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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

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?

Related reading:   Independents’ Day

By Lucinda Fleeson
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.     

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 full-time 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.

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 War.

• 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. Others say it has turned many reports into cut-and-paste collages, often using unidentified sources.

• The two newest 24-hour cable news networks, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, were created with minimal investment in overseas reporting.

• Some of the most penetrating and analytic foreign reporting on the air is found in documentaries that run on the financially strapped Public Broadcasting Service, often in the work of young videojournalists, who sometimes finance their own projects or rely on philanthropic grants.

• A digicam revolution has created a breed of correspondents who travel light, often working alone, producing intimate, you-are-there reports for a fraction of the cost of sending a traditional network crew. The new technology offers a promise of faster, less produced, more informal stories that not only could increase the amount of foreign news on television, but inject new style.

Network executives cite a variety of reasons for the closed bureaus and the diminished presence of foreign news: the end of the Cold War and the ensuing absence of perceived external threats until September 11; Americans' inward focus and preoccupation with the stock-market euphoria of the 1990s; ease of air travel that allows correspondents to reach the scene quickly; and the networks' budget pressures at a time when they have been absorbed into large conglomerates.

But critics say that the closings have fueled the decline of foreign news, with its loss of on-the-scene--and highly expensive--reports. The lower profile of foreign reporting, they say, contributes to Americans' lack of interest in, and understanding of, global affairs.

The dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of network news, particularly the loss of international coverage, "is perhaps the single most negative development in journalism in my lifetime," says John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew International Journalism Program and a former Baltimore Sun Beijing correspondent.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he says, international news was a daily staple of television news reports. "The reasons the networks give for closing bureaus are well-known and justifiable in that maintaining foreign bureaus is extremely expensive. But the cost has been that the American public knows so much less about what's going on in the world than 30 or 40 years ago, except for certain major stories or a major troop involvement. It becomes a vicious circle: When the public knows less about places in Africa or Asia or Central America, then it is going to demand less, and then the networks say the people aren't interested, and that becomes the pretext for dropping off."

Schidlovsky was so disturbed by the trend that he has headed up a Pew fellowship program to encourage journalists to do the kind of in-depth international reporting that traditional news organizationsno longer fund.

There is no less at stake than world peace, in the view of some. Bjorn Edlund, head of corporate communications for the Swedish-Swiss conglomerate ABB Ltd., persuaded his company to provide $2.25 million to help launch PBS' "FRONTLINE/World" show to provide an alternative to what he calls "the slick, blow-dried approach of network news." Says Edlund, "If you don't go outside that framework, foreign news gets less and less coverage, and you end up with the shallowest cliché, or some cute story about the queen's coronation. Even if I have a Swedish passport, I feel the U.S. media is my media, because of its great importance. If foreign news isn't covered, then President Bush may go off and do something."

Martin Smith, a former ABC producer and now a New York-based independent producer who does most of his work for "Frontline," says the network evening news shows--all 20 minutes or fewer of them, which is what's left after the commercials--have been turned into "selling opportunities." Foreign reporting is almost exclusively limited to disasters and crises. "There was plenty of instant analysis during the Iraq invasion," says Smith. "But where is the thoughtful analysis? The networks almost never do a story on a developing conflict in Indonesia, the Philippines or Venezuela. Yes, they'll do an hour of international reporting, but it has to be a disaster-type report. The crisis has to happen, then they'll do it."

There are notable exceptions. ABC has consistently led the pack, airing more foreign stories than the other networks. Ted Koppel's "Nightline" was founded in 1979 as a series of late-night specials on the Iran hostage crisis. Over the years the show has established a trademark of insightful, penetrating reports, often about international subjects.

This June, for instance, London-based ABC reporter David Wright traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, filing stories on child soldiers and other war-related issues for "Nightline" as well as "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" and "Good Morning America."

"I don't need a bureau in Africa," asserts ABC executive Slavin. "I am much better off with David Wright getting there for three weeks. I don't need a bureau in Afghanistan, but I am sending Bob Woodruff. That is a more efficient use of resources."

But many disagree. "It's quite tragic," says Jennifer Lawson, a Washington, D.C.-based independent producer and former executive vice president at PBS. "We as a nation were so surprised by what happened with 9/11. Had we known more about how others view us and our policies, I don't think we would have been so surprised. We get very little coverage from Indonesia or the Philippines, and almost no backgrounders, even though there are links to al Qaeda-type organizations. The news is always crisis-oriented, and then it drops off the radar screen. Even our coverage of Afghanistan dropped off."

As for Africa, news out of Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe is almost nonexistent. "You name it," Lawson says. "It probably would be a shorter list to name the countries that are covered."

NBC News President Neal Shapiro takes umbrage at the suggestion that the surprise of September 11 can be blamed on television. "Our best intelligence agencies were surprised," says Shapiro. "The White House was surprised. The Defense Department was surprised. You could have all the bureaus you wanted and we would have been surprised. It's not like having an extra Paris bureau would help you understand al Qaeda."

He uses the military term "flexible response" to describe the way NBC dispatches its staff from central hubs. "There's no particular advantage in having a bureau in Paris when we can deploy so quickly," he says. "We weighed the cost of maintaining bureaus, and they have a lot of down days because nothing particularly is happening."

Both NBC and ABC pulled correspondents from Rome, another European bureau once considered a must for major print as well as broadcast outlets, particularly in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Pope John Paul II played a key role in the Solidarity movement in Poland and the Velvet Revolution across Eastern and Central Europe.

ABC left behind a producer, with the telephone numbers of freelance crews--and two fixed cameras to feed live panoramic shots of the Vatican and the city. "If the Pope were to die tomorrow, I could have live shots and could fly in a correspondent in two-and-a-half hours," says Slavin. "ABC isn't in a position to have an expensive correspondent in Rome. But 10 years ago, even five years ago, we didn't have fixed cameras in place. Now we do."

Slavin says that questions about foreign bureaus are "like someone asking, 'Why don't we still use clay tablets? Why did we go to newspapers?' It's a whole different world now." n the days before 9/11, the summer airwaves were filled for weeks on end with the mystery of missing intern Chandra Levy and speculation over the involvement of then-California Rep. Gary Condit in her disappearance. All of this changed, of course, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Suddenly, there wasn't such a thing as too much foreign news. As Tom Brokaw reminded us, we've just witnessed the most televised event in history, the American invasion of Iraq. Slavin, Shapiro and other network executives say these are exciting times for television journalism. It's hard to dispute the impact of the sheer spectacle of real-time, up-close video broadcast to millions during the invasion of Iraq.

Will this renewed emphasis on foreign news continue? Chuck Lustig, who directs ABC's foreign news coverage, says: "There certainly are a number of looming, continuing stories that will undoubtedly be covered: a worldwide recession; whatever happens in the Mideast as part of the continuing conflict; the looming conflict on the Korean peninsula; changes in South America, such as [in] Brazil and Venezuela. I see lots of opportunities to cover foreign news in the short term," he says. "In the longer term, I don't know what other opportunities will arise."

Surveys indicate that even after the World Trade Center attacks, the American public's interest in international news has hardly soared. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey, released in June 2002, showed that only 21 percent of the public was following international news very closely, an increase from 14 percent two years before. The majority (61 percent) only paid attention during major crises.

"We've quickly gone back to covering Laci Peterson and all sorts of things," says Andrew Kohut, the center's director. What was the main reason that the public failed to tune in to news from abroad? People said they lacked the background to understand internationalreports.

Surveys showing limited public interest in foreign af-fairs trigger a chicken-or-egg debate: Did television respond to America's apathy regarding international news, or did the medium's mere trickle of foreign news help create the lack of interest? "I'd put my money on the public being not interested in the '90s," says Kohut. "On a personal level, the public was more interested in internationalism than any other time--people traveled overseas, used the Internet, etc.--but their interest in geopolitical matters hit a new low."

That's a comforting view for the networks. "We are reactive, not proactive," says NBC's Neal Shapiro.

But not everybody buys it.

Independent producer Martin Smith of Rain Media, for instance, concedes that perhaps the public turned inward in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War. "But you weren't seeing long-form documentaries on the dotcom explosion or the state of banking or IPOs," he says, adding, "Yeah, we turned inward, but the rest of the world didn't disappear. As we found out on 9/11."

As networks closed overseas bureaus, new technology and a proliferation of local television stations have allowed them to expand their reach exponentially. Thanks to affiliates, freelancers, partners and, sometimes, rank amateurs who can provide footage, editors in New York have a crazy quilt of material to snip and paste together.

"We're clients of Reuters; we have a relationship with Sky News, the BBC and 26 broadcasters throughout Europe. We're big with Tokyo News Service and Al Jazeera," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president, news coverage, for CBS News. "No organization can be everywhere. No organization was ever everywhere, even back in the glory days. So the good thing is that there are people on the ground who can shoot stuff for you while you're flying in to supplement. What's bad about it is that you can't control the people who are going. You can't call up and say, 'Can you send somebody to such and such?' "

McGinnis says she's confident the network is airing legitimate, credible news. "All the partners are reputable news agencies," she says. During the war in Iraq CBS shot much of the footage it broadcast. "When it's slow and nothing [is] going on, maybe not as much," she says.

Using video from partners has allowed an unparalleled immediacy, instilling an expectation among viewers that they will see and experience events firsthand, no matter where they take place. When a residential compound was bombed in Saudi Arabia in June, U.S. networks got pictures almost immediately, via Saudi Arabia's government television, Al-Arabia. "We do not have reporters or cameras on the ground," said NBC's Shapiro. "The Saudis haven't issued visas for months. Fifteen years ago that would have been a blackout." He acknowledges that the footage was provided by a government agency, a potentially biased source. "However," he says, "panoramic shots of a housing complex just blown up do not lend themselves easily to manipulation."

Others aren't so sanguine. The trend toward using more wire service television and foreign partners "is obviously bad," says Parisa Khosravi, CNN's senior vice president and managing editor of international newsgathering. "We do subscribe to APTV [the Associated Press' video network] and Reuters, but a lot of the time we match them. We have our own people who understand the story and who live the story, instead of me taking some anonymous wire and then having to correct myself two hours later."

She asks, "As a news organization, what do you have but your credibility? If you're going on anonymous wire reports by people you don't know, then what is it? It's rip and read."

But CNN has the luxury of airing international bureau reports on multiple networks. If the domestic market doesn't have a compelling interest, the story may play big in the rest of the world. CNN's American audience is small compared with the networks'; but CNN International has a huge viewership overseas.

A closer look at two CNN bureaus, in Moscow and Havana, shows how CNN supports its foreign news with specialty regional markets among its multiple networks.

CNN's Jill Dougherty has the perfect pedigree for a Moscow correspondent. She majored in Russian language and literature at the University of Michigan and began her broadcast career in the Soviet division of Voice of America when the U.S.S.R. still existed. Dougherty started at CNN in 1983 in the Chicago bureau, then covered the White House. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, CNN flew her to Russia for a month or two at a time, to cover the 1991 coup, the 1993 attack on the Russian White House and the civil war in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. She became Moscow bureau chief in 1997.

But even CNN cut back after Russia lost its star turn on the world stage. Instead of two full-time correspondents, now there is Dougherty and a teammate who functions as both correspondent and producer. "ABC has closed up completely," Dougherty says. "CBS has one correspondent, Liz Palmer, and she travels quite a bit and has been going a lot to the Mideast. NBC has Dana Lewis, who also ended up in the Mideast. So those bureaus are still kind of existing, but you would have to say that CNN is certainly the biggest and most active." (Lewis has since left Moscow.)

Dougherty gets far more airtime on CNN's international channels than on its domestic outlets. Today, she says, Russia is a subtle story. Instead of politics, she does more lifestyle stories that will play well in Europe, CNN's biggest consumer of Moscow news. Her recent stories include the boom in shopping malls; Russia's adoption of the birthing techniques of the West, allowing once-forbidden husbands into delivery rooms; and complaints by Catholics that the government is making it hard for them to practice their religion. None was aired on CNN in the United States.

While the Russia story was waning, CNN was the first news organization to reestablish a bureau in Havana when Fidel Castro began admitting U.S. media in 1997. "As you know, in Florida there is an obsession with Cuba," says Eason Jordan, executive vice president and chief news executive for the CNN News Group. "Whether you love him or hate him, Fidel Castro is one of the most intriguing characters on the planet."

CNN has two Spanish-language networks, as well as an affiliate in Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S. Several Florida stations are CNN affiliates. They all eat up almost everything produced out of Cuba, often taking footage that never airs on CNN in the United States.

No station uses more material from CNN's Havana bureau than WSVN-TV in Miami, with its large ex-pat Cuban population. "We take whatever we can get," says WSVN-TV News Director Alice Jacobs. The station sometimes broadcasts a Cuba story every other day. Occasionally it will use APTN material, but it only has a camera crew in Cuba to shoot video. So Jacobs prefers to feature CNN's Havana reporter, Lucia Newman. "Sometimes it's nicer to do live talkbacks with a reporter to give us the context and what's going on," says Jacobs. "Don't get me wrong, the video is very important, and we'll take that, but it's nice to have a reporter."

The traditional networks are not in a position to tailor news reports to specialty markets. Any international report has to compete for a spot on nightly news, which leads to what Kathryn Kross, CNN's Washington bureau chief, calls "the heartbreak of evening news reporters." Kross was formerly at ABC as senior producer for "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" and "Nightline." "I had reporters who had really, really good stuff, but we just couldn't fit it in, and it wouldn't live to the next day."

Mispatching a traditional network crew overseas is an expensive proposition. Usually a crew consists of a "gang of four"--correspondent, shooter, sound person, producer. Add a satellite engineer, and it's a gang of five. Every time the team flies from New York or London, it costs a minimum of four airline tickets, four hotel rooms, four expense accounts, ground transportation and translation costs, as well as the cost of 800 to 1,300 pounds of excess baggage.

Fox News Channel and MSNBC, founded in 1996, solved the cost problem by spending little on foreign reporting staffs and emphasizing domestic news. Says TV analyst Andrew Tyndall: "They've worked out how to do without" foreign reporting. NBC foreign correspondents also appear on the network's sister 24-hour cable news operation. Fox can capitalize on the global reach of its owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns Star in Asia and British Sky Broadcasting.

Fox could have become a BBC World or CNN International. Instead, "they made a decision not to do that, but to remain domestic," says Tyndall. "Fox set itself as a counter to CNN in every way, not only in style, but in content." Fox is more bombastic, more colloquial, ideologically conservative, anchor-heavy rather than story-driven, and domestic rather than international (except during wartime). In the process it has overtaken CNN as the ratings leader among the cable news competitors, although the audiences of all three remain far smaller than the ones who watch the network nightly news.

All the networks have been slow to take advantage of the new digicams, the tools that have created the so-called Sojos: solo journalists who report, act as their own producers, shoot their own film, edit on laptops and beam the results back to the network by satellite phone--all in a matter of an afternoon, in time for the evening broadcast.

ABC's London-based Mike Lee pioneered this mode. He used his one-man, one-camera approach initially for a 1996 feature about how displaced locals wanted to return to the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific but couldn't because of high radiation contamination. That report evolved into Mike Lee's "Road to Anywhere," a peripatetic series of pieces, mostly features, from locales ranging from the Australian Outback to Argentina to Ghana. The small camera "allows me to move on my own and interact a bit more, be more intuitive," he says. Without the financial pressure to drop into a location and get out quickly, he also has more time to discover stories. In Ghana, for instance, he happened onto the fact that the locals constructed vanity coffins--Cadillac-style containers in the shape of a huge sandal, a cacao bean or, in one case, a giant tuna. "I would not have found that searching through newspapers and magazines in London," he says.

Lee and an increasing number of reporters also use the digicam for hard news. When a helicopter carrying reporters into northern Afghanistan only had room for one more, Lee hopped aboard carrying his digicam and became ABC's first correspondent in Afghanistan. It was five days before his crew could get to the journalists' compound a few miles from the front, so Lee bivouacked on the open ground, sharing some of the BBC's equipment and its satellite connection to file.

"My choice for hard news is to have a crew with me, because we need all the resources we can get. But it doesn't always make sense to have a big team," he said in a telephone interview from London. For instance, when he was in Kosovo, his crew went off with one military group, while he took the small camera in a different direction. Or he can hop on a plane from London to reach the latest disaster scene and shoot film before it becomes clear how big the story will be.

While the first Persian Gulf War ushered in the new CNN era, with its stripped-down, low-overhead, 24-hour live coverage, the 2003 invasion of Iraq 12 years later will likely be remembered as the digicam war.

Washingtonpost.com videojournalist Travis Fox is an example of what may become an increasingly common phenomenon--and he doesn't even work for TV. He spent two months in Kuwait and Iraq filing footage for the Post's Web site and producing video for MSNBC, the cable news channel affiliated with Washington Post online partner NBC. "Television is becoming as easy to produce as radio," he says.

On a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism, Fox, 28, spent six weeks following a group of Roma (gypsies) from Romania into France, producing a documentary to air on PBS' "FRONTLINE/World" this fall. Fox says unlike the typical network parachute mode, his Pew grant enabled him to spend the time needed to gain the trust of his subjects and to obtain more intimate footage. "I could wait and tell the story from the inside," he says.

He and others predict that technology will allow networks to rethink their bureaus and establish one-person operations staffed by people working out of their homes with digicams and laptops.

Others also see some hope for increasing the amount and quality of foreign news.

"I compare the period we're in today to when I was a producer on Cronkite's news," says "Nightline" Executive Producer Tom Bettag. "Back then, there were two things that television never did--medical or economics stories," he says. "Now if ratings are low, you have to have a medical story every night; and if ratings are really low, you have to have two medical stories every night."

Bettag predicts that experimental young videojournalists may hold the key to a digitized future, reconnecting America with the shrinking global village. "Somebody's going to find a way to really bring fascinating international stories to the screen, and it won't be like Foreign Affairs magazine but like National Geographic. They will hit a formula and make a breakthrough. And this all will look like a silly phase. And we'll say, 'Remember when they used to think people weren't interested in foreign stories?'

"Television news is just slow to catch on. But we always have been."