Running for the Borders

Six weeks ago, everything outside our own border hardly seemed to matter. Call it the privilege of being an American. Or the demonstration of being arrogant. To live as an American before Sept. 11 was to be aware that CNN was becoming Earth's first omnipresent television network while competing American media outlets were cutting back on their international reporting. Back then, it didn't make much of a difference that a commercial news empire with global reach was being firmly established at the same time that most Americans — and their media companies — were turning away from the rest of the world.

Oddly enough, though, at the same time most news organizations' marketing divisions were polling Americans and finding they were indifferent to, or even supportive of, the reduction in expensive foreign affairs coverage, something I call "news borders" were traveling the opposite track: They were expanding.

What are "news borders"? News borders refer to the consumer's, rather than producer's, side of gathering information, and the increasing ease of finding disparate sources of news outside traditional or local boundaries. Think, for example, about living in New York and taking a friend's e-mailed recommendation about a story online at UK's The Guardian Web site (www.guardian.co.uk). Now, think about doing this 10 years ago.

In recent years, satellites and the Internet have been the two primary technology vehicles for expanding news borders. In the future, broadband and better translation services might push news borders even further.

But while access to the events and opinions that shape this world may certainly be more available, this doesn't quite mean that Americans, in large numbers, have been ready to reach out quite yet. It still, after all, takes effort and motivation to hunt down news sources other than the ordinary ones.

But then, of course, Sept. 11 came.

Suddenly, Americans went from passive consumers of news outside America's borders to active hunters. TV news producers, scrambling for ways to follow the once-neglected and now-hot story of Central Asia and the Gulf states, resorted to all sorts of tricks to feed their public's appetite, including hiring away personnel at rival stations (FoxNews recruited CNN's main man in Afghanistan, Steve Harrigan) and ignoring licensing agreements by patching into Qatar-based Al-Jareeza's television feed.

Meanwhile, the viewing public itself was far from satiated by the offerings of flag-waving TV networks. According to traffic reports from Jupiter Media Metrix, the BBC's online news site (www.bbc.co.uk) has suddenly become quite hot, jumping in American readership by approximately 260 percent since the attacks. DebkaFile (www.debka.com), a Web site devoted to Middle East intelligence, has suddenly become the Drudge Report of the new era. The site, run by a former Economist foreign affairs writer, reports its traffic has tripled in the last month and that Americans make up more than 60 percent of its readership, as opposed to the less than 45 percent before Sept. 11. Even Web sites whose primary language isn't English are reporting increased traffic patterns out of the United States, such as a 68 percent surge in Russia's leading news sites, The Russian Issues (www.smi.ru) and GHU (www.dni.ru) and a fantastic 267 percent growth at Pakistan's the Daily Jang (www.jang.com.pk).

Perhaps what recent interest in international affairs has shown us is that it doesn't really matter that media organizations have pared their foreign operations. Nor might the question of the moment circling in media circles — whether American media outlets should conceal information that threatens American security interests — matter as much either. Expanding news borders may already have provoked the interested to find their information elsewhere.

It's worth pointing out, too, that open news borders are hardly one-way affairs. Reports have shown over the last few weeks that international citizens are finding ways to plug into American news now more than ever, as well. Take the New York Times' Web site (www.nyt.com) as a case study. According to Net Score, nytimes.com in August attracted nearly 2.2-million unique visitors from outside the U.S., who accounted for 26 percent of its total audience. In September, non-U.S. visitors climbed to more than 5.2-million visitors (a 136-percent rise) and accounted for 29 percent of its audience.

For American media corporations worried about the fragmentation of their audience, the fact that whole new audiences are opening up is no small matter and something they will likely try to capitalize on. On the other hand, to capture and build sustainable relationships with international news consumers will require an increased sensitivity these corporations may not be capable of. This week, in comparing the news telecasts of CNN vs. the BBC, the Indian Express, a newspaper based in Bombay, declared CNN "biased" and BBC "balanced." This, despite the fact that Indian Express is probably basing its analysis on the Asian version of CNN, which in trying to appeal to an international audience, broadcasts, among other things, without the American flag waving beneath its call letters.

The privilege of being ignorant may not be as easy as it once was. It remains to be seen, however, whether increased awareness of international affairs will breed increased sensitivity. Now that they know we're watching them, it'd probably help for us to know that they've been watching us.

Eriq Gardner is the New York editor at Upside Magazine.

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