WAR IS EXCITING. Rebuilding a war-torn country is not. Will the media continue to cover Iraq once the shooting stops? Or will they scale back their coverage, leaving it to, say, the inside pages of the New York Times, as has been the case with Afghanistan and, before that, Kosovo?
" I think now that the shooting seems to be winding down and the story seems to be becoming a political story, you can expect to see a lot fewer resources spent on people, and the coverage will become more broad-gauged, " says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. " I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of important domestic issues that have been overlooked in the fury of war, such as the economy, homeland security, things like that.... We’ve now had a hugely intense period of anxiety. I think people are going to do what they usually do after anxiety like that, which is, effectively, to have a drink. "
As for how aggressively and how well the media are likely to cover the rebuilding of Iraq, Jones says, " I’m not optimistic. But I decline to make a judgment before something happens. "
Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, also at Harvard, says that newspapers, in particular, spent a lot of money on covering the war at a time when many of them couldn’t afford it. Now, he predicts, owners will look to make back some of that money. " There will be a lot of pressure to pay back the news hole that’s been consumed by newspapers during the fighting phase of the war, " he says. Giles laments that, with too many newspapers, foreign news is such a low priority that editors are reluctant even to run relatively inexpensive wire coverage of international news.
Yet the public’s lack of interest in foreign coverage may be exaggerated. Matt Storin, who was editor of the Globe during what was perhaps the most fallow period for foreign news in the post–World War II era (1993 through mid 2001), acknowledges that international coverage can be a hard sell for readers. But, he adds, " to the extent that you can, you should remain committed to foreign affairs. " And though Storin — now the associate vice-president for news and information at the University of Notre Dame — says foreign news will never be the best-read part of the paper, it was always clear to him that readers were glad it was there.
" I did feel that Bostonians of many stripes — for all the complaints they had about ‘the fucking Globe,’ which sometimes seems to be its full name — they take pride, even if they don’t read the stories, in having a newspaper that is not provincial in that regard, " Storin says.
Unfortunately, we are now heading into a much less whiz-bang, but no less crucial, part of the Iraq enterprise — and the odds are that the media will start to tune out. In large part that’s because in covering foreign news, the media rarely set their own agenda, preferring to focus on the priorities of the administration in power.
Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report tracks news-coverage trends by the three major television networks, has found, for example, that foreign-news coverage declined steadily from 1989 through ’96 — reflecting the domestic priorities of the Clinton years — and stayed at that depressed level until 2000, when it dropped again, a reflection of a presidential campaign in which neither of the two major-party candidates spent much time discussing foreign policy. Even though foreign-news coverage rebounded in the post-9/11 year of 2002, Tyndall found that it was " still only a little more than half the peak seen in 1989. "
Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, at Syracuse University, says that the question now is whether the media will hang in for the next phase of the story. " This is going to be one of the best tests: whether 21st-century American journalism can do what it has to do to inform and educate, " Thompson says. What lies ahead, he notes, is the " long, drawn-out, and — let’s face it — not very visually compelling story of rebuilding the Iraqi government and keeping all those kinds of dynamic powers in some kind of equilibrium. "
He adds: " They’re not the kind of stories that keep you glued to the set. This is the kind of stuff that doesn’t lend itself to a Toby Keith or a Lee Greenwood song. "
Yet what’s at stake is not just the possibility of democracy in Iraq, but the future of democracy in the United States. Real democracy involves a lot more than voting — it involves a public willing and able to inform themselves about vital issues so that elections can be more than mere popularity-and-sound-bite contests.
That’s a role only the media can fill. Whether they will, of course, is another matter altogether.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com
Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.