle East and four in Africa below the Sahara, although one magazine listed no permanent correspondent in either area. Latin America had seven correspondents and only one magazine maintained a correspondent in Australia.
Judging by these data, those responsible for foreign coverage on these magazines believe that Western Europe deserves as much effort as almost all the rest of the world outside the United States put together, while Latin America deserves less than 10 percent of their resources and Black Africa requires less than five percent. Since all these publications are quite successful in the marketplace, their editors must have an accurate estimate of the distribution of their readers' interest and attention. But this allocation of reportorial resources-which is presumably more or less proportional to space devoted to these different areas-suggests also that Americans get relatively little news about events in Latin America and Africa, though they are relatively well informed about what is going on in the area between London and Bonn.
Apparently neither American business interests in Africa nor the growing interest of U.S. Negroes in the lands of their ancestors has yet had great influence on the volume or patterns of African news coverage. Since Americans got over being scared about Castro, coverage of that area- including Cuba itself particularly-has gone back to its traditional siesta pattern. Some people have argued that the minimal coverage of Latin America reflects an American press bias against reporting repression in friendly military dictatorships. But this argument forgets that, unfortunately, coverage of friendly democratic countries is also minimal, reflecting the fact that except in times of crisis most Americans have little interest in Latin America. Areas where there are relatively few American correspondents- Eastern Europe, the Arab countries of the Middle East, Black Africa and Latin America-are regions where resident reporters have to lead peripatetic lives. They travel from country to country frequently in response to the changing news scene, and also to try to keep au courant with developments over their diverse and far-flung territory.
Some problems of coverage go beyond such factors as the number of correspondents available in a given area. Thus Moscow has a relatively large resident group of foreign, including American, journalists. Usually, however, these reporters are confined to the Soviet capital and can report only what appears in the Soviet press or what they themselves see and hear in the Soviet capital. No American news enterprise has had a correspondent in Peking for many years, but coverage of some sort is obtained from there by using Canadian and French news services. In addition, many news organizations employ "China watchers" resident in Hong Kong, where they study the Peking press and Peking radio broadcasts, as well as interview travelers and refugees who have left China. An even more special problem is posed by Hanoi, whose resident correspondent population is mainly from other communist countries. Normally such little news as the American press prints from Hanoi comes from North Vietnamese broadcasts or from the Agence France Presse correspondent in that city. On occasion, of course, Hanoi has permitted brief visits by American correspondents who it believed would write material useful for its propaganda war against the United States. Occasionally American correspondents have been permitted to visit Ulan Bator; perhaps the least accessible communist capital for American correspondents-besides Peking-has been and is Pyongyang. Castro has blown hot and cold on American reporters in Cuba, and last year expelled the last professional American correspondent in Havana.
It cannot be assumed automatically that there will be good reporting from a country or an area if only correspondents are permitted to go there. The quality of foreign correspondents and their product varies enormously. Some reporters abroad are talented writers, perceptive observers, well connected at many levels of the society of the country they are covering, fluent in the native language, and expert on the history, culture, politics, economics and mores of the country. Such paragons, unfortunately, are not the majority. At the other extreme, there are many correspondents who find themselves thrust into a country where something important is going on, but where they do not know anyone, do not know the local language or local political situation, and where they may never have been before. In such a plight-there were more than a few such unfortunates visible in the Prague press corps in 1968-an unhappy correspondent turns for help wherever he thinks he can get some. He visits the American and other friendly embassies for such briefings as they are willing to give, paying the price of being influenced by the diplomats' personal or national orientation toward the local situation. He hires an interpreter, a native who immediately becomes an encyclopedic source of information and misinformation about the local scene as well as a provider of translations. He haunts the bars frequented by other correspondents in hopes of picking up information-or at least exciting rumors that he can attribute to "informed sources"-from his more knowledgeable colleagues.
Particularly difficult, even for the well-prepared correspondent, are the problems he faces in a communist or other dictatorial country whose rulers are very sensitive to what is printed or broadcast about them abroad. Sometimes there is formal censorship, as in Russia under Stalin. Usually, however, the pressures are more subtle. An occasional expulsion of a correspondent drives home the lesson that if one wants to stay in the country one had better not write anything too displeasing to the local powers. And if one wishes to make a long-term career of being a correspondent in such a country there is the constant fear that one's visa may not be renewed or that a reentry visa may be cancelled while one is abroad. So one has reason to be particularly careful about what one reports. The alternative is to experience frequent and long-continued refusals of visas. This writer, for example, has applied almost annually since the late 1940s for a Soviet visa, and-with two exceptions-has been refused each time. In 1955 he obtained a visa by appealing to Khrushchev directly at a time of détente categorized as the "spirit of Geneva." In 1968, he obtained a visa, for a few days, by getting a seat on Pan American's press inaugural flight from New York to Moscow, an occasion Moscow did not want to mar by publicity about a visa refusal. Arriving in Moscow, he applied immediately for an extension of the visa, but was turned down within three hours, perhaps an all-time record for speed in the Soviet bureaucracy. Soviet officials have told this writer that his visa problems would vanish if he became a "progressive journalist." Lincoln Steffens was cited as one to be emulated.
Moscow is perhaps the most brazen capital in terms of having officials who use the granting or withholding of visas as a means of trying to influence foreign news coverage, but it is by no means the only practitioner in the field. Moreover, of course, many Moscow correspondents have honorably resisted the pressures there, and some have been expelled as a result. But even in countries where visas are not a problem, there are many attempts to influence journalists. The "coöperative" or "reasonable" reporter may get exclusive interviews with high officials or other rewards for his "understanding attitude," while his "unreasonable" colleagues will be out in the cold. Such practices are, of course, not wholly unknown in Washington and other centers of domestic news coverage.
Some newspapers have discovered an effective way of bypassing the kind of pressures exerted in Moscow and similarly minded capitals. This is by the device of maintaining a specialist outside the country involved, one who reads his target's newspapers, listens to its broadcasts, interviews visitors recently in that country and so on. Some of the most perceptive writing on the Soviet Union, for example, has been done by Victor Zorza and David Floyd, two expert English Kremlinologists. But men like these two have the handicap of not being able to write under a Moscow dateline, and many editors have the impression-obsolete in this age of rapid communication-that a Moscow dateline, or its equivalent for other capitals, is essential to give credibility to their coverage. Ideally, of course, a newspaper, a press association or a television network ought to have both resident correspondents in the country involved and specialists elsewhere who can write free of the pressures to which resident correspondents are subject.
News media do not normally hire correspondents because of their expertise on a particular foreign area. Such experts are usually of an academic turn of mind and their tastes and temperaments are often-though not always- uncongenial to the demands of journalism. Moreover, most news organizations do not like to hire a man with any explicit or implicit commitment to keep him in one place for his entire career. Rather they look for the versatile good newspaperman, someone who has proved himself in local reporting as a colorful and interesting writer. It is assumed that, having proved his ability to report local news, he will do a good job abroad, especially if prepared by a few months of language study and some side reading or instruction on the area. These aids are not always provided, however. And since the flow of news is unpredictable, it is not at all surprising on occasion for a newspaper to assign an East European expert to Cairo or Tel Aviv, or a London correspondent to Prague when unexpected newsbreaks compel improvisation.
I do not want to overemphasize the negative in this area; there are many excellent correspondents, and there are many cases where reporters enter an unfamiliar country at a time of crisis and do far better jobs of covering the situation than might have been expected. Nevertheless, there is a strong case for giving correspondents more training before sending them abroad, and for letting them work for extended periods in an area so that full benefit can be obtained from the knowledge they develop by covering a country or a group of countries for a substantial number of years. It might be useful, also, to forge stronger links between the worlds of journalism and of scholarship. It ought to be as honorable and prestigious for an academic specialist on Africa, say, to work a sabbatical year as a reporter on that continent as to get a fellowship to travel there and write a book about some aspect of African affairs. But no perfect solution is possible because there are simply too many countries in the world, and there are too many constraints on the resources the media have available for foreign coverage.
A word needs to be said about other pressures on a correspondent. These pressures are different, of course, for a Pravda correspondent and for a reporter for, say, the Baltimore Sun or the London Times. Nevertheless, regardless of politics, a correspondent's standing in the world of journalism depends on what he gets printed in his newspaper or transmitted over his radio or television station back home. A Pravda correspondent must write within the confines of the party line and with an eye to the opinions of the local Soviet ambassador. The Westerner, especially if he represents an important newspaper or network, will find himself being wooed or pressured by those who want to influence the content of his dispatches. If he is in a free country, both opponents and supporters of the régime will seek to influence him, to put him under obligation or to reward him-as noted above-by providing an occasional scoop or exclusive interview. Meanwhile, the correspondent has his eye on his master, his editor at home, who decides whether his copy or his tape or his film shall be used or "spiked," i.e. thrown away. The editor makes his wants known either by requesting specific stories, or by sending caustic or laudatory comments about stories that have been filed by the correspondent. And the latter, of course, takes careful note of the treatment accorded the stories he sends- observing which are put on the front page, which are buried inside, and which are simply scrapped-and is guided by the preference pattern implicit in these choices.
How are choices made between different items of foreign news? The potential amount of foreign news on any day is vast, coming as it does from more than 120 sovereign states and from a whole host of international organizations ranging from the United Nations and UNESCO to Comecon, NATO, the Warsaw Pact Organization, the Common Market, etc. Yet on a typical day even a newspaper which emphasizes foreign news will usually have less than 20 columns (15,000 words) for foreign news, while a typical half-hour show on radio or television will devote less than half its time (and much less than 15,000 words) to foreign developments. What determines the choices that are made?
For most Western news media, the governing considerations arise from the fact that they are commercial enterprises seeking to earn profits. All other conditions being equal, profits depend upon the size of the audience- a newspaper's circulation, a television program's rating. Hence those who make the choices take it for granted that they must select from the available wealth of material those items that will most attract readers, listeners or viewers. But attraction is a multi-dimensional concept, since news may attract readers because it is important or entertaining or coincides with their prejudices or deals with someone they know. Moreover, Western media are normally caught in a competitive situation, so that those who direct them are very sensitive to what their rivals are printing or broadcasting.
The competitive situation guarantees that major news will be covered by all general media. When a Khrushchev falls, when a bloody major battle takes place in Vietnam, when an Apollo 13 encounters near-disaster in space, virtually all media report such developments. But most foreign news is much less obviously important. How does one choose in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles between news about another strike in northern Italy, a new oil find in Libya or the resignation of the foreign minister of the Central African Republic? These are representative of the many news items which editors have almost complete freedom to print or broadcast or to ignore. The fate of such secondary news becomes a chance process, depending upon the tastes or whims of the individuals making the choices. What this means, of course, is that the reader or listener has little opportunity systematically to follow events in a country he is interested in so long as nothing particularly dramatic or exciting is happening there. This explains why so many revolutions take place in Africa and Latin America with most Americans having had little inkling before the event. On the other hand, of course, editors do try to present situation reports from time to time on countries that have been out of the main flow of news. But the timing of such "roundups" or "takeouts" is irregular. And since their space is limited there is no guarantee that all the significant factors in a particular country will be identified and their importance for the future spotlighted. The basic problem, again, is that we live in a large and very complex world, while news media resources of money, space and time are very limited. The span of attention and the time of the audiences they serve are also very limited, of course.
Criticism of bias in the news has a long history and, no doubt, a long future as well. On any controversial issue that rouses strong emotions, partisans of one view or another tend to be discontented with news reports that deviate even slightly from their opinions. To recognize this is not to deny that correspondents, editors and publishers are human beings and have their own opinions. Yet the commercial news media know that their most precious asset is the public's confidence in their integrity and fairness, and by and large they strive to justify that confidence. In any case, in a country like the United States there are many alternative sources of news prepared and edited by many different groups of people. The diversity of news media and the competition among them are the public's best safeguard against slanted news, provided, of course, that citizens take advantage of the rich diversity of news sources and news interpretations available to them. Yet the possibility that some individual reporters or some particular publications or radio or television stations try to adjust their presentation of the news to their own predilections can never be wholly ruled out. Moreover, the proliferation of syndicated columns and the increasing popularity of "news analysis" articles show there is a public demand for more than the bare facts, for an attempt to get at the meaning of the news. Some reporters, seeing strong opinions expressed in columns or interpretive pieces by their colleagues, sometimes wonder why they must hide their own opinions. This is undoubtedly one source of the demand for what some now call "advocacy journalism," coverage of a sort that an older generation usually dismissed simply as biased reporting.
The widespread response evoked by Vice President Agnew's charge of press bias gave warning that a significant fraction of Americans-on the Left as well as on the Right of the political spectrum-distrusts the media. This is a warning the media can ignore only at their peril. And the problems involved are particularly acute in the foreign news field because most readers, listeners and viewers have little opportunity to find out for themselves at first hand what is happening abroad. In self-defense, the media need to give more public evidence that they are alert to the threats of bias and inaccuracy in reportage, and are ready to punish those guilty on either count.
There may be some useful ideas in the field of medicine that can be adapted to journalism. In every first-class hospital, for example, surgeons know that their work is under the scrutiny of a tissue committee which will demand an explanation when the pathologist reports that an excised appendix or kidney or gall bladder was perfectly healthy and should not have been removed. And many patients know, of course, that they have the right to file a malpractice suit against any physician who they believe has treated them improperly or incompetently. No doubt many managing editors-and their radio and television opposite numbers-think of themselves as one-man tissue committees, and some will even boast of how many incompetent reporters they have fired. But what if the offender is a star-the anchorman on a nationally televised news show or a widely syndicated columnist or a correspondent who has won the Pulitzer Prize?
Perhaps the best solution would be for news media to be as critical of each other openly as they are of elected and appointed public officials. It is hard to understand, for example, why so many television news shows and documentaries are reviewed by television critics who possess no specialized knowledge of the subject and whose normal task is to criticize the entertainment values of television programs rather than their factual accuracy and balance. Similarly, television and radio might probe more frequently at the print media, using competent people to praise or to criticize newspaper and magazine reportage and commentary. If such serious, mutual appraisal were a normal public phenomenon, Mr. Agnew's comments would not have made such a stir.
Almost certainly these problems will become more difficult in the years ahead if the nation's present polarization continues and deepens. Already some young reporters find it hard to understand why "the Establishment's" point of view on a controversial issue must be reported as fully as the opinions of its critics. Many of tomorrow's newspaper, radio and television people will come from the ranks of the passionate young collegians who today feel so strongly about the iniquity of the Vietnam war, the "police persecution" of the Black Panthers, and the martyrdom of Che Guevara. Can there be such a thing as objective news if millions of Americans think of themselves as opposing other Americans across the barricades, each faction convinced it is the sole proprietor of all virtue and truth on disputed issues? Can there be communication across the barricades even if the latter exist only in reporters' and readers' minds?
If one turns, finally, to the forces likely to shape foreign coverage, one finds conflicting and contradictory pressures at work.
First, there is a paradox. The development of communications satellites has tied the world together as never before. Direct television broadcasts between continents-or from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world, as when Apollo 13 splashed down-are now routine. Newspaper reporters can now regularly and reliably file their stories by phone to their home offices in the United States from London or Moscow or Tel Aviv or Tokyo. Simultaneously, however, costs of foreign reporting-like everything else-are rising steeply, while, in the United States, media income and profits have been hurt by the mini-recession of early 1970. For economic reasons, therefore, the pressure mounts to have fewer correspondents stationed abroad, to substitute foreign nationals-who can be paid much lower salaries-for American citizens as correspondents, to widen the number of foreign countries a particular correspondent is responsible for covering, and to rely more on covering particular important situations by temporarily assigning correspondents from the U.S. home office. Technical factors have opened the way for excellence of coverage on a scale never known before; economic forces operate in the opposite direction.
Second, technical revolutions now on the horizon hold the promise-or threat, some will say-of completely altering the media as we know them and sharply altering existing means of being informed about the world outside the United States.
One such technical revolution new visible is the communications satellite capable of broadcasting directly to home television receivers. Present communications satellites transmit relatively weak signals that must be picked up at special national reception points and rebroadcast to homes at higher power. This gives those in control of ground reception stations the power to decide what will and what will not be rebroadcast of the signals transmitted by a satellite. But within the next decade, more powerful communications satellites will probably be able to broadcast directly to homes; the political implications of this development are staggering. The Soviet Union, for example, could broadcast visual transmissions of its view of the world news to homes everywhere, and so, of course, could the United States, and probably after a time other countries as well. Events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have long since taught the world that short- wave radio is a powerful political medium; direct television has the potentiality of being much more powerful for political and propaganda purposes. By 1980 there may be a national debate in this country about whether direct Soviet television transmissions-or, later, direct Chinese television transmissions-should be jammed, and the Supreme Court may some day have to decide whether the safeguards of the First Amendment have political or geographical limits when tested by technology beyond the wildest fantasies of the men who framed the Constitution. At the least, these foreign-initiated direct television broadcasts open the possibility of the curious viewer seeing many more of the world's events as they happen, directly and in real time, than is now the case.
Additionally, of course, the future of the newspaper as we know it is in doubt, particularly if unions continue to impede modern technology while demanding continually higher wages. By 1980 the process of replacing newspapers by home facsimile receivers may have begun. Such receivers could connect each home with a computer containing encyclopedic reports on events throughout the world in the past day, week or month. A businessman with investments in Iran could set his receiver to give him all the news about that country, and then receive each morning as full an account of Iranian events as he would get if he were living in Tehran. Or a basketball fan could, in season, set his receiver to get reports and commentaries on basketball competition all over the world. Correspondents might then work for computer memory banks, rather than for specific newspapers or stations. But who would control such a computer and decide what should or should not go into its memory bank and its printouts? Can there be competitive computer services of this kind, or is such service inherently monopolistic like the supply of telephone service or electricity in a given community?
Whatever the changes ahead, foreign news coverage presupposes interest in what happens beyond a country's borders. On this score the most ominous sign is the increasing isolationism in the United States, the recoil from foreign involvement and the ever-rising concern about domestic tensions and troubles. A young reporter I know recently turned down a choice foreign assignment. "The action's now in the United States," he confided to me later. "Everybody's bored with Vietnam and nobody really cares about the Europeans or the Russians any more. It's the blacks, the college radicals, and the dope addicts that people are worried about, and the way to make a reputation in the 1970s is to cover those stories. I'd be crazy to go abroad." If my young friend is right-although the explosion that followed President Nixon's move into Cambodia makes it doubtful, for the time being at any rate-the future of foreign news coverage is bleak indeed, regardless of technology or economics.