BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Soon after the collapse of the Twin Towers, mea culpas fell like gentle rain from the lips of news producers. CNN's Walter Isaacson said the attacks helped his network rediscover - quote - "its true mission: to cover international news in a serious way." Of course, CNN had only recently misplaced its mission in response to the siphoning of its ratings by the more entertaining, less newsy Fox. But the Big Three broadcast networks had left the true path a long time ago. Here's a number, in case you needed it. In the 1970s, according to a Harvard study, networks devoted about 45 percent of their newscasts to foreign affairs. That fell to 13 and a half percent by 1995. But after September 11th the networks awoke to the idea that they could serve the public better. It's been six months now. How are they doing?
ANDREW TYNDALL: A good measure for coverage of foreign news is how many minutes of time on the network nightly news is filed with a foreign dateline. In other words not with a voiceover of footage from abroad but you've actually sent a correspondent abroad. And pre- and post-September 11th you virtually doubled, virtually doubled the amount of foreign coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Andrew Tyndall, author of The Tyndall Report, spends his days doing the numbers on the networks' nightly news. He says foreign coverage rose from 10 to 20 percent of the newscasts in the last 6 months, due of course to the war on terror and related stories. That makes sense. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also received ample air time, but Tyndall says it always does -- 105 minutes in the 5 months before September 11th; 108 minutes in the 5 months after. But what about the rest of the world?
ANDREW TYNDALL: The big stories that have happened that should have been covered more heavily and weren't because of the concentration on Central Asia were the economic crisis in Argentina, the volcano in the Congo, the elections in Zimbabwe where there have been virtual riots and looting and, and, and suppression of democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you anticipate they would have gotten heavy coverage if the networks hadn't been concentrating on Afghanistan?
ANDREW TYNDALL:No. It, it wasn't that there were, were resources that were diverted from those stories to Afghanistan; it was that the resources would never have been there to cover those in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Wheatley is the vice president of NBC News.
BILL WHEATLEY:Television news is a lot more extensive than simply evening news programs, and we should always remember that. I'm the former [LAUGHS] executive producer of the NBC Nightly News. It has a, it has a very [LAUGHS] soft spot in my heart -- but television is far bigger than that now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Consider news magazines like 60 Minutes, Dateline and Nightline, for now anyway, and leave out of this discussion the issue of 24 hour cable news channels. Still according to TV Guide's Max Robins, the network news magazines didn't behave much differently than the evening newscasts in the last 6 months.
MAX ROBINS: If you look at the news magazine shows before September 11th about 7, 8 percent of their total time they spent on stories was on international stories. Post-September 11th that amount doubled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And that coverage too was mostly related to the war. The fact is, foreign news gets relatively short shrift unless American lives are at stake. Network chiefs note the tuneout of foreign stories and a Gallup poll found that the number of people who declared themselves hardly interested in foreign news jumped from 3 to 22 percent between 1990 and 1998, and the reason for that says Michael Parks, former L.A. Times editor and current head of the University of Southern California School of Journalism is that the old hands cover it the old way, with too much emphasis on politics and too little on real life.
MICHAEL PARKS: The Cold War is over, and thus the public feels less apprehension about a confrontation with the Soviet Union, and they're more interested in what we can learn about solutions to our problems in terms of other countries. You know, does the death penalty work in deterring crime? Well, let's take a look at China.
MAX ROBINS: In a world where boundaries are blurred by a global economy, ease of travel and cross-border concerns about disease and the environment, foreign news only seems foreign when it's covered that way.
MICHAEL PARKS: If you look at the amount of attention that was given, say, to the introduction of the Euro in Europe -- if - you know, agreed a very important economic story - but weigh that against the coverage of international terrorism prior to September 11th, and you can see the, the disproportions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It may be that 9/11 offered no lessons to the networks because once again, lives were at stake; a lot of lives -- so the old rules applied.
PAUL FRIEDMAN: I do not believe that there will be any lasting impact from 9/11 on the way foreign news is regarded either by the audience or by the people who cover the news, no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Paul Friedman is the executive vice president of ABC News. He doesn't see a problem, and he disputes Parks' assertion that, for instance, the terrorist threat wasn't adequately covered by his network, anyway. He suggests that if there's a lesson here, it's the public's to learn.
PAUL FRIEDMAN: People did not pay much attention, because it didn't seem real to them! It didn't feel real to them until it happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Parks points to a study conducted prior to September 11th last year by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations in which the public ranked protecting the U.S. from terrorist attack as the country's top foreign policy priority, and he adds that any apathy evinced by the public is the fault of a vicious cycle perpetuated by the networks.
MICHAEL PARKS: People aren't interested in international news. Therefore we're going to give them less. Well the less you give them, the less interested they are. The professional burden on us is to persuade people to read and to watch what they need to know to be active citizens-- in our democracy.
MARCY McGUINNESS: I don't th-- I just don't think that that 's the, the way we think. I don't think we say we're putting something on TV and whether you watch it or not we're putting it on anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to Marcy McGuinness, vice president of news coverage CBS last September.
MARCY McGUINNESS: You know if you're K-Mart and you say I'm going to sell mink coats and nobody in K-Mart buys them, K-Mart goes out of business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As the proliferation of cable news outlets lifts the burden of public service off the networks, top flight foreign news begins to look like mink coats at K-Mart. The availability of those coats looks increasingly uncertain. Then again, so does the future of K-Mart. [MUSIC]