LAST month I spoke to a local organization on the problems of the United States in a disordered world. As is often the case, whether the subject be Bosnia, Somalia, Russia, or the Middle East, one series of questions inevitably arises:
What about the media? Do they have too much influence? Are they biased? Do they give us the truth? The answer is not simple; the media are not monolithic. In the US, the term covers nearly 2,000 daily newspapers, several news magazines, hundreds of radio stations, private newsletters, and a growing number of TV channels.
But certain aspects are common to all in coverage of international events. The rapid dissemination of vivid images through TV, augmented by fuller accounts in print, undoubtedly influences the foreign-policy process. Few believe that the US would have entered Somalia in 1992 had it not been for television coverage of the famine. Again, US policy toward Bosnia stiffened after pictures of the shelling of the market in Sarajevo were shown.
Are such pictures accurate? They show what the camera sees, but the presence of TV crews can stimulate crowds and actions that distort the total picture. And print reports are limited by the reporter's location, by access to sources, problems of language, local restrictions on the press, and danger. On a given day, news reports present only part of what is happening in the world. What news organizations cover may be based on what the competition is doing, access, and cost. Somalia was accessible; equally tragic circumstances in southern Sudan received little attention. In areas of bitter conflict, truly balanced accounts may be hard to find.
Opinions do enter into talk shows and the opinion pages. The free American society is awash with information and opinion. If the full picture does not emerge, it may be because interviewers, seeking the interesting answer rather than the informative one, fail to draw out what the experts do know.
More serious bias creeps in when news organizations enter societies where their presence is tightly controlled and entry is conditioned on not asking embarrassing questions. The picture presented may serve the closed regime more than it serves the cause of free expression. Media organizations also seek out controversial figures, such as Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Such figures do create news, but press curiosity may give them undue prominence.
In Washington, journalists covering foreign policy are swayed by the scandal of the moment, whether they are driven by the urge to be investigative reporters or competition. To the foreigner - and to many Americans - the sight of the Washington press corps in the March 24 White House press conference was bizarre: Reporters peppered the president with questions on income taxes and investment when Mexico was in turmoil, Yeltsin's whereabouts were in doubt, and efforts to resolve the Middle East crisis were threatened by the Hebron massacre.
Producers and editors make the final news choices based on what they consider important and of interest to their audiences. They - and those who wish for a broader picture of the international scene - face the reality that many people follow foreign affairs only in times of crisis.
The news media - even in the US - are never likely to have the resources to bring a total picture of the world's daily events to readers and listeners. Areas where crises are building may escape attention. But a picture of reasonable breadth does emerge, despite the limitations imposed by commercial considerations, access, space and time. Even given failures and distortions, it is hard to conceive of alternatives that would better serve a free people.