Visual coverage of the events of September 11 was as riveting as the unbelievable images it conveyed. Answers also came fast and furious to questions of who, what, where and when. It was the “how” and, even moredifficult, the “why” part of journalistic inquiries that, perhaps understandably, was not as well explored, as television reached for its cast of familiar pundits who often turned out to be as confused and predictable as they were jingoistic.
What became hard to find after September 11 were places to go for news in which the broader dimensions of the story about the terrorists’ attack on America were unfolding. There were, of course, in mainstream media questions asked—and answered—about who was responsible, how the acts of terror came to be, and how the nation’s defense and intelligence agencies missed signals about this attack. Often, though, the level of indignation coming out in these interviews exceeded the depth of good information and analysis provided.
As a way to respond to what we perceived to be a vacuum, Globalvision launched its own online News Network (www.gvnewsnet.com) prototype for a more diverse global syndication effort. By using this vehicle, we were able to offer stories from news outlets throughout the world. It became our way of bringing information and views of local sources—and often unheard voices—to audiences more accustomed to a narrower range of Anglo-American news. Our news network provides a panoply of “inside- out” coverage (for example, coverage about Pakistan is written by Pakistani journalists, not Americans) instead of the conventional “outside-in” international approach. On a given day, our lengthy collection of stories—linked for reader convenience—can include reports from Interfax Russia, The Kashmir Times, Middle East Newsline, Islam Online, Iran News, The Moscow Times, The Times of India, Mandiri News, Israel Insider, and Radio Free Europe. We call ourselves “context providers” and are turning a collection of stories into a news product that we hope news companies and Web sites will acquire to compliment existing wire service reporting as a way of offering more and deeper sources to their readers.
Our initiative emerged as a response to media trends that over the years have shortchanged the public and, in turn, eroded our democracy. While Globalvision is not alone in rejecting the dumbing down of news, we are trying in a practical and credible way to counter the pervasive withdrawal of international coverage by networks and newspapers. Yet it still surprises me to learn how many in the media business don’t appear to recognize the scale of this problem or the scope of its consequences. Pulitzer Prize-winning media writer David Shaw reported recently in the Los Angles Times, “Coverage of international news by the U.S. media has declined significantly in recent years in response to corporate demands for larger profits and an increasingly fragmented audience. Having decided that readers and viewers in post-cold war America cared more about celebrities, scandals and local news, newspaper editors and television news executives have reduced the space and time devoted to foreign coverage by 70 to 80 percent during the past 15 to 20 years.”
Long before September 11, my colleagues and I had become alarmed by the consequences of America’s media-led isolationism as it fueled citizens’ ignorance about the rest of the world. We could understand why headlines in other nations’ newspapers soon read “Americans Just Don’t Get It.” And we could read about how this absence of engagement through public communication led the Indian writer Arundhati Roy to suggest that Washington’s foreign policy was the consequence of the power of the U.S. media to keep the public uninformed. “I think people are the product of the information they receive,” Roy writes. “I think even more powerful than America’s military arsenal has been its hold over the media in some way. I find that very frightening…. [J]ust as much as America believes in freedom at home, or the free speech, or the freedom of religion, outside it believes in the freedom to humiliate, the freedom to export terror. And the freedom to humiliate is a very important thing because that’s what really leads to the rage.”
Agree or not with Roy, it is hard to deny that most Americans are confused about why “they” would afflict such terror on the freedom-loving “us.” “I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in [the Muslim] world and, in that sense, I think we do bear some responsibility,” Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron told the Los Angeles Times’s Shaw. “In consequence, we are not only less informed about what’s happening in the world but about how others see us.”
This situation prompted Globalvision to create its News Network of international reporting. Our motives for acting arose from both our personal interest in trying to draw more attention to the plight of the world’s dispossessed and in our company’s interest in tapping into a forgotten niche that might serve as a lucrative business opportunity. For 15 years, we had mostly focused on producing “inside-out” TV programming about a changing world. Now, thanks to the Internet, there is a distribution channel to add international content to an all too limited global news mix.
In 1999, Globalvision created mediachannel.org—the largest online media issues network in the world—to respond to the key role media plays in this age of globalization. I serve as executive editor of this site and write a weekly column called “The News Dissector” in which we watch the media as it watches the world, offering media news, analysis, criticism, research and discussion from monitors, observers, journalists, commentators and critics.
After September 11, and as the war in Afghanistan made clear, there was a hunger for more perspectives. Globalvision launched a test of its new News Network by posting stories from 125 affiliates in 85 countries, including a daily column on news about the news with criticism and reports about how the story is being covered in different countries, with a focus on what is being left out. To assemble this, I rely on the help of new WebLog technology and also draw content from our mediachannel.org network of more than 800 affiliated news sites as well as from links provided by the millions of readers/users who come to our Web site. Positive responses we’ve received, and the spurt in traffic we’ve observed, confirm that there is a market and an audience for this blend of international coverage and media criticism. Our site might also be filling some voids left with the shrinkage of the Gannett-funded Freedom Forum worldwide, as well as the collapse of Brill’s Content/Inside.com.
Our interest is not in criticizing coverage for its own sake. We are neither media makers nor bashers. We present the information we do as a way of offering constructive approaches to improving coverage. For example, mediachannel.org carries work by a new British-based group called Reporting the World, whose work shows how coverage of the same news can be told from a perspective of conflict resolution (the “peace journalism” approach) just as easily as it can be conveyed through the prism of “war journalism,” with its usual emphasis on bombs and bodybags. In another section of the site, we offer extensive information about media policy issues and media literacy education.
Also, we try to offer strategies and information that will help journalists counter our largest media failure—the lack of context that allows news consumers to gain clearer understanding of the background issues and clash of interpretations. And because our readers are able to look at so much coverage by news outlets in other countries—many of whom report on the same story on a given day—they are able to see for themselves the cultural biases and parochialism that deforms news coverage worldwide. Hopefully, it helps them put reporting in this country in a larger perspective.
Because of the reach of the Internet, many diverse sources of information are now available. But despite all the choices, well advertised, major media brands remain the primary source of news and explanation for most citizens. This presents a problem, since the crux of these debates—the impact of past U.S. covert operations and oil interests, for example—fly below the radar of most mainstream media outlets. And in mainstream media there is a lack of dissenting perspectives offered.
Media have a major role to play in reminding us of the ways in which lives are entwined and futures are interconnected worldwide. The shocking events of September 11 and the response to them calls our attention to the deeply institutionalized failures in foreign policy, defense strategies, the work of intelligence agencies and, yes, the U.S. media. We can call on others to fix the former, but only journalists, ourselves, can improve the media institutions we work for and rely on to strengthen our democracy. For too long, news organizations have failed to do this. They can fail no longer.
The homepage of mediachannel.org.
Danny Schechter, a 1978 Nieman Fellow, is the executive editor of Globalvision’s mediachannel.org. His latest book is “News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960- 2000,” from Akashic Books and Electronpress.com.