April 12, 2008 | Op-ed

Foreign Policy Shouldn’t be Based on U.S.-centric Coverage


In a word, no.

If there’s anything more terrifying than a country run by politicians, it’s the vision of foreign policy run by reporters – even allowing for the virtues of the American press, which, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, is the worst system, except for all the others.

Most debate about the media and its interplay with foreign policy turns on whether the media are biased to right or left, too little focused on foreign affairs, too fixated on some stories or too much driven by short news cycles. My own view is that there’s an understandable but unfortunate tilt to media coverage that tends to place American actions at the center of the universe, which is not always how it looks from abroad.

For instance, there is quite a disconnect from global realities when, thanks to saturation coverage, almost every American knows the name Abu Ghraib, but few know anything about some of the most enduring hellholes with which some of the world’s worst tyrants keep their populations in line. How much U.S. press coverage is devoted to Tadmur Prison (Syria), Abu Salim prison (Libya) or even Evin Prison (Iran)?

But a deeper point, often lost in the fray, is that in any free society, the government and the Fourth Estate have basically different missions – respectively, public and private. In a democracy, the government holds a broad public trust, with direct consequences on the ground, and correspondingly direct responsibilities. The president, the cabinet, Congress, the courts and the surrounding functionaries preside in various ways over everything from the spending of public money, signing of treaties and jailing of wrongdoers to the fighting of wars.

The news industry, by contrast, is a multibillion-dollar business, most of it privately owned. Indeed, private ownership of the media, with the resulting competition among different voices, is a basic requirement for the healthy workings of any free society. A state in which news coverage resides exclusively or even mainly in government hands is either well on its way to despotism (today’s Russia) or has arrived (China or, at the extreme, North Korea).

In America, most news outlets – however lofty their goals – are ultimately in the business of making money or going under. In the case of specialized policy publications, which tend to be money-losers subsidized by private outfits or wealthy individuals, the goals may center more on the chosen message than the money; nonetheless, it is private interests that are being served.

That may sound indelicate, in light of the dedication, absurd hours and personal risks that many reporters regard as part of the job. The good news is that among media outlets that make money by trying to satisfy a demand for integrity, there is plenty of pressure to produce coverage, which to the extent that it provides an accurate and useful picture of world events, serves the public interest.

Reporters operate with an agility and freedom that government bureaucracies do not enjoy. They can walk into places forbidden to diplomats, ask questions off limits to prosecutors, challenge policy, expose corruption and write or broadcast their stories and opinions without necessarily having to solve the issues they raise. That is the politician’s job.

So, journalism has a vital part to play in American foreign policy decision-making. But as a basis for it – please, no.