Forgetting Foreign Affairs

Regular CNN viewers might think that a small group of foreign correspondents normally stationed overseas who were reporting from the States last week were called back home because of the disaster. The truth is more ironic and is one piece of a bigger, troubling trend in US media's foreign coverage.

At least four CNN overseas reporters just happened to be in the U.S. on September 11 because they had been called home to be told that they were either about to lose their jobs, or were going to have to start working from their homes to save the company money.

Foreign news cutbacks are not a recent phenomenon. National newspapers and magazines have shut scores of overseas bureaus in recent years. The cutbacks not only save money for the beancounters but reflect an editorial decision-making process that judges Americans' need to know based on focus groups. This tool of advertisers and political consultants has declared that "serving the public" means more stories about cars, celebrities and cures that don't involve pain. Forget foreign affairs.

The foreign news blackout means that the rest of the world knows far more about America than we know about ourselves, let alone what we know about them. And this triumph of ignorance means that Americans can't even comprehend what motivates those who hate us.

Thanks to these so-called "editorial decisions" at the big news organizations, Americans have little to go on to assess Osama bin Laden, his followers, the Arab people, and the states that we are told by the President harbor the terror networks. The White House would have the public believe that we're hated because we are the land of the free. If only the current state of affairs were so simple.

The last time I visited Baghdad, as a reporter in fall 1998, there wasn't much of a market for a story in the U.S. about bin Laden's popular allure on Arab streets. No matter that he had been the FBI's most wanted man for several years. Editors I worked with then were rarely interested in stories about Arabs that didn't involve an immediate crisis.

But there was a story. On that same trip, I met a young man in Jordan who drives visitors around Amman for a living. One night I asked him what he knew of bin Laden, who at the time had just been the target of an America bombing campaign for allegedly blowing up American embassies in Africa, killing hundreds. I was surprised when the young man's entire voice and demeanor changed.

"Osama bin Laden," he whispered reverentially, dragging out the vowels. "He sleeps under trees. He doesn't care about money or sex. He is pure."

The young man went on to explain that cassette tapes of bin Laden's speeches were quite popular in Amman, easily acquired and passed around among his friends. He also said if the Jordanian police nearby overheard him uttering bin Laden's name to me, he'd be in trouble. Over the next few days, we talked some more about his idol, and I was always shocked by the palpable reverence in which he held bin Laden.

This man was not a terrorist and not a martyr-in-training. He was a practicing Muslim Jordanian with a lot of exposure to Westerners. I learned then that bin Laden's power over him had less to do with the Americans and more to do with intra-Arab politics. In Jordan, where many Palestinian refugees and sympathizers live, he said the Saudi sheiks -- not Israel -- are seen as a major corrupting element among the Muslim population. The oil-rich Saudis practice ascetic restraint at home, but cross the border into Jordan to buy British booze and Iraqi or Jordanian women. My driver said he knew this firsthand.

Many Arabs -- not just bin Laden and his suicidal followers -- view Saudi moral corruption as a cancer on the whole region. From talking to this young man and his friends, I realized that for a significant number of poor Arab Muslims, hatred of America was only one part of bin Laden's complex allure. Curiously -- or perhaps not given their total isolation -- once inside Iraq I didn't find anyone on the streets of Bagdad who had even heard of bin Laden.

But back in the States, a heard-on-the-streets story about this man on the FBI's most wanted list wasn't wanted at all. The lack of interest in Arab affairs that I experienced as a freelance journalist was not just a symptom of the fashion- and buzz-infested glossy magazines. The television networks, newspapers and magazines have all been cutting back on foreign coverage for years. A few months ago, one of the nation's biggest news magazines cut loose a group of reporters, among whom was their most experienced Middle East war hand.

Yet with several years of diminishing foreign coverage behind us, Americans face today's disaster in a knowledge vacuum. Sadly, we have no indication that Bush's advisors are any more informed on the complexities of the Arab region than the general population. Their public statements don't show it. And it doesn't look like the American media is poised to shed much light either as we enter darker days.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine. As a reporter for Time magazine, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.

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