The One Weird Trick: What Can We Do With It?
Part IV of a V-part series
The International News Superhighway
Now let’s return to one of the most morbid and perplexing problems in the annals of the deterioration of American liberal democracy: the death of journalism.
Just as most Americans don’t fully grasp what Google has achieved, neither do they realize the degree to which quality journalism has deteriorated. Polled by Pew, seven in ten Americans agree that the news media are doing “somewhat” or “very well” financially.
The reality is that the Fourth Estate is all but gone, at least in the form that current-day adults have known it. The tech giants have strip-mined journalism.
Written journalism once supplied the bulk of original reporting to the American market. It was financed, mainly, by classified advertising and by cross-subsidization from other, more popular parts of the newspaper (sports, gossip, comics). This advertising has migrated en masse online, especially to Google Search. The shift of distribution and advertising revenues to Google and Facebook has damaged traditional journalism to the point that no amount of innovation, creativity, or discipline can revive it. Put a fork in it, it’s done.
This has completely changed the way people find and absorb the news. They no longer look at a mixed bundle of politics, finance, entertainment, and sports; instead, they see individual stories chosen by an algorithm. To boost online advertising revenue, publishers have been reduced to pushing empty content and sensational headlines to generate clicks and hits. Strident opinion pieces have replaced reporting. As newspaper after newspaper has failed, predators have scooped up their empty hulks—from vultures like Alden Global Capital to a series of billionaires who imagine that owning a venerable old newspaper might be fun or useful for lobbying.
That’s why people like me are frantically sending you newsletters. We’re desperate. We’re trying everything. But private newsletters can’t replace the massive international news-gathering apparatuses that have been destroyed.
This is no Way to Run a Superpower
American journalists have been struggling for twenty years to find a new way to finance their profession. They have failed, and will continue to fail because they have been unable or unwilling to face reality: journalism, as we once conceived of it, has become structurally impossible. The frantic efforts to finance reporting through think tanks, 501C3s, and altruistic billionaires have only served to delay the reckoning, diverting resources and ingenuity from solving the larger problem: If journalism is gone, what can mediate between the public, institutions, and the wider world?
For the most part, the American public does not yet realize that even though they now have access to vastly more information, their access to reliable information about current events has shrunk dramatically.
The decline of journalism has—thus far—had dire consequences for American democracy, obviously. There’s a clear correlation between the shuttering of local newspapers and the decay of democratic and civic engagement. The clickbait economy encourages social polarization, shrinks social capital, attenuates attention spans, erodes deep literacy, and smothers recognition of civil virtue. The United States is in epistemological chaos. Americans have lost access not just only foreign news, but to any useful sense that the rest of the world even exists.
The problem threads throughout all layers of American media. The small newspaper is now all but extinct. Big newspapers like Gannett and McClatchy have ceased overseas reporting to focus on local news. The percentage of the front page devoted to foreign issues, according to Pew, shrank from 27 percent in 1987 to 6 percent in 2008.
Between 1998 and 2012, eighteen American newspapers, and two chains, closed their overseas bureaus. The rest dramatically reduced their overseas presence. By 2007, there wasn’t a single American network bureau left—not one—in Africa, India, or South America. ABC maintained a “bureau” in Nairobi who was in fact a single correspondent. Buzzfeed’s efforts to enter the vacant foreign news market culminated in failure and mass firings. So did similar efforts at Vice and HuffPost.
The Washington Post still has 16 foreign bureaus. Twelve consist of a single reporter. Max Bearak is the Africa bureau chief. He has no subordinates. The population of Africa, pour le mémoire, exceeds 1.2 billion people.
In 2008, Pew surveyed editors at 259 U.S. newspapers. Almost half said they had drastically cut resources devoted to foreign news; only 10 percent considered foreign news “very essential.” Today, even with the United States at war, both officially and unofficially, in at least eight countries, Americans receive almost no news from any of these places.
That’s ridiculous, right?
Really, think about how weird that is
We don’t even get news about the foreign dimension of major domestic stories. In all the stories of the Russian hacking of the American election in November 2016, where was the in-depth coverage about what Russians thought about any of this? Did Russians think their government actually did such things? If so, did Russians for the most part think that these behaviors were justifiable, or not? We have no idea, save for what Julia Davis tells us—and she does a heroic job, but it’s too big for one woman. In all the coverage today of the Sino-American trade war, where is there any in-depth coverage about what Chinese people think? There is none.
That’s crazy, isn’t it? This is no way to be a global superpower. How can we superintend over our foreign policy and meaningfully give our democratic consent to it if we have no idea what’s happening abroad?
Do you have a short attention span? Skip directly to Part V.
Does this interest you? Great! Keep reading!
The Tyndall Report, which tracks American nightly newscasts, found that in 1988, the big broadcast triad—NBC, ABC, and CBS—aired more than 4,800 foreign news stories. By 2010, the figure had declined by 56 percent. According to its most recent report,
Foreign bureaus have never been so little used. Never has there been less reporting on wars around the globe. Sorry Yemen. The biggest international story was the cave rescue in Thailand. NBC’s major foreign push was to cross-promote NBC Sports’ Olympics.
Wire services such as AP have likewise shrunk their global footprint. AP has lost almost a quarter billion dollars in the past decade. Its Puerto Rico bureau once had a bureau chief, a news editor, several correspondents, and a Spanish-language operation employing about ten people. Now it has a single correspondent. How surprised can we be that Americans don’t realize Puerto Ricans are Americans?
There is not a single American working for AP in Kabul.
Salaried packages for foreign correspondents have long been phased out, and so have all big bureaus with deep institutional knowledge about the country from which they were reporting. Those who used to make a living this way have turned to either other ways to make a living, to poverty and depression, or in a few cases to suicide.
What little foreign news we receive is not enough to permit us to grasp what is happening or to form wise opinions about it. Readers are not exposed to stories in which they have expressed no antecedent interest. Lack of reasonably objective foreign news coverage—like social polarization—thus becomes self-reinforcing.
It is, of course, still possible to read serious analyses of foreign affairs, but increasingly these are only to be found in paywalled academic and specialty journals. This is not the basis for a shared national understanding of the environment overseas.
To the extent the rest of the world is depicted in mainstream outlets at all, it’s shown as a rolling catastrophe, heavy on stories of hollow-eyed terrorists and diseases that make your eyeballs bleed. There is almost no countervailing coverage of foreign political and education systems, cultures, science and innovation; no ordinary domestic scenes, no love, no sports, no schoolchildren who are not starving or suffering from Ebola or begging us to bomb their oppressors to smithereens.
Unsurprisingly, most Americans find the rest of the world disgusting and frightening. It makes perfect sense to respond with apathy, isolationism, and the occasional choleric outburst: Turn them into a parking lot.
Behind the New Iron Curtain
Studies repeatedly find that Americans know less about international affairs than citizens of other countries, developed or undeveloped. Usually this is taken as evidence that Americans are incurious or backward.
That’s not the right interpretation. Americans are curious and forward, at least in the sense that they have been the inventors and first adopters of the new technologies that have destroyed journalism. Other modern countries will soon catch up.
But yes, for the time being, Americans severely underperform their peers in awareness of current events. (In 2013, for example, researchers reported in Journalism Studies that only 17 percent of the U.S. respondents were able to identify the Taliban. And yes, most respondents in European and Asian countries answered the question correctly— 68 percent in Denmark, 75 percent in the UK, and 76 percent in Finland.)
You just can’t be a superpower this way.
Foreign news coverage safeguards the public interest by allowing Americans to understand the effect the rest of the world has on us, and the effect we in turn have upon the world. It allows us to understand what other countries have achieved, and thus what’s reasonable to demand our own country achieve. It allows us to discern abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by our government, businesses, and institutions; it allows us to understand which governments and peoples are friendly to us or hostile; it allows us to understand what the benefits of friendliness and the costs of hostility might be. It reminds Americans how uniquely and disproportionately powerful every American citizen is compared to others in the world, and how consequential our electoral decisions are for billions outside our borders.
The effect of the decline in foreign news coverage has been to place Americans behind a new kind of Iron Curtain. Americans now receive as little genuine and objective news from abroad as a Soviet citizen did at the height of the Cold War.
The Tower of Babel Rebuilt
There’s no way to reverse recent technological trends. It is pointless to try to recreate the professional journalism and foreign policy coverage standards of the past. New technologies can’t be un-invented.
But these same new technologies could be exploited. They’re ripe for it. Specifically, Google Translate could turn us into Gods.
We’re just missing a few crucial parts of the user-interface. But if we build this, they will come.
What’s that, Claire?
Tomorrow, I’ll explain my vision.