Before September 11, few Americans could point out Kabul (or even Afghanistan) on a map, describe the Taliban or define, much less pronounce, Al Qaeda. Afghanistan's leaders have complained that until September 11, they were unable to drum up any media interest in the plight of the people in Afghanistan. In August, there were just a handful of journalists covering Afghanistan. Four months later, an estimated 1,200 international correspondents covered the United Nations discussions in Bonn, Germany, on establishing an interim government for Afghanistan.
Is interest in Afghanistan and other international news a short-term trend? Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has his hopes set on the latter but his bets placed on the first. A contributing magazine writer and author of 14 books, Schell will moderate a session on "Media & Terrorism: Changing the Ground Rules" at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting this week. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett about how September 11 made us "painfully aware" of how woefully inadequate our global coverage had been before--and how much it's improved since.
NEWSWEEK: How do you think the September 11 attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism have influenced international and regional media coverage of world events?
Orville Schell: There's probably a divide between how it's affected coverage in the West and how it's affected coverage elsewhere. Particularly in America, but also throughout the West, it's been a wake-up call to our negligent backsliding in our coverage of the fabric of the new world. The great paradox is that the word "globalization" is on everyone's lips while the American media, at least, has been in real default mode in terms of covering it. I think September 11 was a shocking reminder that we literally did not know what was going on between Tel Aviv and Hong Kong. There's very little by way of permanent [media] presence out there besides a couple large newspapers. It was all hole and no doughnut.
How much has that changed now?
It has changed momentarily at least. The question, which we're all asking, is: is this a significant and long-term change or just an ephemeron? I don't know the answer to that.
Do you think the media is more beholden to the public or to its shareholders?
Clearly, there is a real contradiction between the public's need to know and "shareholder value," and I think the real question that September 11 raises and one I will get into at the [World Economic Forum's annual] meeting is the unbroached question in all of this of ownership. My thoughts are that it's probably not effective to have churches operated by companies and to have education answer the whiplash of Wall Street. It's worth consideration as to whether the media shouldn't also have some sort of status--or at least parts of it--that aren't purely subject to the vagaries of the marketplace. I'm also strenuously opposed to state ownership having spent much of my life in and out of China. I would hardly hold Xinhua [the official Chinese news agency] up as a model. But I do think there are some other prospects that [we] desperately need some discussion on. The key question is: what drives each media outlet? What is the mandate?
How do you envision the media's role in informing and educating the public?
I hope that since we are so much more dependent on each other throughout the globe--that's the definition of globalization--that we will be able to cover and keep an interest in areas that aren't immediately threatening us with crisis. Remember, our president didn't even know the name of the president of Pakistan [during the 2000 election campaign] ... It's astounding that an area that proves to be so important is such a blank.
Who lost interest in international news first--the media or the public?
International news is a little like classical music--no one wakes up one morning and says, "Let's put on Wagner." International news takes cultivation because it's complicated, it's "other." So there is a very clear correlation between familiarity and interest. The news doesn't have to be for everybody though. It's the idea that everything has to be desired by huge numbers of people that tends to triage out Wagner. It's utterly counterintuitive that in this world of global business that the networks were running half as much international news pre-September 11 than they did 10 years ago.
You've been quoted as saying, "When disaster strikes, we tend to turn back to the networks because we need a commons. It becomes our town square." Why networks?
I do think there is a nostalgic association with the networks that reminds people of that time when this was our common ground, before the fragmentation of cable and the Internet. We almost automatically want to return to that watering hole in a time of trouble, and it's not a bad role. I fancy myself a great pluralist, but I think we are getting almost too pluralized and fragmented, and tragedy makes you want to come together. But the truth is that the way it is now set up, we are never on the same page. We're all singing out of a different hymnal because the market is so niched.
What do you think of the networks' coverage of the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism?
I thought all of them pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and, considering the defoliated state of their global reach, they did pretty well. You could see they wanted to do well. They cared about doing well. They had the time to do well. For the moment, they also had the resources. In my experience, the people I know--the anchors and correspondents on TV and certainly at large and medium-sized papers--there's hardly one of them that doesn't understand what good journalism is and wants to do it. The frustration is that they can't, particularly when it's an international story.
I think September 11 was an enormous tragedy, but for the media it was also an extraordinary opportunity to remind itself and its keepers of why it's important, why the media is more than just entertainment.
How does the media balance journalistic interests with public safety and national-security considerations?
I'm always aware that I'm a journalist, but I am also a citizen, and it's very difficult to draw absolute abstract lines. This is where experience in the field and a strong sense of what the ethics of a journalist are help them make the right decisions.
We are living in a more virtual world, a more technological world, a more security-conscious world. But time and time again, we see that if you defang journalists with too many harangues about patriotism and security, it's like turning off the fire alarms. Look at Enron. Where the hell was everybody? Where were these portfolio managers and stock analysts being paid millions and millions who were supposed to tell us if this was a house of cards? Where were the journalists? Well, they had trouble getting to the front-like during the Persian Gulf War. But I'm happy that they are on duty.
Do you think the media has learned any lessons from September 11 and from the other major news story of late, the Enron scandal?
I suspect that the global media will tend to snap back to bottom-line conscious ways. It's a powerful medicine. But one lesson we may learn something of, we may find a stronger urge to regulate media in the public interest as we now are for securities and financial markets. This ludicrous idea that the world can function without government is now obvious for all to see in manifest ways. We need armies in Afghanistan, accounting overseers in Andersen and someone minding the store in the media--not telling us what to say but ensuring we can say what we need to say. Just as we will see strong pressure from the media and the citizenry to regulate corporate shenanigans, we may see strong pressure to have some sort of reappraisal of how the government protects the public interest when it comes to the media.