Outside Voices: Garrett Graff Says Spend More On Foreign Coverage

(CBS)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week's guest, Garrett M. Graff, is editor-at-large at Washingtonian magazine, where he covers politics and media. He is also the founding editor of mediabistro.com's Fishbowl D.C., a blog that covers media in Washington. As the CBS "Evening News" searches for a new anchor, Graff suggests that the network spend less money on anchor talent and more on investing in foreign coverage.

We don't want you to think PE is a hotbed of anti-Couricism with two straight "Outside Voices" on the topic. We pick people to ask each week but we don't tell them what to write and do not select them based on what we think they may write. That's the deal, but since all of our contributors are newshounds, they tend to focus on topics that have been in the headlines. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, here's Garrett:


Last week in this space, Matthew Felling, Media Director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, argued that CBS shouldn't hire Katie Couric to be the anchor of the CBS "Evening News." I agree with him, although not because she's not the best candidate. Instead, don't hire Katie Couric because she's too expensive.

Rumors, which have of course fueled the whole Couric boomlet, say that her potential salary would range from $15 million to $20 million. And, regardless of whether Couric is a talented journalist or "merely" perky morning talent, there are more important things for the network to spend that money on.

With the vision for its new "Evening News," CBS has a unique opportunity here to be the shining news organization on a hill. As other news organizations continue to retreat from an increasingly complicated and smaller world, CBS should use that "Couric budget" to be America's place for serious, thoughtful international news.

Reading this week Thomas L. Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem," -- still after 16 years one of the best explanations of the Middle East -- I'm again reminded how little of the world Americans understand. It's clear, too, the way that the U.S. networks now cover international news is woefully inadequate. Friedman persuasively argues that nothing is the same as being there. It took him weeks/months/years of being immersed in the chaos of Beirut and the wider Middle East to get any sort of grasp on what the story was and who the players were. The networks think otherwise.

Even as the U.S. has two wars raging overseas as well as threats from Iran to North Korea, an increasingly anti-U.S. South America, an AIDS epidemic ravaging Africa, and a potential bird flu racing around the globe, most news organizations are still closing overseas bureaus -- the Baltimore Sun being the most recent. The remaining network of foreign bureaus that exist hardly spans the globe. The Washington Post, which has one of the largest overseas teams, has two correspondents covering the 1.3 billion people of China; one person covering the billion people of India; and two covering all of Africa.

The networks are worse. CBS has 11 foreign bureaus and no correspondent based permanently in the Muslim world [Editor's note: After this article was posted, CBS informed Graff that the network has bureaus in Iraq and Jordan]. According to NBC, it covers the world with correspondents based in 11 countries from Amman to Toyko. CNN reports that it and its various international affiliates have 26 overseas bureaus. But even these post-9/11 bureau set-ups are a mere shell of what they used to be. At its peak, according to former senior CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, CBS once had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 mini-bureaus, and maintained a web of stringers in another 44 countries.

Sure, thanks to modern technology, a camera crew and correspondent can be anywhere in the world in a few hours, but that's not the same as having sources in the hills, as having a knowledge of the streets, and knowing not just the names of major local players but their motivations and their histories. As Walter Cronkite said, "This whole idea of parachuting correspondents and camera crews into a place where there is a crisis, that's too late. When you parachute people in, the fire is already burning."

Friedman updates that old Groucho Marx truism about how he wouldn't want to join any club that would have him, saying, "Any protagonist in the Middle East who is ready to talk to cannot be worth talking to; he cannot be at the center of what is happening. It's the people who won't talk to me whom I really want to meet."

The act of parachuting correspondents into breaking news virtually assures that they only end up talking to people willing to talk with them. America needs boots on the ground in countries far and wide to find out what's really going and to find the people that don't want to talk to the U.S.

For the sake of argument, let's say it would cost a $1.5 million a year to support a foreign correspondent, between salary, a producer, camera person and sound tech, travel, and office space somewhere overseas. Take the $20 million figure that has been floated for a possible Couric salary, and instead pay someone else $5 million a year to anchor the news—still a decent salary by any means. Invest the remaining $15 million in doubling the number of CBS bureaus overseas.

With its new president and the "Evening News'" new executive producer, CBS News should seize upon the announcement of its new anchor to throw down a marker: CBS will be the place where the world happens. Put correspondents in Cairo, Berlin, Johannesburg, Bombay, and Sao Paolo. Add someone in Hong Kong, and maybe toss in a full-time Moscow correspondent again. What about a correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa and one in Singapore? Maybe a European Union correspondent in Brussels and someone in Central America?

The proliferation of alternative media means that there are far more opportunities for coverage too. Can't justify a correspondent in Karachi for six stories a year? How about a blog for each foreign bureau, complete with video and audio dispatches? Or podcasts or downloadable video packages of stories that can't fit into the "Evening News" each night -- sort of an overflow area for news? ABC News is experimenting with placing extra stories in their "Broadcast Plus" section. What about devoting a segment every Tuesday to a reported package out of Africa, and every Thursday feature a piece on China? Five nights a week and five undercovered continents — mere coincidence?

The Washington Post's Jackie Spinner, recently back from Iraq, explained this week why journalists should be in all of the world's most dangerous places: "It is in those very places where we are most needed to give voice to the voiceless."

Telling those stories, though, isn't just going to benefit the forgotten regions of the world. It's going to benefit the United States, raising awareness of issues that currently reside far below the current fascination with Natalee Holloway or "American Idol."

In 1989, according to the Tyndall Report, the three networks spent over 4,000 minutes discussing foreign events on the evening news. By 2000, that had fallen to just 1,382 minutes—barely a minute a night per network. Last year, with a renewed "emphasis" on international events after 9/11, CBS led the way with 894 minutes of foreign coverage—roughly two-and-a-half minutes-per night. ABC's "World" News Tonight didn't even break the two minutes-a-night mark.

Perhaps some of those foreign coverage cutbacks during the 1990s -- that lack of attention to the world around us -- helped make September 11th and everything that followed it possible by further isolating the American people from unrest around us. Perhaps it would have all happened anyway. At the very least, though, al Qaeda should have been a household term long before the attacks. Writing in his book, "Bad News: The Decline of Report, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All," former CBS senior foreign correspondent Tom Fenton said, "We need more and better news. Our lives depend on it."

We need to understand our world better, and, since most Americans don't get much of a chance to travel to Kashmir, Tehran, Bogota, or Addis Ababa themselves, we rely on news organizations like CBS to bring the world to us. And unless Katie Couric is ready to get her malaria shots up-to-date, suit up, and head out, CBS should keep on looking for its new figurehead.

This explicit and wide-reaching commitment to foreign news -- to be the best world service anywhere -- would be a fitting mantle for CBS to carry, because it was CBS and Edward R. Murrow, after all, that first brought the world to America's living rooms. Now, Mr. McManus, we need you to do it again.
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