Sydney Morning Herald
Are Americans getting the full picture?
Sunday, November 18, 2001
Jingoistic, sugar-coated, superficial - those are just some of the criticisms levelled at US television networks' coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan in recent days - and not just by the foreign competition.
Columnists for newspapers as diverse as the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal New York Times have deplored what they describe as the networks' shallow and soft-focus reporting.
The Journal's Tunku Varadarajan has attacked the superficial analysis offered by CNN's "parachute" journalists, while the Times' Caryn James lamented US television's knee-jerk pandering to the public mood.
Weighing into the US cable stations and networks for their "myopic view", James criticised editors for caving into patriotism "rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know".
"If a priority of America's war on terror is holding a global coalition together, it helps to know, without sugar-coating, what the rest of the globe is thinking," she wrote.
At a media industry conference this week in Barcelona, Spain, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC's) news chief said he was startled by the contrast between US and European small-screen coverage of the 40-day-old war.
"It's like watching two different wars," said Tony Burman, executive director of Canada's national public broadcaster.
"The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has focused very much on the humanitarian issues in the region ... the human dimension", while NBC, ABC and CBS had anchored their reports "almost exclusively" around Pentagon briefings, he explained.
"There seems to be a real reluctance on the part of the US television media to dwell on the human impact," he said.
Burman also noted that the "uncritical, hyper-patriotic" reporting differed remarkably little between the three national networks, who he felt were all toeing the administration line.
"They're in lockstep with the administration ... and there's no distinction between the networks, which is unusual in a competitive environment."
Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, brushed aside the accusations.
"(Our) coverage of the war isn't slanted in any way," he said. "Our focus, quite properly, has been on the American war effort and that's what our viewers expect."
US television coverage needed to be seen in the context of September 11 and the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon which claimed some 4,500 lives, he pointed out.
As for objectivity and balance: "We haven't shied away from dealing with the fact that there has been collateral damage ... and not everything in the war has gone well," said Wheatley.
Nevertheless, some dissatisfied viewers are turning to foreign media, notably the BBC, the CBC and Qatar-based Arabic channel Al-Jazeera for their information.
One of those is Claire Namenko, a 53-year-old antiques dealer, who lives in Detroit, Michigan, a city not far from the US-Canadian border where many Americans can receive Canadian channels that carry CBC programming.
"It's more complete ... more objective," she said, explaining her preference for the CBC.
"You hear more about what the rest of the world thinks about the war, and you get fewer soundbites from US officials."
There's no way to judge whether the US audience for the CBC or BBC has increased since September 11, because neither channel qualifies for ratings in the US.
But both broadcasters claim to have picked up viewers, around September 11 and then again with the beginning of the US-led air campaign against Afghanistan.
Another 26 small US channels have signed up for BBC's daily half-hour news program since September 11, and the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, is selling its war expertise in an advertising campaign featured in Newsweek, Time and the New York Times magazine among others, according to BBC Worldwide spokesman Josh Weinberg.
"There are 191 countries in the world. How many does your news cover?"