October 18, 2002

Alumus Discusses Pre-Sept. 11 Media

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James Branegan ’72, former White House and foreign correspondent for TIME Magazine, spoke about the interaction between American media and foreign policy yesterday in a lecture entitled “MIA: Where was the media before Sept. 11?” at the weekly Peace Studies Program Brown Bag Seminar. Branegan’s lunchtime discussion in Uris Hall highlighted a worrisome decline in coverage of foreign affairs by the media, and explored possible causes and consequences.

“Most of the news business has turned its back on foreign reporting,” said Branegan. “The only thing it hasn’t turned its back on are what we call the ‘bang, bang’ stories about war, terror, death, and destruction – stories with really good pictures,” he said.

Branegan has worked for TIME Inc. since 1981, and used TIME Magazine as an example of the decrease in foreign reporting. According to Branegan, in the 30 issues from Jan. 1 of last year until Sept. 11, TIME had only one cover story on a foreign topic, “Aids in Africa.” There were also only three covers about national-political stories, and “all of the rest were stuff about kids, beauty, fashion – all of the things that are the staples now instead of what used to be serious journalism,” Branegan said.

Since Sept.11, however, there has been an upsurge in interest in foreign news by the American public, and the current question is whether it will last. Branegan is convinced that it is “only a temporary phenomenon.”

According to Branegan, the press did a very good job of covering the details surrounding Sept. 11, including foreign reporting about Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that should have been done much sooner.

The Sept. 11 crisis coverage demonstrated the press’s strength of working a spotlight.

“The press can throw a bright light on one thing at a time, but unfortunately the spotlight moves on,” Branegan said. “A lot of people believe that interest in foreign news is really going to be limited to this terrorism thing,” he added.

Branegan doesn’t anticipate the media returning to the broad-based coverage of foreign events that was seen during the Cold War, when Americans paid considerable attention to what was going on overseas. As a result, media coverage will continue to be surprised by international crises, not anticipated by them.

Again referring to TIME Magazine, Branegan suggested that the future of news coverage can be predicted by looking at TIME’s recent cover stories. “This year TIME has run 12 covers on terrorism and Iraq, and all the rest have been fluff about vegetarianism, yoga, and Dr. Phil, for example. It’s gong to be either terror or fluff, and very little in between,” he concluded.

But why has foreign media coverage decreased so significantly? According to Branegan, when he arrived at TIME, there were 90 correspondents and 30 of them were overseas. Today, there are fewer than 50 correspondents with only 6 overseas. “People want to have foreign coverage in their news magazines, but they aren’t necessarily going to read it,” remarked Branegan. “It is all part of the attitude that people aren’t paying at the news stand for foreign coverage.”

Daniel Pearlstein ’05 commented on the subject after the discussion wrapped up. “I thought it was a very good presentation, but I wish he would have offered some solutions,” said Pearlstein. “I think that the media has done an awful job in recent years and that this is a very, very serious problem,” he added.

Archived article by Adrianne Kroepsch