By Ed Otte
“Foreign conflicts are confusing to the public. There isn’t enough explanation of why fighting occurs,” Dick Woodbury said. A former Denver bureau chief for TIME magazine, Woodbury participated in the July 9 discussion on how U.S. media cover international news at the Denver Press Club.
“I think the shrinking news hole in newspapers is the problem,” he said at the program sponsored by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “There’s more of a focus on domestic news, less and less on foreign news. And that’s only about conflicts.”
According to panelist Joe McGowan, “It’s hard to sell positive news to American audiences. War? You get coverage. Famine? You report stories on that. Positive stories get almost no coverage. CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian plane disappearing into the sea went on for weeks. They did great coverage because it was a mystery. It’s what ratings are about.”
McGowan agreed that news industry economics have curtailed international news coverage.
“A lot of newspapers used to have foreign correspondents. They don’t anymore. Thank goodness The Associated Press still has foreign bureaus,” said the former AP bureau chief in India and Peru, who retired in 1997 as the Denver bureau chief. In addition to “personal, revenue, resources,” panel moderator Jim Anderson, news editor at AP’s Denver bureau, said another factor is “the attention span of the public in shaping media coverage.”
Panelist Ann Imse was an AP correspondent in Moscow from 1988-1991 and she maintains contact with Russian friends. Missing in the coverage of the Ukrainian conflict, she said, is a new dangerous public attitude in Russia.
“When you talk about journalists in Russia, you’re talking about government employees. They report the propaganda, calling Americans and Europeans fascists which reminds Russians of the Nazis. The frightening thing is that the Russian people believe all this and now they hate Americans.
“Russians are really, really ticked they lost the Russian empire. They’re happy that Putin is gaining back territory and acting like a world leader. Crimea has a lot of retired military – think Colorado Springs – and they want to be part of Russia. The invasion is all about making Putin popular. He’s doing everything brilliantly, restoring Crimea to Russia.
“Even with access to the Internet, people accept the propaganda. They love Putin, even if they hated him before. The effect is just staggering.”
Closer to home, McGowan said another under-reported story is the number of incursions by Mexican military into the Southwest. He cited “a two-inch story under ‘World News Briefs’ on June 27 in The Denver Post about a Mexican military helicopter crossing the U.S. border and firing on Border Patrol agents in a clearly marked vehicle. In January, heavily armed Mexican soldiers crossed 60 yards into Arizona. How many people are aware of that?”
“There have been thousands of those incidents,” said panelist Peter Eichstaedt whose book, “The Dangerous Divide: Peril and Promise on the US-Mexico Border,” was published in May.
“The Mexican military is corrupt and protects the drug cartels. A rancher told me about a gasoline tanker loaded with drugs, stolen from smugglers, crossed into the U.S. and the Mexican military crossed the border to take the tanker back.”
Eichstaedt has reported in Afghanistan, Africa and Eastern Europe. He gave other examples of flawed international news reporting. “The missing stories in Afghanistan are about the 30 million people living there who have had to endure years and years of fighting,” said the author of “Above the Din of War: Afghans Speak About Their Lives, Their Country and Their Future – Why Americans Should Listen.”
“The reporting has been from Karzai, the White House and NATO. You get this narrow focus, the military focus. You seldom hear from the people living there. The political parties aren’t based on ideologies, they’re ethnic. The Taliban is the largest single ethnic group. The other parties have their own alliances and allegiances. I saw the same thing in Uganda. Political rallies were all based on tribes, not political beliefs.
“I think we’re inevitably headed to civil war in Afghanistan. But none of this gets explained.”
“Even if we get this reported, will anyone read it?” McGowan said. Asked for the sources of their news, McGowan said, “My wife and I read the Drudge Report.”
Imse: “Go to news organizations that correct their mistakes.”
Eichstaedt: “I rely on The Guardian for foreign news but we do have the Internet at our fingertips. OK, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. We need to go there and get a tremendous depth of information. Don’t spend time on the Kardashians.”