Despicable Foreigners in Our World

January 04, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--Watching the three network news programs the other night, I noted that all featured pictures of despicable foreigners: warlords in Somalia and homicidal maniacs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I've developed a theory for the cycles of foreign policy and military posturing in the post-Cold War, television-driven world. As far as I can tell, this is how it works:

In the up-cycle, satellite TV creates a crisis in Washington by beaming in pictures of starving Africans, Latin drug lords, nasty Arabs, Russian fascists, slaughtering Serbs or slaughtered Muslims. The White House and Congress react with a single-minded goal: preventing the networks from snidely reporting that Washington doesn't care. The official reaction ranges from teary-eyed sympathy and words of ''concern,'' to sending in the Marines, to threatening nuclear war.

On the down-cycle, the crisis ends when enough television watching convinces viewers that the people in crisis in all those places with strange-sounding names probably deserve whatever happens to them.

News stories tend to dehumanize these foreigners, revealing them as crazy, evil or a bunch of thieves. Viewers reach a consensus that the sooner we get out of there, the better. Washington then tries to figure a way out of the mess or ''quagmire,'' lying all the while about why we were there in the first place.

In other words, television introduces us to people who seem interesting and deserving of help at first, but then overexposes them until we are disgusted and switch channels.

It is no coincidence that I settled on this theory while reading a new book on my business, the press. ''Who Stole the News?'' is by Mort Rosenblum, an Associated Press correspondent who has covered the latest round of ''small'' wars around the world. It is the best book I have read about the press during the CNN years when satellite transmission replaced brain waves as the arbiter of reality around this troubled planet.

Mr. Rosenblum, who works out of Paris, is one of only a few dozen reporters who could have written this book, because he is one of the few surviving American foreign correspondents. The others have been killed off -- mostly by the accountants and poll-readers who now run a lot of what used to be called journalism.

''Who Stole the News?'' -- the answer is technology and liars in Washington -- is reminiscent of Timothy Crouse's ''The Boys on the Bus,'' which demythologized political reporters and columnists in 1972. In fact, one of Mr. Rosenblum's chapters, on the new face of war correspondents and correspondence, is titled ''The Boys on the Boeing.''

One of the book's principal arguments of why Americans get such distorted views of the world is that there are now so few American boys, foreign correspondents, out there. The Gannett organization, for instance, which publishes the country's largest newspaper, USA Today, and 82 others, does not have a single overseas bureau. More and more, it seems, a picture is worth a thousand word processors.

Mr. Rosenblum states an important part of his thesis and an example early on:

''America's world is shaped and defined in Washington. But governments lie; it is their nature. When leaders do not lie willfully to their people, they lie to themselves. Self-delusion runs so deep that even leaders lose sight of what is real. Images on television can reinforce misunderstanding. Satellites transmit messages direct from the Middle Ages. Nothing in a modern American family's experience prepares it to be thrust into a Somali peasant's hut or a Serbian sniper's nest. . . .

''Most editors, then, without their own agenda, follow Washington's. When Saddam Hussein was still a U.S. ally against Iran, Muammar el Kadafi of Libya was monster of the month. Then U.S. war planes helped the French stop him from invading Chad, described as vital to American interests. In August 1989, Libya dropped off the planet. While American troops hurried to protect Saudi Arabia, Kadafi's proxy rebels rolled unopposed into Chad. This was noted in a few paragraphs inside the New York Times and hardly anywhere else.

''We journalists are seldom watchdogs. More often, we are hunting hounds, howling off after each fresh scent of meat. . . . We mostly snap and snuffle.''

The snappers and the snufflers trying to cover the Gulf War were more or less held hostage in Saudi Arabia. They were allowed to watch military briefings on big-screen television. One of those correspondents, Tony Clifton of Newsweek magazine, watched the first briefing and said, ''In Vietnam, at least they lied to us in person.''

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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