So How Did the US Media Lose Its Way? ; TELEVISION NEWS ++ COVERAGE ++ Real Power in Global Journalism Has Shifted from America to Europe - Not Least Because We Look Outwards and They Don't, Says Jeremy Tunstall

Article excerpt

During 1963 and 1974 the big American media (agencies, television networks and newspapers) enjoyed a high international reputation for their critical coverage of Presidents Johnson and Nixon over Vietnam and Watergate. However, after 1974, the US media broadly reverted to their old cold war loyalty to the foreign policies of each incumbent President.

Over a lengthy period (1951 onwards) The New York Times and all the other major US media broadly supported US policy towards Iran, even though this meant supporting the Shah's deeply unpopular dictatorship. During the 1990-91 Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq, the US news focused overwhelmingly on the war. One study showed that, during December 1990 to February 1991, the three US television networks' Gulf coverage exceeded their Soviet Baltic states coverage by 70 to 1; in retrospect the Baltic states story seems more important, because it presaged the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Also in 1990-91 Ted Turner's bravura publicity efforts convinced many journalists that CNN had taken command of the world news agenda. Despite American success in directing bombs, missiles and artillery shells into Iraq, the US news media were leaders neither in the Middle East nor in the world.

The BBC and Reuters had been news leaders in the Middle East since 1938 (when the BBC began transmitting in Arabic). Subsequently, news leadership across the Middle East has been shared by the UK, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (as financier). Several BBC research studies in the early 1990s showed that Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC were the most popular foreign media in the Middle East. In such countries as Syria, Egypt and Jordan, the Voice of America was seen as biased against the Arabs in favour of Israel.

In 1990 it was also evident that US media had lost their previous position as news agenda setters across Latin America. A 1990 study of foreign news in 15 leading Latin American dailies found that the five big European agencies (led by EFE and Reuters) accounted for 49.0 per cent of stories, against a combined AP and UPI share of 29.4 per cent.

Europe has a big news advantage over the United States, because for American citizens both national news and foreign news seem so much further away. Kansas City, for example, is 1,700 kilometres from New York City and 1,450 kilometres from Washington DC. Even Washington politics, with its complex separation of powers (and its complex web of Congressional committees, its regulatory agencies, and its heavily lawyerised character) is too complex for much detailed news coverage by newspapers and television stations in the US hinterland. But if Washington seems far away, foreign capitals are even more remote. Leaving aside Ottawa and Havana, the nearest major foreign capital is Mexico City - 2,000 kilometres from Kansas City. Most of Western Europe is seven time zone hours away from Kansas City and Pakistan is 11 hours away.

Most US citizens (other than Hispanic people) see very little foreign media. This contrasts with almost all other countries in the world, where typically 10 to 15 per cent of audience time is taken up with imports (mostly from the US and from one or two other big brother countries). American print and electronic journalists have to work hard in order to attract any audience attention for foreign news. Most countries' na-tional media rely on the "home news abroad" story, but the American media tend to present almost all foreign stories within a tight framework of US political, military, economic or cultural involvement. Many US media foreign stories about a particular country focus heavily on visits by Washington, New York or Hollywood visitors to that country.

Two major European news ad-vantages are the continuing strength of Public Service Broadcasting and of capital city newspaper competition. Across the 27 countries of the European Union, the public broadcasters still attract about one-third of television audience time, and these broadcasters focus heavily on news, which remains popular with most European national audiences. …