Editorial: The Need for Foreign Intelligence

International news is crucial, as is finding time on the schedules to air it
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Osama bin Laden is dead. We’re guessing many of us will remember when and how we first heard that sentence, whether someone told us, we saw it on TV, or found out via text, tweet or some other means of communication.

But chances are once you heard it, you raced to a television. Because for most of us of a certain age, that is what you do. And when we did, for the most part we were greeted by the news business at its best.

This space for years—make that decades—has been used as a clarion call to the importance of the television news business. More recently, it has banged the drum (or perhaps we should say blew the vuvuzela) for the importance of international news coverage, which has in many respects increasingly fallen victim in recent years to a combination of budget slashing and a lack of ratings to support a steady flow of worldly happenings.

So, as a steady stream of world-shaking stories have taken center stage in recent months, from the Middle East to Japan to a bunkered mansion in Pakistan, it gives us the excuse to mount our soapbox and sound the horn yet again about the crucial nature of strong news divisions with strong presences around the world.

It was a striking juxtaposition last week, with the bin Laden assassination coming just days after the international news media had come together en masse to cover a wedding in Great Britain. To direct resources to cover William and Kate was quite easy, as not only would it inevitably deliver solid ratings but it was monetizable as well. Keeping close eyes on hot spots around the world often guarantees neither.

With massive international operations or affiliations, outlets like CNN and Fox News are built for speed in these circumstances. It is a bigger test for the broadcast nets. But more than half the battle is showing up. ABC gets an extra pat on the back for staying on the air with the bin Laden story the night of his death after some others had thrown back to regular programming.

As the hour chimed midnight on the East Coast and crowds were celebrating at the White House and Times Square, CBS and NBC ended coverage on their broadcast outlets, smack in the middle of primetime out West. NBC sent viewers— and Brian Williams—over to cable outlet MSNBC,which was fine for those who have cable, but millions don’t. One of our West Coast staffers lamented reading on Twitter how great the work of Jim Miklaszewski was, but being unable to see it from a hotel room that didn’t have MSNBC.

CBS, unfortunately, forced viewers who had enjoyed the great work by a returning Lara Logan and the CBS News team to take their business elsewhere (yet another reason a CBS-CNN partnership of some sort makes sense).

Meanwhile, ABC stuck it out and earned kudos for what one of their execs said was an “easy call.”

We don’t mean to make too big a deal out of a single hour, but when ABC has bin Laden coverage while the CBS and NBC networks were airing reality shows that could easily be postponed, Disney deserves a salute and the others get a disappointed shake of the head.

We know it is easy for us to sit here and say there should be more international news coverage without providing a business model when the costs tend to far outweigh the revenue—and especially the viewer interest.

But we don’t care. Actually, the point is that we do care. It’s our job to counsel our friends at the networks that there is value beyond the bottom line in keeping close tabs on events abroad in a world whose national boundaries and interests are being blurred by the instant connection of digital media. Or, we could say, do you really want us learning everything from Twitter?

So we are yet again leaping at the opportunity to subtly (in that vuvuzela sort of way) remind the networks that international news is crucial, as is finding time on the schedules to air it.


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