Anyone who watched, say, the ABC World News in late November and early December would have known that a tiny band of terrorists had come ashore in Mumbai, killing more than 100 Indians and foreign visitors, and that most observers speculated the attack probably came from Pakistan. They would have known that Thai protesters had occupied the Bangkok airport, stranding hundreds of tourists. And they would have known that economic chaos and cholera were descending on Zimbabwe, which President Robert Mugabe held in what was almost literally a death grip.
But they would not have known that the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo had been handed over from United Nations forces to those of the European Union. They would not have heard that drugs manufactured around the world were being exported to the U.S. with few, if any, safeguards against accidental or deliberate adulteration. They would not have learned about the resurgence of agriculture in Ukraine after the country lost its reputation decades ago as Europe’s breadbasket. And they would not have known about an initiative that’s reducing Latin America’s deaths in childbirth.
Telling those stories to American public TV viewers is the mission of two competing weekday half-hour programs: Worldfocus, produced by WNET/WLIW in New York, and BBC World News, produced, of course, by the BBC.
At first blush, the competition between Worldfocus and BBC World News might seem inherently unequal, like a football game between my third-ranked University of Texas Longhorns and a talented pickup team of former college standouts and players borrowed on a day-to-day basis from teams that can spare them.
But on closer examination, Worldfocus manages to hold its own against the BBC offering, mostly by finding strength in its principal weakness: its inability to match or even approach the reach and ubiquity of its rival’s newsgathering corps.
Both Worldfocus and the BBC newscast report the big, breaking stories — Mumbai, Zimbabwe and the Thai protests. Worldfocus’s coverage, acquired from international news operations such as the British ITN network and the German-based Deutsche Welle, is adequate and solid.
The BBC’s coverage is superb, as one would expect of the world’s best and largest newsgathering organization. In Bangkok, Harare, Athens, Afghanistan, Pakistan and dozens of other places, the BBC has correspondents in place and on call. Worldfocus covered the Mumbai attack with footage acquired from Indian television, narrated by Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge. The BBC, by contrast, had at least three correspondents already in the city, one of them outside the besieged hotels. The sun may have set long ago on the British Empire, but not on the British Broadcasting Corp.
The two programs also cover the stories making headlines in the United States. In late November and early December, both devoted substantial air time to the building economic crisis and the debate in Washington over whether to bail out the American auto industry, and both followed the story’s trail to Europe and Asia. Both covered the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the collapse of Bernard Madoff’s house of cards.
The programs’ potential added value for an American audience comes, however, when they move beyond the big stories, to the ones that seldom get much if any time in the 22-minute news holes of the U.S. network newscasts. Viewers could hear about Mumbai, Zimbabwe, protests in Greece and piracy off the coast of Somalia by watching the broadcast or basic cable news. But they would not have seen reports on gang violence in Russia, a slight thaw in relations between Turkey and Armenia or the reduction of CO2 emissions in Australia.
How important are such events to Americans? Not very, most would say. We might recall, however, that India and Pakistan’s 60-year dispute over Kashmir seemed of peripheral interest to us until we realized that more Pakistani forces on the Indian border means fewer Pakistani forces fighting al-Qaida along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and greater freedom for al-Qaida to develop plots against us.
The BBC’s reach gives BBC World News an immense advantage over Worldfocus on stories such as these. In seven pairs of late-November and early-December newscasts dissected for this critique, BBC World News ran nine stories from Europe — EU regulation of generic drugs, the transfer of the Kosovo peace mission from the UN to the EU and a brazen jewel heist in Paris. Worldfocus ran just one, a much shorter report on the jewel heist. In the same sample, BBC World News ran five Russia-related stories, including the gang violence story and reports on President Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to Cuba and the death of the head of the Russian Orthodox church. Worldfocus did just one.
But that piece, almost five minutes long, covered agricultural production in Ukraine. It was delivered by Dave Marash, who reported for Nightline in the Koppel years. Increased production in Ukraine, Marash said, has the potential both to bolster the Ukrainian economy and strengthen it against harassment from Russia, which would like to reel the former province back into its orbit. Farming would also increase supply and lower the price of foods around the world. The Marash report was one of several longer pieces run by Worldfocus and reported by former U.S. network-news correspondents, all of them—correspondents and reports—of impressive depth and insight. Lynn Sherr, formerly of ABC, reported from Guatemala on a program aimed at reducing maternal death in childbirth. In a series of reports on 21st-century Africa, another former ABC hand, Martin Seemungal, covered a program to provide laptop computers to children in Rwanda, increased participation by women in Rwandan politics, health-care shortages in Uganda, and the closely observed ways of mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest.
Worldfocus provides additional depth and insight with studio-based interview and analysis segments. Segments often begin with a minute or two of reportage followed by a two- or three-minute interview, conducted by Savidge, with an expert, often a professor, journalist or former diplomat. The interviewees are all perfectly adequate to their tasks. But they generally seemed a bit less animated, a bit less authoritative, than their counterparts on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer or the networks’ Sunday-morning talk shows. And the fact that the interviews during the sample period did not offer competing viewpoints and were conducted in the Worldfocus studio rather than on a satellite hookup suggest that these in-studio interviews are conceived for budgetary as well as analytical reasons.
Long-form reports and interviews were not entirely absent from BBC World News. But almost. Perhaps with good reason. Just as football teams with great quarterbacks tend to rely on passing-dominated offenses, why wouldn’t BBC World News, with access to the BBC’s 44 bureaus, 2,000 journalists and half-billion-dollar budget, build its coverage around that strength, just as Worldfocus, with a budget estimated at $8 million and a staff of 25, supplements costly field-produced segments with more affordable studio interviews?
While each newscast has its strengths, they share a weakness. Neither devotes any significant time or attention to what may be the most serious gap in Americans’ understanding of the world beyond our borders: our failure to appreciate how large the U.S. looms in the perceptions of people in other countries — especially in comparison to how little we know, and how little we care, about what happens abroad. Look, for example, at the intense interest abroad in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama or, even if Obama is set aside as sui generis, the widespread international disdain for George W. Bush, and the damage done to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s career for seeming slavishly obedient to the Bush foreign policy. Then ask how many Americans, even well-informed Americans, could name Blair’s last electoral opponent, or Nicolas Sarkozy’s, or Angela Merkel’s. Or name the president or prime minister of any of several countries — India, Turkey, Ukraine, Colombia — whose political and economic health are critical to ours but that we are not supporting or opposing in combat.
This is not simply one more lament for American insularity. There are practical consequences of our failure to consider the impact of our actions on people in other places. If we knew more, if we understood more, about how we and what we do are perceived in other countries, we might not, for example, have been so surprised that after initial euphoria, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan did not look upon us as liberators. We might have avoided leading Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to believe that we would back his play against Russia. We might have brought soft power to bear in Rwanda and Darfur before conditions deteriorated so far that only hard power would do.
We have been insular partly because for many years we could afford to be, buffered as we are by our oceans, and pleased to be set apart from the religious, ethnic and territorial rivalries that have roiled other regions for centuries. Those buffers have been erased by advances in transportation and communication, however, and by our irrepressible urge to share what we have with people who live elsewhere.
If Worldfocus and BBC World News attract sufficient air time and audience, they can be part of a long-overdue broadening of our horizons and deepening of our understanding of peoples who have become, in effect, very important neighbors to know.
Copyright 2009 American University