For those of us who have complained about the dumbing-down of news on television, declared journalism dead or carped about too few women in leading roles on TV news programs, it's time to celebrate: Beginning in August, ABC News will put Christiane Amanpour in the host chair of its Sunday morning talk show "This Week."
There are naysayers. Tom Shales, the Washington Post's TV critic, lampooned the choice of the veteran CNN foreign correspondent, suggesting that Amanpour would seem the "opposite of the perfect candidate" because the Sunday show "deals mainly in domestic politics and inside-the-Beltway-palaver."
Meantime, some ABC News staffers were reportedly bitter over the selection. At a time when the network's news division is trimming staff, Amanpour is rumored to be getting $2 million a year to host the show.
But the controversy that has welled up over the admittedly unlikely selection of Amanpour to moderate a Washington-centric show involves more than a personality. There is a huge hole in television news that has been growing during the last decade: international coverage. As have most newspapers, the broadcast and cable networks have dramatically cut back their foreign coverage, shuttering overseas bureaus to save money. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a 19-minute nightly network newscast includes, on average, just 3.5 minutes of foreign news, less than 20% of the total.
This has led to a strange situation. The word "globalization" has entered the daily lexicon. What happens overseas increasingly affects our nation. But Americans cannot learn much about a foreign news story -- save for such calamities as the earthquake off Haiti -- by watching broadcast and cable TV news.
The presence of Amanpour on "This Week" can help return foreign news to the stage it deserves -- and Americans need.
A defender of the Sunday-talk-show status quo might say that Americans don't care about foreign news. Perhaps so. But the reason may be that international coverage focuses too heavily on exploding bombs and flying bullets and not enough on the human side of conflict or controversy. That emphasis, according to a research project conducted at the USC Annenberg School, is connected to the gender of the foreign correspondent. My colleague and I found that female war correspondents tended to emphasize the human side of events in their reportage, while their male colleagues filed many more stories on weapons and strategy.
A cursory look at Amanpour's award-winning 18-year career as a foreign correspondent supports these research findings. She has covered famine and genocide. In Bosnia, she reported on horrific mass rapes, and while other correspondents covered the rape story too, Amanpour relentlessly pursued the Balkans battlefield story, which featured her reporting on war-scarred children in orphanages. When all Western leaders, including then-President Clinton, were doing nothing to stop the four-year-old conflict that had killed thousands, Amanpour challenged Clinton: Why had he found it so hard to articulate a plan to help end the Balkan war?
Amanpour's approach to foreign news is tailor-made to stir up viewer interest.
If you have any remaining doubt that Amanpour has the potential to take "This Week" to a higher level than political gossip and recycled talking points, consider what Ted Koppel brought to "Nightline" after making his career overseas; what Peter Jennings delivered to ABC's "World News Tonight" after years of postings from abroad; and what Bob Simon -- widely considered one of the best foreign correspondents ever (disclosure: he's a former CBS colleague) -- now brings to "60 Minutes."
They all brought solid reporting -- not the punditry of the moment -- to the foreign news that increasingly affects us all -- and they attracted lots of viewers.
With Amanpour at the helm, "This Week" viewers may learn about the crisis in the euro zone and how it may affect our economic recovery. They may hear of Beijing's continuing and often disturbing quest to buy all of the world's energy resources (most recently an oil company in Argentina). They may meet the leaders of Brazil, India, even China. Amanpour's career includes interviews with the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, among others.
Even better, Amanpour, as promised, may take viewers on a road trip, to places where the U.S. is still considered the world's policeman -- to the Balkans and to South Korea. The parents of men and women serving in the U.S. Armed Services might be able to tune into a program and learn about what their kids are fighting for.
This week, President Obama talked with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the phone for an hour. News reports said the conversation came amid signs that tension between the two countries is easing, a significant departure from what had been an increasingly acerbic relationship.
But on "This Week" 's Roundtable discussion on Sunday, it was not mentioned.
August is too long to wait for Amanpour.
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