Frank E. Loy
Under Secretary for Global Affairs
U.S. Department of State
Remarks at German Marshall Fund's Peter Weitz Award Dinner
Washington, DC, June 12, 2000
I must confess I don't know Steve Erlanger. But he has been described to me as a rather humble and self-effacing fellow. And also as someone with an affection for cats.
Well, we all have our faults.
The fact is, Mr. Erlanger is a distinguished journalist for perhaps the most influential newspaper in the world, and as such deserves a certain deference. So I'm not going to dwell on the cat thing.
This evening is significant for two reasons.
One, it honors Peter Weitz in a particularly meaningful and appropriate way. His hunger for news, for facts and, above all, for ideas and analysis was huge. He valued individuals who provided those ingredients, and would value a prize that rewards the purveyors of news, analysis and ideas.
I might add that he would also have liked the fact that the program named for him is a competition. He was pretty competitive, and he admired competitors.
The second reason is that he was totally aware of the penalty we pay as a nation for inadequate international news coverage.
I want to talk more about the latter point in a minute. But first, let's congratulate the winners.
Both Steve Erlanger and the Business Week team of journalists richly deserve commendation for their work.
Steve's coverage of events in the Balkans has been intrepid and courageous, his stories well-written, richly detailed and insightful.
I'm told that when all the foreign press was kicked out of Belgrade, Steve was back within 48 hours, well before anyone else. And, he was the first foreign correspondent to go into Kosovo after the bombing ended and before the refugees started pouring back into the province.
And this he did at no little risk to his personal safety. I think we tend not to appreciate how dangerous journalism can be at times. Steve might well have suffered the same fate that befell Kurt Schork of Reuters last month -- killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone. Nonetheless, he risked life and limb in order to tell the world of the atrocious goings-on in Yugoslavia, and for that he deserves not just this award, but also our deep respect and admiration.
The Business Week team's report on the state of Europe ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall was also outstanding. The sheer volume of this package of articles was impressive in itself. But the judges found as well that Business Week's coverage clearly stood out from many similar reports that appeared around the 10-year anniversary in terms of comprehensiveness and insightfulness. I think even the most knowledgeable Europhiles stood to learn a lot from these stories.
As outstanding as the work of these journalists has been, the sad fact is that coverage of foreign affairs in the American press is in serious decline, and has been for some time. With a few exceptions, newspapers, magazines, TV networks and radio stations across the country have drastically cut back on the amount of space and airtime they devote to foreign news.
I want to emphasize that I'm talking only about quantity here. I won't address the question of quality, for obvious reasons.
Some surveys have been done on this question, and they all have reached the same depressing conclusion.
One, sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found that the amount of airtime network news programs devoted to foreign news fell from 45 percent in the 1970s to 13.5 percent in 1995.
Research into newspaper coverage of foreign affairs is more spotty, but what there is shows a similar trend. For example, a California State University journalism professor found that the space devoted to foreign news in 10 major papers fell from 10.2 percent in the early 70s -- when we were at war -- to 2.6 percent at the end of the 1980s.
At the State Department, the corps of reporters who cover us on a regular basis has shrunk. Today, only handful of press outlets station someone there full-time. The American Journalism Review found that 13 major papers and news services had either severely curtailed or eliminated their coverage of the Department.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution has been watching this trend for some time, and he wrote a book about it -- International News and Foreign Correspondents -- published in 1996.
Basically, he found that newspapers, even some big ones, give scant coverage to anything that happens overseas other than war, famine and natural disasters.
On the other hand, one could make the case that foreign news today is available in larger quantities than ever before; the Internet offers immediate access to newspapers and other news sources all around the world. Cable and satellite TV programming helps to fill the void left by the near abandonment of foreign news by other media. But those sources are only available to those who have access, and know what they're looking for and where to find it.
The reasons for all this are many, complicated and debatable. They're the stuff of Columbia University graduate seminars, so I won't try to parse them here.
Nor is my purpose to preach or to scold. It is simply to point out what I see as a significant problem.
Why is it significant?
Because as we enter the 21st Century, we face a paradox in terms of our place in the world.
On the one hand, we have no hostile neighbors who threaten our security, and two oceans separate us from everybody else; no foreign soldier has fired a shot on the American mainland since the War of 1812; we emerge victorious from the Cold War and are now the world's only superpower, the object of envy and awe throughout the world.
So, there is a troubling ideological strain running through our society. It is not isolationism, but rather a belief that we have earned the moral authority to have our way in the world and we shouldn't have to cooperate with the UN or compromise with foreign governments to get what we want.
But at the same time, thanks to the forces of globalization, the economic and political fortunes of the United States are perhaps more vulnerable to the effects of distant events than ever before. And, we are today heavily dependant on the cooperation and good will of others to protect our vital national interests.
Consider climate change, for example. This is a truly global problem that neither this nor any single country can solve unilaterally. The same is true of the explosive growth of international organized crime, the continuing unsustainable growth of the human population, the on-going diminution of the world's biodiversity. These are global problems and they require global solutions.
Unfortunately, though, the paucity of foreign news one finds in the American press today only fertilizes the growth of a go-it-alone ideology and deprives Americans of the facts they need to be able to understand that we must play an active role on the world stage, working and cooperating with others to solve common problems.
About 20 years ago, when I was President of the German Marshall Fund, we decided to lend some support to National Public Radio, in part by funding its London bureau.
I like to think that GMF's support bears some responsibility, however small, for NPR's extensive foreign affairs coverage.
Are there other ways that civil society can make contributions toward the betterment of foreign news coverage, other than by simply calling attention to the current dearth of it?
Certainly, the establishment of the award we are presenting tonight and, one hopes, others like it, can only help. I hope other foundations and associations will think about how they might encourage a greater commitment to the very important business of reporting the news from beyond our borders.
I congratulate the German Marshall Fund for its contribution. And I congratulate tonight's winners for their outstanding work.
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