Bureau of Missing Bureaus: Although Television Networks Have Closed Many of Their Expensive Foreign Outposts, Executives Say They Can Cover the World Just as Well by Dispatching Reporters from Central Hubs. but Critics Say the Shuttered Offices Come at a Steep Cost to the Public. What Is the Future for Foreign News on TV?

Article excerpt

SHORTLY AFTER CHECHEN guerrillas stormed a Moscow theater and took 700 people hostage, ABC News' director of foreign news coverage, Chuck Lustig, called New York-based correspondent Bill Blakemore. "It's a huge story," Lustig said. "Can you pack and get to the airport in two-and-a-half hours to fly to Moscow?"

"Sure," said Blakemore. "Why me?"

"Because you're the only ABC correspondent on the planet who can get there in time to do a live report for 'Good Morning America' tomorrow."

The story broke on October 23, 2002, just after the 9 p.m. intermission in Moscow--1 p.m. New York time, too late for a London-based correspondent. The last flight had taken off from Heathrow Airport.

Blakemore was glued to his cell phone en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport, in the airport, on the plane, in the car ride into Moscow, getting updates from his editors and downloading background from the network's research department. He dashed into ABC's Moscow bureau, put on some makeup, rushed to the scene outside the Theater Center, and had 10 minutes to spare before "Good Morning America" host Charles Gibson cut to him for a live update.

Paul Slavin, ABC's senior vice president of worldwide newsgathering, calls this kind of television reporting "Just-In-Time News," after the revolutionary factory delivery system that has done away with stockpiles of expensive inventory.

The networks have done away with many of their expensive overseas bureaus. ABC and Fox News closed their fulltime bureaus in Moscow, once considered the most important foreign outpost. CBS yanked correspondents from Paris, Johannesburg, Beijing and Bonn. All have pulled out of Manila. Even CNN, the global behemoth with 28 full-time bureaus worldwide, closed Manila and, this year, Belgrade, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro.

At several outposts, some networks maintain skeletal staffs--a bureau manager, perhaps a producer or a local crew on tap. But to a large extent, all of Europe and Asia are covered from London or New York. Latin American correspondents are almost nonexistent, except for NBC's in Havana and CNN's in Buenos Aires, Havana and Mexico City. No one except CNN and ABC has a full-time Beijing or Tokyo correspondent, although Barry Petersen splits his time between the two Asian megalopolises for CBS. The African continent is mostly uncovered by resident correspondents.

Previously, networks stationed regional specialists in bureaus, where they developed extensive sources and expertise. Now, a generic traveling reporter is often used to parachute in for a quick standup.

Many of the foreign bureaus closed in the 1980s and 1990s, decades in which the number of minutes devoted to foreign news spiraled steadily downward; short-lived spikes of interest followed the September 11 attacks and materialized during the 1991 and 2003 Persian Gulf Wars. (See "Foreign News Fluctuations," page 37.)

For this report on how television's foreign news has changed since its peak in 1989, AJR talked to network and independent television executives, producers and correspondents, and consulted with analysts at two independent organizations that track television coverage and public opinion on international affairs.

The findings include:

* Up until September 11, 2001, reports from foreign bureaus accounted for less than half the time on network news reports than they did in 1989. This year's war in Iraq gave foreign reporting airtime it hadn't received since the first Persian Gulf Way:

* While the amount of foreign news increased after the September 11 attacks and during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign coverage is largely crisis oriented, without much in-depth reporting on brewing troubles.

* While networks have reduced their foreign staffs, they have forged partnerships with hundreds of news outlets around the globe. Some say this has expanded networks' reach into places they could never staff themselves. …