Almost all news executives say they want the same thing—news that is new and true and distinctive. Mike Clemente of Fox: “I’m forever telling our reporters . . . what we want is whatever is new and factual. And if we do that, we’ll get more people watching our channel.” Alex Wallace of NBC/MSNBC: “What we want is stories told with unique video that separates us from the mass of video out there.”
So we looked for ’em—stories that were unique and distinctive and new. But comparing what the three American networks and the three cable news channels did on those two days in June with some foreign news channels—Iran’s Press TV, Russia’s RT, Britain’s BBC, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera English—we came away wanting more from America.
There were excellent video reports on each channel (except MSNBC), but few felt unique or even new. There were classics of afflicting the comfortable (ABC’s Jake Tapper on Congress’s exclusive gymnasia); and comforting the afflicted (a terrific CBS piece by David Martin on the military’s lack of programs for wives of returning Afghanistan and Iraq warriors); and two examples of NBC correspondents pushing the envelope—Stephanie Gosk penetrating an anti-American mob in Tripoli and John Ray sneaking across the border into Syria to video the devastated town of Jisr al-Shughour.
But Maria Finoshina’s report on RT, for example, on how selling and buying gas in Tripoli has become a female preoccupation because men in a city under siege had more important things to do, was news to me, and told me something more significant about Tripoli than the presence of angry supporters of Muammar Qaddafi. I also learned new things from RT’s Sean Thomas, who took me to the southernmost Russian Orthodox Church on Earth, in Antarctica, and from Press TV’s Ashraf Shannon’s story of conflict over natural gas in Gaza. During the civil war in the Ivory Coast, France 24 and Al Jazeera English regularly had reporters on the scene. My impression watching the story, confirmed with US officials there, was that no American TV journalists showed up.
Of course, these international channels have an advantage in the “new” department from our point of view, since they frequently address things that Americans know little about. But they often seem to seek out stories a little more imaginatively than their American counterparts. And many of them are mastering video, the world’s emerging lingua franca. Watch news channels like Express 24/7 in Pakistan, Channel NewsAsia in Singapore, or CCTV News or CNC in China and you see channels trying to catch up with the old masters, using the conventions of the trade and the equipment of the moment to create video news made better by what seem to be hordes of reporters and cameras in the field.
Many of the channels resemble their nations. France 24 is very French. It prefers theories to facts and lectures to video packages, but in some otherwise neglected areas of the world, like francophone Africa, they rule the roost. Notwithstanding the reporting triumphs mentioned above, RT, the former Russia Today, is a perfect paradox: its message is unrelentingly anti-American but its presentation is a pathetic parody of American TV—Valley Girl anchors, Barbarella reporters, and a steady diet of reports on American aggression abroad and oppression at home. Press TV of Iran isn’t too fond of the US either, and its lowest-budget, lowest-skill presentation is usually a waste of perfectly good bandwidth. But if you want a peek at Iranian life, where you gonna go?
As a student last year, Bilal Lakhani helped monitor these international channels for the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism’s “Global Media Wars” project. He told me that after the death of Osama bin Laden he went on Facebook and was surprised to find “lots of people sharing RT and Press TV videos. That’s when I realized that on major turning-point events like Osama’s death, these channels are going to find an audience whose viewpoints align with theirs.”
Columbia’s Ann Cooper started “Global Media Wars” after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in March before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, “We are engaged in an information war, and we’re losing that war.”