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A Hole in the News

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

A huge hole in American news coverage has long been international affairs. After the attacks of 9/11, there was much hand wringing and promises of more international coverage by both the print and broadcast press in order to make up for the fact that most Americans had no idea "why they hate us." Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria even wrote a long primer called "Why do they hate us?" for the magazine on October 15, 2001, to try and lay it out, but since then the media has apparently gone back to sleep.

Now, almost four years after the attacks that were supposed to "change everything," most Americans are still largely unaware of anything that happens internationally – save for regular body count reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Tony Blair's visit to Washington this week, one might think that the stated goal of his mission – to get the president to sign on to his agenda for next month's G8 conference and to press Bush to support his agenda for the talks – might engender some more international coverage. In a sense, it has, actually, but as we've come to expect, the coverage has been lackluster.

Many news outlets got some of their facts wrong when writing about the meeting. Regarding the president's pledge of money to aid the needy in Africa (in response to Blair's plan to double international aid to $50 billion), CNN.com explained, "The Bush administration will announce plans to spend $674 million for 'humanitarian emergencies' in Africa," noting that the money "will come on top of about $1.4 billion the White House is spending on humanitarian needs this year."

If only…. Alas, Congress had already approved the funding. So while the president – and much of the media – treated the statement as a new initiative, it has long been agreed upon. The Washington Post even ran a headline Wednesday declaring that "Bush, Blair Agree on Aid For African Famine Relief" as if talks had actually taken place to agree on new funding. What's worse, the Post erroneously reported that "Bush and Blair trumpeted a new U.S. plan to spend $674 million more on famine relief." Again, there is nothing "new" about the plan, except for the fact that reporters felt briefly compelled to write about it. And this in an age when the AIDS pandemic threatens a generation of African men and women as perhaps no human plague has ever done before.

But perhaps the most shocking omission of recent vintage is the continuing non-coverage of the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Bush administration has, if anything, exacerbated this horrific human catastrophe, turning a blind eye to the horror in exchange for Sudan's cooperation in its anti-al Qaeda efforts. It is able to do so, politically, in part because the tragedy has been unfolding for months with less coverage than a single day of testimony at the Michael Jackson trial. True, it's a tough story to cover, but it can be done, albeit with a bit of creativity.

One bright spot in this whole mess is a recent decision by the beleaguered CNN to start ramping up its international coverage. On Monday, the cable channel began airing domestically an hour of its international news program "Your World Today," which airs on CNN International. The newscast actually began with an in-depth report on the latest developments in Sudan, noting that the International Criminal Court announced that it would begin an investigation into possible war crimes. After exploring the issues the ICC would have to contend with, the anchors then interviewed Samantha Power, who recently won a National Magazine Award for her New Yorker coverage of the region. It was refreshing to watch an intelligent, rational discourse on serious issues without a "dissenting" view thrown in, and without the requisite shouting match that so many alleged American "news" programs have become.

Of course, examples of shoddy coverage of international issues in the American media are easy enough to come by, and I could continue to rattle them off. The real issue is: How can things get better? After 9/11 the media promised to do a better job in helping Americans to understand the world better – but it's obvious that it has failed to live up to its promise. Seeing just an hour of CNN devoted to these issues demonstrates what a drought we face the other 23 hours of the day – and how ill-prepared Americans are likely to be the next time we are forced to ask, "Why do they hate us?"

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.