Tuesday, May 07, 2002

The Media and The War

Given that America is either fighting or preparing to fight the War Against Terrorism on five continents, you might think that the major news organizations would be devoting the vast majority of their resources to covering the war effort. But they're not. It's become increasingly hard to find war news in the papers and news magazines and it has virtually disappeared from the television (or at least, the television I watch). I'm not talking about gasbags carrying on about Iraq. I'm talking about a war correspondent filing a story from greater Kurdistan about how the Kurds are preparing for the US-led invasion of Iraq.

There's still real reportage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, of course, but it's not comprehensive and it's often buried inside the paper. The war that is getting comprehensive coverage is the war in the Middle East where, not coincidentally, all of the major news organizations have Tel Aviv bureaus. In most cases, the major news organizations don't have bureaus in Central Asia. They don't have bureaus in Africa. They don't have bureaus in South America. They don't have bureaus in Southeast Asia. And they certainly don't have (non-temporary) bureaus in Islamabad or any of the former Soviet Republics.

Decades of downsizing and cutbacks have left most of the major news organizations with surprisingly limited reach; their ability to "cover" a story in places some distance away from their news hubs in London, New York, Washington, Tel Aviv and Tokyo/Hong Kong is constrained. And their ability to call on correspondents and producers who actually know something about, say, Central Asia, has been, to put it politely, diminished. They fired or "early retired" those kinds of people long ago.

Making matters worse is the advertising recession, which shows no sign of abating. The cost of covering warfare in Afghanistan is expensive in the best of times. The cost of covering war on five continents in an ad recession is prohibitive. Which is why most of the major news organizations have simply given up on comprehensive "War on Terror" coverage and have instead chosen to try to get by with a "targeted" commitment of manpower.

The upshot is that we (the news-consuming public) are under-informed about the scope and character of America's most ambitious military undertaking since World War II. It is a vital and noble enterprise. But it's a very expensive thing to cover, so we get Michael Skakel instead.