Public Opinion - The media and the public

The American public's lack of interest in and information about foreign affairs is intimately related to the relative lack of interest displayed in such topics by their news and informational organs. Except for a handful of cosmopolitan dailies, few newspapers maintain a staff of foreign correspondents or offer many column inches of international news. Most rely upon one of the major wire services for whatever foreign news they see fit to print. By 2000, the Associated Press, which had come to dominate the wire services in the United States, was used by 1,700 U.S. newspapers and 5,000 U.S. radio and television outlets. The most influential shapers of media presentations of international problems may be the handful of journalists who produce the daily news budgets for the wire services. The New York Times plays a comparable role, particularly for the editors of the television networks' nightly newscasts, who, like most journalists and politicians, consider its judgment about what is important foreign news preeminent among all newspapers.

Electronic media bring foreign news to Americans over regularly scheduled news broadcasts and special programs. For the most part, however, their treatments lack the continuity and background material that would enable their audience to make sense out of a one-minute report on a riot in Nigeria or a thirty-second reference to the fall of the Euro. Television time is so expensive, and the time allocated to news so limited, that viewers are afforded only fleeting, disjointed glimpses of complex international events. News of body counts, bombings, and inflammatory rhetoric are treated without concern for the historical processes in which they are embedded. Only when there is a major crisis do some networks, particularly the cable news networks, offer sustained treatment of an international problem that goes beyond the brief snapshot of the sensational happening. And even then, most viewers, except "news junkies," quickly begin to surf other channels to find lighter programming.

Publishers and editors are convinced that, except in times of crisis, foreign news does not attract large enough audiences to satisfy the demands of their cost accountants. Although they probably are correct in their judgment, a feedback process is at work here. The directors of the mass media perceive their audience as uninterested in most stories with international datelines. Consequently, they offer a skimpy diet of such materials. Presented with such fare, the audience will never become either informed about or interested in international affairs. Whatever the explanation for public and media disinterest in such news, the situation is unlikely to change radically in the foreseeable future. The increasingly complicated diplomatic arena, with its numerous international organizations and nations no longer operating in a simpler bipolar world, makes the task of understanding foreign policy more difficult than it has ever been and, perhaps, not worth the effort for most Americans. After all, to become competent in international affairs in the 1990s, one had to know something about the history of the Balkans, the nature of Islamic fundamentalism, and the social structure of the Peruvian peasantry. In the 2000 election campaign, many Americans sympathized with the Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who not only had a difficult time pronouncing "foreign" names but often could not remember them at all. This lack of interest in learning about the world intensified after the Cold War ended and the international system became a less dangerous but also far more complicated place for most citizens.

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