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Eyes wide shut

Why do they hate us so? Today, everybody knows exactly what that sentence means. And they can spout a litany of reasons why they believe that tens of millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of Arab Muslims hate the United States, American society and everything for which they stand.

The reasons have been cited in news stories over the past six weeks. Among them are a perceived bias toward Israel, a belief that America is self-absorbed and morally bankrupt, and the perceived "violation" of Saudi Arabia by U.S. Military forces during the Gulf War just over a decade ago.

But if you had asked that one simple question prior to Sept. 11, most Americans wouldn't have had a clue what you were talking about.

Why? Because Americans' main source of news—the major TV networks—weren't clueing them in. If broadcast and cable networks didn't miss the story outright, they certainly underreported it, for reasons that are not cut-and-dried. Some observers say it has to do with the general trend toward less international coverage on the part of the networks. Others attribute it to TV's interest in airing stories they believe viewers want to see, a list that includes the on-going Israel-Palestine struggle but did not include the shifting sands of the Arab world's sentiment toward the U.S.

"I think all of us could have done better reporting on international affairs, foreign news as it used to be called," concedes CBS News anchor Dan Rather. "I think we could have done better reporting more on the warnings that were given by any number of people in and around our own government going back to the 1980s."

It's no secret, the major broadcast news networks have cut back on international-news coverage over the past 15 years, both to save money and to focus more on domestic issues, which is what they think most viewers find most interesting.

Andrew Tyndall, the New York-based network-news-content analyst, says that TV news has not cut back on its coverage of terrorism. "But beneath the surface," he says, "the interest in the politics of the Arab and Muslim World, that's certainly been overlooked."

Even in the "golden age" of international coverage 20 to 30 years ago, Tyndall contends, "it wasn't like you were getting a lot of coverage about Pakistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It was cold-war coverage."

In an article in The Washington Post, PBS President Pat Mitchell pondered the implications of TV's cutback in foreign- news coverage in favor of news about celebrities and reality shows.

Asked whether she believes American TV missed the big story, she says, "I certainly agree that there was a lack of information, knowledge and understanding of the unprecedented hate we felt so instantly and tragically" with the terrorist attack.

"I saw evidence of it all around me, people who had very little knowledge of who bin Laden or the Taliban were and what their rule meant in Afghanistan," she continues. "You have to look at the sources of information, whether it's TV news or news magazines or whoever is charged with informing the citizenry, and look at where the gaps were, and there were certainly some significant gaps."

The media "let the balance slip," she adds. "We were clearly doing a lot more entertaining than we were doing informing. We were certainly pandering more than we were serving."

Scottie Williston, visiting professor, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a former NBC News and CBS News producer, is highly critical of networks' international coverage, particularly of the Arab world. "I think the networks have done a horrible job of coverage, but it was bound to happen when they listened to consultants deciding that the American public didn't want to hear international news.

"They closed bureaus to save money," adds Williston, a former Cairo bureau chief for CBS News. "Now they have people fly in, stand in front of the camera and do their little bit, and fly out. The reason coverage was much better at one time was because you had people on the ground."

Tom Wolzien, media analyst with Wall Street firm Sanford Bernstein and a former NBC News vice president, says Williston raises a valid point. "Certainly, if you have people you know and trust on the ground feeding information into the news mill, you'd probably have a better flow of intelligence and awareness of what's going on in a place. It's an early-alert process by which you detect stories. That doesn't necessarily mean that it gets on the air. But it's certainly is a starting point."

And clearly the networks were not all over the story of Arab antipathy toward the U.S, he says. "Absolutely not."

"I think it's a very legitimate question," says Tom Yellin, executive producer for Peter Jennings Reporting, a series of specials that has addressed Middle East issues. "But it's more complicated than just cutting back bureaus and whether or not viewers want this kind of information."

Yellin has spent much of his 20-plus years in TV news covering the Middle East. "I think the world has changed in the last few years. I'm surprised at the breadth of the anti-American feeling, and I think it's a new phenomenon that stems from the combination of the failure of the peace process and the resulting second intifada. There is also the lingering problem of our friends in the region not being democratic countries and our enemies being extremely outspoken. It's not just a case of failing to pay attention. It takes awhile to catch on."

NBC Senior Vice President Bill Wheatley agrees that some criticism of the way the networks have covered the broader Arab-world issues is valid. "We've done a lot less than we might have on explaining the extent and reasons for the dislike of America." But it's difficult to sort out, he says: "It differs from person to person and country to country. It's complicated, but the criticism is a fair one."

Someone once said "the past is a foreign country," Rather notes. "They did things differently there. That's the way it is with us. I think we're aware of our shortcomings. I think we'll do better reporting in these areas."

Stung by the attacks of Sept. 11, the American public is demanding and getting plenty of news from the Arab world. Will it last? In large part, the answer lies with the media, says PBS's Mitchell. "Media people need to be asking themselves what can we do to sustain this interest in the rest of the world."

Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, says that the networks might have to do no more than what they have been doing: following viewer interest. "Americans are riveted and obsessed with these issues. The networks don't intend to permanently beef up foreign coverage, but they may have to whether they like it or not."

Additional reporting by John M. Higgins