12/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Is Back, Now the Hard Part

PARIS - A poker-faced French border cop actually cracked a faint smile as he hefted my U.S. passport. Euphoria must fade inevitably in hard light but, even here, America is back.
It was that simple. A convincing plurality showed a doubtful world that the United States they once respected -- however grudgingly, at times -- still has a heart and a soul.

The question, after an eight-year break from reality, is how much is left of its brain?
For most of the world, it wasn't so much that Barack Obama is half black and all not-Bush. People heard his message: Think one planet. Listen to others. Watch out with that big stick.
Now they are waiting for us to act beyond our borders.

Americans, mostly, want to do the right thing. But so many have tuned out, letting news coverage shrink while schools dumb down, that we no longer know what the right thing is.
Obama's message resonates so loudly because a world in trouble desperately misses the nation that once took on greater responsibilities than its own narrow interest.

Yet however good our intentions, we can't fix a globe we don't understand. Americans pay scant attention to vital details abroad. We simplify complexity to nonsense, forgetting that real human beings are involved, and they take things personally.

At best, this creates bad will. It can also mean a half million needless Iraqi deaths, whole regions in violent turmoil, squandered trillions, and a world in fear of looming depression.
Our folly has caused terrorist ranks to swell with people whose grandsons will hate us. The Taliban is not only taking back Afghanistan but also threatens a nuclear-tipped Pakistan.
Any nation, let alone a superpower, needs credible news outlets -- mainstream and marginal -- to define what really matters. Headlines mean nothing without details and context.

Yet editors are closing bureaus, replacing seasoned hands with untested stringers who don't challenge their misperceptions. And, increasingly, what is reported ends up on the spike.
A Project for Excellence in Journalism study shows foreign news filled only 10.7 percent of the U.S. media news hole from Jan. 1 to July 30; much of that was on China. Of that fraction, 7.6 percent was about Iraq and half of that about Afghanistan.

For the week of Nov. 9-15, only one foreign story surfaced, at 2 percent: violence flared again in Iraq. Newsroom floors awash in blood should scare us a lot more than phantom terrorists.
It is simple: if foreign correspondents are not there, we're not there. Instead, editors and commentators guess at reality from a distance. That is how Iraq happened. What's next?
I banged this alarm last year in a book, Escaping Plato's Cave. Since then, much is dramatically worse. Yet there is also fresh promise. For Obama to succeed, we need to rethink "media."
First, consider why this is so important.

Joe the plumber was a silly sidelight. In the real world, who counts are key players like Vladimir the Gasman. Russia is back, too. Putin's authoritarian state is not the old Evil Empire. Yet in the ways that affect daily Western lives, it is a greater threat. Jab a stick at any sort of bear (except maybe a polar bear; they've got enough problems). Its reaction will explain the Georgia smackdown -- and why Europe's response was so muted. Already humiliated by Bill Clinton, who led it around by the nose, Russia saw George Bush's ideologues arm its neighbors, threaten its borders, and cut petroleum deals in its backyard.

Russia pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia and is after vast Arctic reserves. By shutting off the gas, it can freeze Europe overnight. Germany and France, among others, are eager to trade. A hard-minded Kremlin is ready for serious poker and flush with chips. This is no game for inattentive amateurs.

On climate change, our greatest challenge, Beijing called Washington's bluff. China is now the planet's biggest polluter, but it blames crises today on past offenders. Unless the United States and Europe commit one percent of their wealth toward reversing atmospheric damage, the Chinese say, emerging industrial powers are off the hook. Then there is the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and all the rest. The world is not really flat. If we don't understand its curvatures, every misstep comes around to bite us.

Some avaricious owners are to blame. But others who try hard are faced with a populace that, increasingly, wants its news for free. Guessing from a distance is cheap. But a trained reporter who gets close enough to see it and smell costs some employers upwards of $250,000 a year. Intrepid freelancers help. But they cannot replace newspapers, agencies, and broadcasters, which depend on proven credibility.

Excellent correspondents are out there, but you have to find them amid all the Internet babble. Commentators from Olbermann to O'Reilly rely on real reporters like the rest of us.
Some old models can be fixed; others are beyond repair. Most "media" are businesses that give what they think consumers want. If they detect a taste for real news, they will change.
So, what to do?

For starters, realize that real news has a value like a gallon of gas or a pound of flour. Reporters have to go get it, and editors need to make sure it is accurate. The New York Times still watches the world. But so many people read it free online that it must cut its newsgathering budget. Buy the real thing; it is cheaper than a cup of coffee. The cornerstone is America's news supermarket, a non-profit cooperative that is more vital to our wellbeing than the Defense Department: The Associated Press.

AP dates back to 1848 when newspapers pooled resources to cover news beyond their reach. These days, when so many papers are cutting back, this role is more crucial than ever.
But since 2002, AP has reinvented itself to focus on money-spinning sideshows and scoops at the expense of basic coverage from remote places where trouble brews. Today, disgruntled newspapers are dropping AP. Some are plotting a new cooperative to replace it. This is scary. AP has huge resources, and we badly need what it is meant to provide. (Truth in packaging: I left the AP at the end of 2004 after reporting on stories abroad for 35 years.)

Television networks seldom mention the world without a U.S. angle. CNN trumpets its own personalities. Fox is no less tendentious than Al Jazeera with far less real news. NPR, though good, is hardly enough. In New York, I heard WINS all-news radio still promising, "Give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." I gave it two days and got traffic on the Tappan Zee with local stories on the order of boy-trapped-in-refrigerator-eats-foot. To fortify sporadic coverage, build a bedrock context via magazines that delve into foreign affairs. The weekly Guardian combines fresh news with essential background. Find the BBC World Service online, TV or radio, not the remedial version for the U.S. market. Lobby to get Al Jazeera in English on U.S. cable carriers.

Old hands who have left the mainstream are trying new things, convinced that appetites are ravenous for up-close reporting. Initial public reaction is encouraging. An ambitious news agency, GlobalPost, is coming online in January, edited by Charles Sennott, star correspondent at the Boston Globe before it turned its back on the world. Pro Publica is already breaking stories. Photographer Gary Knight and I started the quarterly, dispatches, to focus on issues that matter. We let seasoned writers and photographers tell it straight, at length. Make an effort. If a daily you like is worth reading, pay for it. If it only wastes trees, cancel your subscription and tell the editor why. Prowl the Web. Support consolidator sites like that sample a lot of sources.
Test your prejudices against facts and intelligent analysis. If you support a cause, say Israel or Palestine, look at the other side.

In the longer term, we need better schools with inspired teachers who spark intellectual curiosity so kids learn early how to shape their own world. Meantime, we can teach our own kids that Americans make up only 4 percent of humanity. No one else agrees we are somehow a chosen people. Skin crawled just about everywhere when Sarah Palin chanted "USA! USA!"
My optimism soared at 6 a.m. on November 4 among people who jammed a Brooklyn school to throw the bums out of office. I watched results with friends happy to pay tax on six-figure salaries if it would finally be put to good use.

Then I talked to J.K. Gupta, a St. Louis physician who spends half the year in his native India treating poor patients. "People are thinking differently in America, and they projected this through Obama," he told me. "He only reflects them. They want to see the world in another way." If Gupta is right, we might finally change that misguided mantra: you can't worry about what you can't change. In fact, you can't change what you don't worry about.