So how did the US media lose its way?
Real power in global journalism has shifted from America to Europe - not least because we look outwards and they don't, says Jeremy Tunstall
Monday 19 March 2007
During 1963 and 1974 the big American media (agencies, television networks and newspapers) enjoyed a high international reputation for their critical coverage of Presidents Johnson and Nixon over Vietnam and Watergate. However, after 1974, the US media broadly reverted to their old cold war loyalty to the foreign policies of each incumbent President.
Over a lengthy period (1951 onwards) The New York Times and all the other major US media broadly supported US policy towards Iran, even though this meant supporting the Shah's deeply unpopular dictatorship. During the 1990-91 Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq, the US news focused overwhelmingly on the war. One study showed that, during December 1990 to February 1991, the three US television networks' Gulf coverage exceeded their Soviet Baltic states coverage by 70 to 1; in retrospect the Baltic states story seems more important, because it presaged the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Also in 1990-91 Ted Turner's bravura publicity efforts convinced many journalists that CNN had taken command of the world news agenda. Despite American success in directing bombs, missiles and artillery shells into Iraq, the US news media were leaders neither in the Middle East nor in the world.
The BBC and Reuters had been news leaders in the Middle East since 1938 (when the BBC began transmitting in Arabic). Subsequently, news leadership across the Middle East has been shared by the UK, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (as financier). Several BBC research studies in the early 1990s showed that Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC were the most popular foreign media in the Middle East. In such countries as Syria, Egypt and Jordan, the Voice of America was seen as biased against the Arabs in favour of Israel.
In 1990 it was also evident that US media had lost their previous position as news agenda setters across Latin America. A 1990 study of foreign news in 15 leading Latin American dailies found that the five big European agencies (led by EFE and Reuters) accounted for 49.0 per cent of stories, against a combined AP and UPI share of 29.4 per cent.
Europe has a big news advantage over the United States, because for American citizens both national news and foreign news seem so much further away. Kansas City, for example, is 1,700 kilometres from New York City and 1,450 kilometres from Washington DC. Even Washington politics, with its complex separation of powers (and its complex web of Congressional committees, its regulatory agencies, and its heavily lawyerised character) is too complex for much detailed news coverage by newspapers and television stations in the US hinterland. But if Washington seems far away, foreign capitals are even more remote. Leaving aside Ottawa and Havana, the nearest major foreign capital is Mexico City - 2,000 kilometres from Kansas City. Most of Western Europe is seven time zone hours away from Kansas City and Pakistan is 11 hours away.
Most US citizens (other than Hispanic people) see very little foreign media. This contrasts with almost all other countries in the world, where typically 10 to 15 per cent of audience time is taken up with imports (mostly from the US and from one or two other big brother countries). American print and electronic journalists have to work hard in order to attract any audience attention for foreign news. Most countries' national media rely on the "home news abroad" story, but the American media tend to present almost all foreign stories within a tight framework of US political, military, economic or cultural involvement. Many US media foreign stories about a particular country focus heavily on visits by Washington, New York or Hollywood visitors to that country.
Two major European news advantages are the continuing strength of Public Service Broadcasting and of capital city newspaper competition. Across the 27 countries of the European Union, the public broadcasters still attract about one-third of television audience time, and these broadcasters focus heavily on news, which remains popular with most European national audiences. These same 27 countries have at least 50 nationally significant newspapers, which take foreign news seriously and which employ some of their own staff as foreign correspondents and part-time foreign reporters.
Europe's national media - both in the big five of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, and in the smaller-population countries - are nationally idiosyncratic. This includes a strong focus on national policies, national culture, national finance, national sport and weather. But national media in European countries typically also carry nationally idiosyncratic selections of news of Europe, of the near abroad and of the world. This means that - unlike the rather standard "American interest" framework of US foreign news - Europe offers a variety of different national frameworks.
Foreign news preferences are, of course, shaped by geographical and cultural (or language) proximity and by history, including imperial history. French media have a special interest in, and knowledge of, North and West Africa. British media have a special interest in Africa and South Asia. Both French and British media have a special interest in the Middle East. The Spanish media have a special interest in, and knowledge of, Latin America. The Belgian, Dutch, Italian and Portuguese media have their own, ex-imperial, areas of interest. The Swedish media are especially interested in Scandinavia, northern Europe and the (ex-Soviet) Baltic countries.
These (especially ex-imperial) news interests flow in both directions. Satellite technology has enabled the transmission of both newspapers and television channels from North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, into Europe and European homes. But London, Paris, Madrid and other capitals also attract immigrants, political and cultural exiles, and students, who in turn generate newspapers and television and radio programming. There are often other media activities, including book publishing. Both London and Paris are widely recognised as publication centres and "listening posts" for Arab politicians and journalists.
The "near abroad" of the European Union - for instance North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia - generates quick and frequent travel into and out of the European Union. Algeria seems (and is) close to France; Turkey and Ukraine seem close to Germany; Croatia and Serbia seem close to Italy. Because of colonial history and recent migration, there is an element of overlap between the media in Algeria and France; a similar overlap exists between the UK media and the media in Nigeria and South Africa.
In Europe, national politics seem more local, and local politics seem more national, than in the United States. Most Europeans live relatively close to their capital city, close to a national frontier, and not far from the EU's "near abroad". Despite the continuing strength of idiosyncratic national cultures, and the relative lack of Europe-wide media, Europeans are more aware (than Americans) of foreign news and foreign people. Despite the relative weakness of political and cultural (compared with economic) Europe, there are many widely shared cultural concerns across Europe. It has often been observed that knowledge of Europe-wide football is more widespread than knowledge of Europe-wide politics. This is another area in which national, European and world interest converge. Europeans focus on Latin American, and increasingly on African, football. Meanwhile football fans in Asia buy Real Madrid and Manchester United shirts and watch the games on satellite and cable television. The major dispensers of daily international football news are the big European news agencies.
Europe has three main foreign news advantages over the United States. First, Europe is geographically closer to the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Second, its large number of separate nations are interested in, and feel close to, foreign news. Third, its imperial history gives salience to news and cultural ties between former colonies and former imperial powers; these news relationships are exemplified by ex-imperial news agencies such as Reuters, EFE and AFP.
Jeremy Tunstall is Research Professor of Sociology at City University in London and the author of 'The Media Were American: US Mass Media in Decline'
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