Small Foreign News Staffs Threaten US Democracy

London, United Kingdom – Recently, I sadly said goodbye to former colleagues who were fired in another round of cost cutting by CBS News. The CBS London bureau now stands half empty, and the dwindling band of survivors wonder who will go next.

Now ABC News has announced much deeper cuts. Hundreds of employees will be let go in a wave of corporate bloodletting that will decimate its worldwide staff. The opening announcement of ABC World News still boasts that it comes “from the global resources of ABC News,” but does not mention how thin they now are. NBC News has already cut its overseas operations to the bone.

Here in Britain, even the mighty BBC is said to be planning widespread spending reductions which include closing several radio stations and slashing output on its websites. But these cuts seem minor compared to what is being done to the American news media.

Coverage of foreign news for American audiences has been one of the major casualties and is in danger of disappearing. Each of the mainstream American news broadcasters (with the exception of CNN) now maintains only a handful of full-time foreign correspondents, and does very little original news gathering abroad. Few American newspapers have any foreign correspondents at all.

GlobalPost aims to fill the void in foreign coverage and has hired more than 70 part-time contributors from the small army of American foreign correspondents who are now under- or unemployed. But most will never work again in their field.

I know many of them. They are dedicated professionals whose expertise had to be learned the hard way. Their employers tossed them in the dustbin in pursuit of corporate profits. Their unique knowledge and hands-on experience will be lost forever. (Unless they decide to teach journalism, but where would their students find jobs?)

Broadcast news has taken a big hit in the frenzy of downsizing, but things are no better in the world of American newspapers. In the past two years, they have been shedding more than a thousand employees a month.

In a visit to my hometown of Baltimore last month, I was shocked to see what corporate cost cutting has done to the paper where I began my journalistic career. It was like meeting an old friend who has been mugged and robbed of everything valuable he possessed. The Baltimore Sun now has no foreign correspondents, and only a skeleton domestic staff. And in a final indignity, it has been sliced in half, vertically, which makes it a skinny paper. It looks silly, and you would be silly to spend money buying a copy. You could read it in 10 minutes.

The are a number reasons for the slow death of the mainstream American media. Most of them are economic. The business model is broken. Newspapers are overloaded with debt that was piled on in corporate takeovers. And so on.

Some of the wounds were self-inflicted. The decline in viewers and readers did not happen overnight. It has been going on for two decades, but the big newspapers and networks were complacent, even arrogant. They failed to move with the times and grasp the potential of the internet. Now they are alienating their remaining audience by dumbing down the news to the point where it is no longer worth the time to view or read it, let alone pay for it.

Traditional newspapers and broadcast news still thrive in many other parts of the world, but it may be too late to save the old model of news gathering and delivery in America. At some point in the future, a new model of news will evolve, one that can finance and deliver the full range of worldwide and local reporting that Americans used to get on their doorsteps and on their television sets and radios.

The internet, hand-held devices and gadgets still unknown will all play important roles. But what are Americans to do in the meantime? That’s what disturbs me.

I fear that in the interim, as I wrote in my recent book “Junk News,” our country is in danger of falling into a two-class system for news. There will be a small elite who read highbrow journals and make the effort to search for news on the web from specialized or foreign sources. And there will be the masses who are mesmerized by the daily dumbed-down news, talk shows and trash television, and therefor know little about their own government or the rest of the world.

The elite will be privy to the information they need to face the future, but it’s the masses who elect our presidents and representatives.