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US media can't cover the news if they don't cover the world

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It used to be that the state of the economy determined the outcome of national elections in the United States.

"The economy, stupid," was the memorable injunction from political adviser James Carville to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team.

But now it is international affairs that dominate. It was foreign affairs – notably Iraq – that overshadowed the presidential debates of 2004. With the economy chugging along quite nicely, it is foreign affairs – notably Iraq – that will probably loom over the 2008 campaign, too.

It is ironic in this era of globalization, as international affairs rise to the top of the agenda, that some media companies are forsaking the responsibility to inform readers, listeners, and viewers of what is happening in the world, and analyze what it means.

Faced with declining circulation, rising costs, and competition from the Web, some large newspapers are closing foreign bureaus and slashing budgets for travel. Recently, The Boston Globe announced that it would close its last three foreign bureaus – in Berlin, Bogotá, and Jerusalem – after three decades of reporting from staff members based overseas.

The Baltimore Sun is closing its bureaus in South Africa and Russia after closing its bureaus in Britain and China earlier.

In the television news field, CNN is maintaining its position abroad, but the other major networks have long since been closing foreign bureaus and withdrawing resident correspondents. Instead, they resort to "parachute journalism," which means dispatching US-based reporters for short spells abroad when important news breaks. The downside of this is that the reporters parachuted in do not have the background, sources, or cultural sensitivities of correspondents who would have been stationed in their respective areas of coverage for extended periods.

All this disturbs columnist and editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who laments in his newspaper, The Washington Post, what he fears may be the "vanishing foreign correspondent." Formerly stationed in Tokyo, he recognizes that wire reporters from the Associated Press and elsewhere do noble work but says that they generally cannot provide the variety of reporting, analysis, and interpretation beyond the wire services' menu.

After 9/11, writes Mr. Hiatt, there was nearly universal acknowledgment that Americans would be better off if they knew more about the world. But a survey by Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll, studying foreign news coverage at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, found that the number of US newspaper foreign correspondents declined from 188 in 2002 to 141 last year.


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