The International Reporting Project, which supported the work of 651 writers in more than 115 countries for over two decades, announced in January that it would shut its doors. At virtually the same moment, Foreign Policy laid off its foreign editors. John Maxwell Hamilton observed in his 2009 history of American foreign reporting, Journalism’s Roving Eye, that “all the problems of journalism are magnified in foreign news-gathering.” It is expensive, time-consuming, and challenging to edit, since the expertise usually flows in one direction. What’s more—and Hamilton resorts to considerable understatement here—journalists “must put this news in context for an audience with a limited appetite for foreign affairs, which makes the high cost of foreign correspondence particularly vulnerable to cost cutting.”
Same as it ever was, you might say. But the profession’s metastasizing economic crisis has exacerbated the problem. In 2014, a Pew study estimated that between 2003 and 2010 foreign reporting was cut by 24 percent. Going back a bit further, a Tyndall study of US network television found just one-third as much foreign reporting reaching viewers in 2016 compared with 1998.
Of course, 2017 brought its own combination of crises. The news media’s obsession with the ignorant blowhard/con man/pathological liar/racist/sexual predator/serial tweeter occupying the White House has provided a body blow to a patient already on life support. Nathalie Applewhite, managing director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, told Yardena Schwartz of the Columbia Journalism Review that these days, even when the costs are covered, the center’s grantees often cannot place their pieces. Commitments to publish and produce are scarce, and those reports already agreed to remain “on the shelf,” often indefinitely, as Trump dominates the news cycle like a never-ending hurricane.
Keep in mind that foreign reporting can be dangerous, especially for freelancers trying to do work that is no longer in the budgets of the increasingly rare foreign bureaus. Last year ended with 46 journalists killed and 262 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. (This is a smaller number than in 2016, reflecting the fact that there are fewer journalists covering these stories.)
Independent journalists are particularly vulnerable due to their lack of institutional affiliation, and they make up approximately one-third of those imprisoned or killed. Numerous critics have noted that Trump’s constant attacks on “fake news” and on the media as the “enemy of the people” have emboldened foreign dictators to take out their own frustrations on journalists reporting on corruption and/or massacres. We saw a textbook case of this when CNN International reported on the slave trade in Libya, only to be met with attacks on Libyan TV quoting none other than the current US president. These came, it must be noted, without any alternative evidence or, apparently, any perceived need for it. There are now countless phony news sources ready to muddy the truth on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere in the service of these autocrats, as well as of our own.
The president is right, for once, when he brags about how much he’s done for the news business. An NPR report calculated that, in 2016, CNN could expect to take in $100 million more than it otherwise would have enjoyed during a normal election year, thanks to you-know-who. The New York Times recently crowed about having crossed the billion-dollar mark in subscription revenue; this is a historic reversal in the newspaper business, which has typically relied far more on advertising than on reader support. As the Times’ former executive editor, Jill Abramson, wrote last year, “Every time I hear him tweet about the ‘failing @nytimes’ or use the shopworn sobriquet ‘fake news,’ I also hear the ka-ching of the so-called ‘Trump bump.’” And as CBS chair Les Moonves famously quipped in February 2016, Trump “may not be good for America, but [he] is damn good for CBS.”
Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center conducted a study of news coverage of the administration’s first 100 days and found that Trump was “the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents. He was also the featured speaker in nearly two-thirds of his coverage.” Moreover, just as so many in the mainstream media allowed Trump’s lies and racist, sexist rants to go unchallenged or uncorrected during the 2016 campaign (even as they obsessed about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails), Republicans, according to Patterson, accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers have said about the Trump presidency. Democrats, by contrast, had only 6 percent of the sound bites about Trump, and those involved in anti-Trump protests were limited to only 3 percent.
One cannot help but sympathize with those news programs and publications that feel a need to focus almost exclusively on the president. As we know, Trump has the capacity to blow up the entire planet, and it’s far from a sure thing that he won’t actually do it. Trump’s stupid actions, together with those of his incompetent and malevolent appointees, have made the world a far more dangerous place. They have vastly increased the prospects of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and multiple conflagrations between Israel and at least four neighboring nations—to say nothing of the credible evidence that the administration would welcome a war with Iran. They have stood by as genocide unfolds in Myanmar; encouraged mass murder by the Saudis in Yemen; and given the go-ahead for a takeover of Saudi Arabia by an out-of-control young prince engaged in a hostage-taking and shakedown operation against his political adversaries. Plus Trump may yet succeed in starting a trade war with China—and those are just the things we know about. We only found out that our soldiers were fighting in Niger because four of them were ambushed and killed there. We seldom hear about happenings in places where the story has no Trump hook. We don’t know what we don’t know. And that is what’s most worrisome of all.