Whenever we have turned inward as a country, we have faltered.
There’s an old saying I heard a lot during my time at CBS News, particularly my years in the anchor chair: “If you lead with foreign news, you lose.” The implication was that the American public doesn’t care much about what is happening around the world, and to lead a newscast with a story from a distant dateline is a surefire way to lower your ratings. If anything, that mindset has only grown more entrenched in recent years.
Whether this assertion is factual or not is hard to determine. It was never rigorously tested as far as I can tell. I have seen anecdotal evidence that points in both directions. I think foreign news is a harder sell, but the challenge for the journalist is to explain why it is important and to tell stories that are compelling. When you do that, the public can come to understand why they should care.
I think back to the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. When CBS News first committed to telling that story, relatively early in the movement, we had the sense that public interest in what was happening in China was basically nil. But through determination and intrepid reporting, we dedicated time on the "Evening News" to those events almost every night. I traveled to Beijing, where we were eventually kicked off the air by Chinese government operatives. When the bloody crackdown occurred, the American public was engaged and understood the significance of a generation of young people grasping for at least some semblance of freedom. I like to think this level of connection arose in part due to our coverage.
It may sound old-fashioned, but I view the news business as a public service. At a minimum, it needs to have that soul. Yes, we do report to the public what it is interested in hearing, but we must also report what the public needs to know. If you spend all your time catering to what you think people want, you end up missing a lot, including most of the world.
It is natural that we tend to be most concerned with what’s closest to us: our neighborhoods, cities, towns, suburbs, rural communities, states, and nation. And to be sure, there is a lot that is deeply concerning about what is happening in the United States. Our news feeds are full of serious stories: the threats to our democracy, gun violence, racial injustice, attacks on reproductive rights, and on and on. It’s enough to completely fill our news diet, and then some.
Amid this upheaval, it is tempting to turn inward. And indeed we should marshal our energy for these dire challenges to the future of this nation. These are clear and present dangers.
But at the same time, I believe we cannot ignore what is happening around the world. From a self-interested perspective, we can conclude from the pandemic, energy prices, and the escalating threats of climate change that it is folly to try to wall ourselves off from global forces. We live in an increasingly interconnected society that transcends national borders.
But I would argue that framing the question as, “How does this affect me?” is also problematic. Here I must admit to a bias: I have always found the world fascinating. I grew up in what was then the provincial city of Houston, Texas, and didn’t leave the state until I hitchhiked east in my early twenties. My first trip out of the country was to northern Mexico for my honeymoon a few years later. My first journey overseas was for work, covering President Eisenhower’s trip to Asia in 1960.
Even though I didn’t get my passport stamped until adulthood, I had always nurtured an interest in the broader world. It called to me. This global orientation was likely the result of reading newspapers and listening to radio dispatches from the battlefields of World War II. Wars, especially world wars, invariably involve geography lessons. As armies cross oceans and continents, they find themselves in places that weren’t previously “on the map” in the collective consciousness.
Although I am not sure I had heard of Hawaii until Pearl Harbor, over the ensuing years, as war stretched to North Africa, Europe, East Asia, and the Pacific, I began to envision a marvelous and diverse planet of both places and peoples. I was often scurrying to the library, consulting an atlas, and thumbing through our beloved family encyclopedia to put these places into better context.
And there was a yearning. I wanted to see these far-flung localities with names I could often barely pronounce. I think this desire propelled my interest in becoming a reporter.
As I consider the way the news is collected, produced, and processed these days, I worry that not only young people, but all of us, are losing a connection to foreign affairs. For one, it is expensive to cover — often very expensive. Staffing and operating overseas bureaus is beyond the financial means of many news organizations, whose business models no longer produce the revenues they once did.
It is a lot cheaper to have a studio show like the ones that dominate cable news, with maybe a guest on set or a reporter outside the White House, than it is to send someone on a fact-finding expedition through the Hindu Kush. For news executives concerned about the bottom line, one can understand why they would choose to report night after night on the divisiveness of the previous president, which everyone agrees is an important story and tends to draw big ratings, than try to cover something like the geopolitical trends among the island nations of the Pacific.
This example isn’t selected at random. In fact, it is in reference to a story that did garner some attention among news organizations that still dedicate resources to foreign coverage. There is a major influence struggle playing out between China and the United States in the western Pacific, a region of significant strategic importance. And there was news this past week about China’s ongoing desire for power:
To their credit, The New York Times, in an important example of on-the-ground, in-depth reporting and analysis, considered the broader landscape:
The article reads:
China’s interest in the Pacific Islands, made more explicit by a series of recently leaked documents, starts with maritime real estate. From Papua New Guinea to Palau, the countries of the region have jurisdiction over an area of ocean three times as large as the continental United States, stretching from just south of Hawaii to exclusive economic zones butting up against Australia, Japan and the Philippines.
Chinese fishing fleets already dominate the seas between the area’s roughly 30,000 islands, seizing huge hauls of tuna while occasionally sharing intelligence on the movements of the U.S. Navy. If China can add ports, airports and outposts for satellite communications — all of which are edging closer to reality in some Pacific Island nations — it could help in intercepting communications, blocking shipping lanes and engaging in space combat.
This is the kind of story that could very well shape our world in significant ways. China’s growing influence might lead to a military showdown, just as the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine has now exploded into the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
Of all the foreign stories that do make headlines, wars tend to be the most visible. There is of course a drama and tragedy to armed conflict that capture people's attention. Sadly, guns, bombs, and fighter jets also lend themselves to the visuals that make for compelling television.
But as we see with the above example of China, we need to focus on what is happening diplomatically and economically, as well. Also, in a world where two of the most dire threats to our health, safety, and way of life are the havoc invisible gases and viruses are wreaking on our environment and bodies, we should update our vision of what is foreign news for the realities of our times.
We plan on continuing to feature foreign news here on Steady (and hope you will bear with us as we do). We encourage you to share stories you are following from around the globe in the comments section below.
I worry that social media, with its echo-chamber tendencies and preference for virality, too often relegates the nuance required for foreign reporting even further to the margins. At the same time, the digital revolution allows us access to foreign sources we previously could not. It’s the push and pull of technology's promise and peril.
To think of a simple delineation between domestic and foreign news no longer makes sense, and in truth it probably never did. As our world shrinks, as our fates are more inextricably intertwined, we need to find ways to tell the stories that matter in a manner that brings people together. And we need to develop business models to support the effort.
Here I am not completely hopeless. In our household, as I suspect is the case in many of yours, one of the joys of a world of streaming content is that we can immerse ourselves in television shows from foreign countries. The popularity of these series I believe demonstrates that there is a lot more that unites us as humans than divides us. When we can find a way to share and learn about other places, there will be interest.
Another saying from the old days of news was that a story that felt too foreign to some executive was derided as, “well, that’s a long way from Broadway.” I never really understood what that was meant to convey. I grew up a long way from Broadway — most people do. And Broadway itself is influenced by a wonderful mix of global cultures.
The very idea of America, in its most noble sense, is that we are stronger because we benefit from drawing people from a rich and diverse world. Over the course of our history, whenever we have turned inward as a country, we have faltered. Seeing, grappling with, and trying to understand our world through a global lens may be more critical today than ever before.