Media needs added substance, more world news

September 25, 2001|By Geneva Overholser

WASHINGTON - Among the pressing issues now before us, the media's ability to meet the public's needs may not seem critical. Perhaps it should.

The requirement for thoughtful national debate has never been clearer, and debate can be no better than the information that fuels it. That debate and that information were falling dramatically short as this tragedy approached.

Consider the coverage of U.S. intelligence operations. Many have asked, "How could our intelligence services have failed us so?" But I would ask this instead: How could our reporting on intelligence have been so poor?

In February, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Osama bin Laden's "global network" was the "most immediate and serious" terrorist threat to the United States. A handful of newspapers covered the testimony, and even their stories were brief and buried.

A few weeks before that, a bipartisan commission released a report saying that "the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack" was coming to an end.

The commission, headed by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, said: "A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter-century," and that America's military superiority "will not protect it from hostile attacks on our homeland. ... Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."

The report was hardly noticed. The New York Times didn't cover it. Mr. Hart, who says he was "tearing his hair out" during last week's attack because the commission's warnings had been so clear - and so clearly ignored - has said of the report's release that "the White House shut it down." But the press didn't have to join in.

A critical part of the problem is that news of international relations has shrunk dramatically. A survey a couple of years ago from Harvard showed that U.S. network television's time devoted to international news had dropped 70 percent, from 45 percent of total coverage in the 1970s to 13.5 percent in 1995. In newspapers, another study shows, the falloff has been even worse - from 10.2 percent of news space in 1971 to less than 2 percent today.

This has occurred for numerous reasons, including the expense of foreign coverage, the (I think wrong-headed) notion that the public cares little about foreign news and the conviction that local news is "the franchise" in an era of great profit pressures on media.

And even as it has occurred, the world has grown ever more interconnected, with more Americans traveling and doing business abroad and our own population growing more diverse. A range of problems, from the environmental to the financial - and, as we now so painfully understand, terrorism - knows no borders.

But the problem lies beyond coverage of intelligence, beyond even coverage of international relations.

A colleague of mine from my New York Times days, Leslie Gelb, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the Hart-Rudman commission. When I called to ask why he thought the coverage was so sparse, and mentioned the decline in foreign news, he pointed toward something still broader:

"It's a failure to report on substance. I would say the biggest problem for people in public policy schools or think tanks is to get any coverage of the substantive work being done. We're all at the press all of the time, but most of the stories have nothing to do with policy. They're almost all about politics: `She says, he says.' It is horrific."

The questions we now confront - from how we balance liberty and security, to what sort of a role we want to play as the world's solitary superpower, to how we are viewed abroad and what we want to do about it - require thoughtful reflection on the part of our citizens. This relies entirely on responsible reporting of public affairs.

In recent months, coverage of intelligence concerns hardly registered, national security coverage focused on a largely irrelevant obsession with national missile defense, our policy toward other nations grew ever more isolationist and the public's awareness of how all of this affected other nations was virtually nil.

We have seen unmistakably in this tragedy how admirable are the American people, how passionate when stirred to action, how dearly they love their country and how very much they want to do the right thing. What they need is the information to demand a government as good as its people. And it's the media - having shown in this awful moment how splendidly they can perform - that must give it to them.

Geneva Overholser's e-mail address is overholserg@washpost.com.

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