By Justin Stevens
Redefining America and American journalism
"What drives me?" asks legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward, addressing journalists taking part in the US State Department's Edward R. Murrow program for journalists who hang onto every word he utters. "The answer is: I get up in the morning and my first thought after going to the bathroom is, what are the bastards hiding? ...Democrats, Republicans, whoever is there, there's always something hidden and the job of journalism is to penetrate it."
Why were we all here? Aside from the goal of better understanding the US political system, there were recurring topics in all of the discussions, including the future of journalism, any signs of a sustainable business model for online news, and America's role in foreign affairs and international news. As such, each of our 22 days in America was jam-packed with meetings with local media, civic reps and local organisations.
It was a fascinating time to be in the US, and not just because it was during the country's mid-term elections. Amy Walter, Political Director for ABC News made a compelling point echoing what many others are saying: "It feels like we're at a tipping point in the American identity, and it's not just about politics, it's not just about frustration with politicians or with Washington. It's a deep-seeded frustration with almost every major institution in this country." Walter says that all the public sees is "a lot of typical partisan politics, they see that Wall Street got bailed out, they see corporate America giving themselves major bonuses, they see revered sports figures being seen to have major flaws. So there is a sense that everywhere anybody turns, the places they would turn for help, they don't trust." Walter argues that "this country is getting very isolated and you can feel it, very internalised and the fear of globalisation is profound...we are in a flat world where the United States is no longer its own universe. That is really scary if you are out of work and you're 50 years old and you don't know where to turn."
Gallup's 'Honesty and Ethics Poll for 2009' had 55 per cent of Americans report that the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress 'are low or very low' and 31 per cent said they felt journalists had low or very low ethical standards. At a time when the public are looking to the media for truth and answers on their dilemmas and their distrust of the political sphere, the media is trusted less than ever before.
No appetite for foreign affairs
Turn on ABC World News in the United States and only a small part of the programming will be about genuine 'world news'. But then again, it is not as though World Series Baseball is a global sport! Foreign policy coverage does not rate, but this is perhaps also reflective of a lack of demand for it.
Ernie Bower, senior adviser and director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, talked about how foreign policy and the Asia Pacific is viewed in Washington DC. "One of the things that drives me nuts about this town... is that when it comes to foreign policy, they understand cartoons better than deep policy analysis. A lot of the country just isn't aware at all that South East Asia is interesting to us, and a lot of the part of the country that shares that view or ignorance is Capitol Hill," says Bower. "People get elected and they really don't have any grounding or, frankly, interest. I think that the way that Americans understand policy at a political level, they like to follow easy scripts and patterns and I would actually say the media bears some responsibility for this."
Afghanistan barely received a mention in the coverage during the US mid-term elections. Some argue that is because there is bipartisan support for the war, and the media are obsessed with only covering political yarns that have two distinct differing points of view.
Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief at Al Arabiya said he was "really baffled that only two per cent of the American electorate said recently in one opinion poll that they are interested in watching closely the war in Afghanistan." Melhem adds, "where here you have a major war taking place in Afghanistan where the United States have more than 100,000 men and women deployed there...you have an average of two American casualties a day, we're talking about 60 American dead every month, and yet this war is not an important issue in the general elections. That tells you something."
Are budget cuts to blame?
The economic realities of the rapid changes the media is currently undergoing have meant that foreign affairs journalism has taken a big cut in budgets for newspapers and TV networks throughout the States. Although, there are definitely exceptions to this trend - National Public Radio (NPR) is one, with no less than 17 foreign bureaus. Ellen Weiss (Vice President for News, NPR) acknowledged "there's a perception out there that Americans are not interested in international news. My experience is that's really an incorrect perception." Weiss says that one third of NPR's programming is international coverage and their audience surveys tell them that a majority of their audience say it is the international news on NPR they tune in for.
However Christopher Isham, Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, CBS News, says that NPR is the exception. "Most of the other news organisations have cut back on their permanent foreign bureaus and on their permanent personnel in those bureaus. That said, what we have done is we have recalculated." Isham says CBS now only sends correspondents into environments where it warrants it, and it tries to ensure there is less "sitting around" time for correspondents. "You've always got some sitting around but you try and minimise that and deploy people into situations as needed, and that's going to go up and down, so there's no perfect formula."
There are some who are endeavouring to create a 'perfect formula'. Charles Sennott, executive director of the relatively new international news website GlobalPost.com, is trying to buck the trend. Global Post launched two years ago as a $10 million start up. "It's a free destination website," Sennott explains. "Global Post was really born out of a lot of what Chris (Isham) was talking about. With the industry facing economic realities, that has caused great news organisations to make choices that have often meant they have had to reduce their foreign coverage. The Boston Globe (whom Sennott once worked for) no longer has any foreign coverage, [they] have no foreign editor." Global Post currently has 70 correspondents on contract in 50 countries.
This will be an interesting trend to watch in the media amidst the various changes inevitable in coming years – ventures like Global Post positioning itself to fill the void left by cut-backs and drops in mainstream journalism. It would be rather ironic if a venture whose ambition is to provide a quality alternative filling a void made by cuts and changes in mainstream media was to become the model of a profitable online news provider!
Future of journalism
Co-founder and editor- in-chief of the Huffington Post Arianna Huffington says, "something that mainstream media has done really poorly is to constantly present every story as a story that is a battle between right and left. That is simply untrue. If you look at the major issues facing America right, now they cannot be easily divided into right versus left."
"The news media have A.D.D but voters have A.D.D, too..." says Cynthia Tucker, politics columnist at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "The news media tend to cover politics through the prism of right and left... I think we do too much covering politics through the prism of conflict because we think that makes it more exciting...so most American voters have no idea what is in this brand new shiny health reform, they have no idea what it does, what it doesn't do."
According to Tucker, this is symptomatic of a broader issue facing the US media. "In American journalism there really is a premium among news reporters of being objective, of being unbiased," she says. "A reporter who knows a politician is either lying or wrong, won't tell you that. As a matter of empirical truth Obama hasn't raised taxes... [but] they will find Republicans who have said he's raised taxes, and then find a Democrat who says he hasn't. Well that doesn't help you very much, what you have is the one hand and on the other hand. Too many reporters believe if they just put the simple truth of saying he hasn't raised taxes, they will be attacked as being biased."
Others would argue there is already a fair share of commentators in the US media making their own truth judgments, which is at the other extreme end of the spectrum. One need look no further than MSNBC and Fox News.
Making headlines and profits
I did not meet or hear from one person in the American media who has found a viable formula for a business model for online news. Mind you, they are all holding their cards close to their chests. All of the media organisations are conscious of the continual convergence of platforms and mediums, and journalists must adapt to that. There is great anticipation about the expected launch by The New York Times of a step towards a new online business model some time in 2011. "The first amendment that protects free press doesn't protect profits," explained a journalist from The New York Times. "My understanding is that next year we are going to start charging somehow on the web."
Local newspapers like the Pioneer Press in St. Paul have instead completely focused on local issues, and it is paying dividends with their circulation figures going up and defying the trend of other smaller local news brands.
Multi-skilling of journalists is becoming the norm. The Fox News affiliate I visited in Mobil, Alabama, was the perfect example. In many cases reporters are shooting and editing their own stories. Some have shot news pieces solely with a flip cam or iPhone 4 video recorder. When driving between interviews, the reporters are expected to be on the laptop sending back flip cam footage for their website, and breaking stories online rather than keeping it for their TV bulletin later in the day.
This push for 'online first' is not something everyone agrees on. "The biggest threat to newspapers is the disastrous decision by publishers to give away their content on the internet," says the CEO of Newseum Charles Overby. He calls the last decade the "lost decade" for newspapers, represented by the circulation decline across the board in America. The discussion has definitely moved on from whether commercial news providers should charge for online content, to more about how to charge for online content, says Overby adding that publishers need to regain their confidence that people will pay for good content, and likens it to the commercial success of bottled water or cable TV.
This debate and discussion will certainly continue to unfold in coming months and years. There may well be - and many are hoping for - a watershed moment. After all, it was Edward R. Murrow who said "anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation."
Justin Stevens, a producer at the ABC's 7.30 Report, was chosen by the US consulate in Sydney to take part in the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists run by the US State Department, and with the assistance of a US Studies Centre media scholarship.