Author: Jonathan Curiel
Mark Danner, 42, professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is a staff writer with the New Yorker, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and author of ‘The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War’ and ‘Beyond the Mountains: The Legacy of Duvalier.’ Danner has co-written and helped produce two documentaries for ABC News. His Web site is www.markdanner.com. Insight spoke with Danner about the news media and coverage of foreign affairs.
Q: Most Americans get their news from television, which is devoting less time to foreign affairs. Is it because of less interest among the public or because TV editors and executives don’t care?
A: TV executives say people aren’t interested in foreign news, but probably more people saw the documentary I did for ABC (in 1994) with Peter Jennings, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” than have read anything I’ve written. That’s the odd thing about television: At any given moment – say, Thursday at 8 o’clock – you have 60 million people watching. That number is divided up (among the channels), so that the program opposite “Survivor” may get 2 million people. In TV, that’s a tiny number. But as far as impact is concerned, that’s a huge number -a self-selected, rather influential audience.
Q: So, why less foreign news coverage these days?
A: Two reasons. One is the perception about lack of interest. The other relates to the phenomenon of money and profit. About 15 years ago, the network news programs were elite productions that weren’t thought to be self- supporting. They came out of public-interest requirements of television. They were prestigious. They weren’t scrutinized dollar for dollar.
All of a sudden, that changed. They were scrutinized. And foreign news is expensive. Networks eliminated some bureaus. Their attitude is, “Why have a bureau in Cairo if we get one story out of there every two weeks?”
Look at what’s happened to CNN. It’s suddenly doing talk shows. Why? They’re really cheap to produce. And the Fox network has shown that you can actually make money this way – that if you have a political line and you’re entertaining, you can make money. What’s happened to CNN saddens me.
Q: Is President Bush, who has rarely traveled to Europe, emblematic of the decreasing interest in foreign affairs?
A: I know he’d never been to England before he took office, and that seems remarkable. He’s not a very curious man. People call him stupid. I’ve never really thought that. I would call him shallow. Q: The explosion of the Internet has meant that more and more people are getting their news from Web portals that don’t do reporting and in some cases skew their stories with a political slant. Any worries about that?
A: The Bosnia war was a great example of the Web coming into its own. An enormous number of sources – SerbNet, for example – conveyed news sympathetic to the Serbian government.
The interesting thing to me is the way this whole food chain of information goes right up to cable TV and the networks. To me, it cheapens the kind of reporting you get in traditional elite media. The Clinton pardon scandal, for example, was an interesting story. It was clearly important, but did it deserve six weeks of saturation coverage? It didn’t. The press concentrated on Clinton in a way that was very strange.
The Lewinsky story was probably the biggest example of cable TV’s enormous impact. Diana. O.J. The cable shows need a megastory that will continue, have many different plot lines and fill up 24 hours, day after day.
One night, Fox led with a story on Jesse Jackson from the National Enquirer.
They told the whole story, then at the end they said, ‘This could not be independently confirmed.’ It used to be that if something could not be independently confirmed, you didn’t run it. Now, you run it and say it (lack of confirmation) and that justifies it in some way.
Q: How has your life changed since winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellowship grant ($295,000) in 1999?
A: When I first got that, the question was, “What are you going to do with that money?” And my answer was, “Worry less.” Just that. There have been no specific uses for it. It’s just that it reduces the economic pressure and makes me decide what I want to do purely based on what I want to do – which was actually always the case. I have a book that I’m finishing called, “The Saddest Story: America, the Balkans and the Post-Cold War World,” based on the work I did in Bosnia and Kosovo for the New York Review of Books. I’m in the middle of a series for the Review on Florida and the election. I’m supposed to go to Kashmir for the New Yorker. I have a long-postponed book on Haiti that I’d like to get finished. Touchstone (Films) optioned my book on El Mozote. I have to get working on that. A lot of things are in various stages of completion.
Q: Finally, is there a danger that foreign affairs news coverage will die out?
A: This may be my own feeble optimism speaking, but I don’t think so. The United States is a powerful country with interests all over the world. There are business interests all over the world. At the end of the Cold War, one might have expected that this worldwide set of interests in Asia and Europe and elsewhere – without the Soviet Union as our opposite number, our shadow presence – might have somehow evaporated. That won’t happen.
The U.S. is struggling to keep up public support for a worldwide foreign policy. Our military budget is still over $300 billion. It’s come down quite a fair amount since the height of the Cold War, but it’s still quite high.
The very fact that the U.S. has such far-flung interests means that, invariably, there are wars in odd places, whether Kosovo or Bosnia or Central America. These wars will continue to attract interest, because they will impinge, or will be thought to impinge, on U.S. interests abroad.
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.