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[] NYT 9.11.01: British Take a Blunter Approach to War News,

November 9, 2001
British Take a Blunter Approach to War News

After taking a Taliban-guided tour into southern Afghanistan last week, along with other Western journalists, Simon Ingram wrapped up his four-day experience for "BBC World News." The cameras showed a crowd of village men in turbans, their fists raised in anger as soldiers looked on. 

"Within the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, evidence of the challenge Washington is facing," Mr. Ingram said. He described the men chanting their allegiance to the Taliban and death to America and added, "No sign here that the intensifying American bombardment is achieving its goal." 

ABC's Dan Harris, who was also on the tour, summed up his experience for "Good Morning America." He, too, said the villagers were angry at America but emphasized how friendly they were to him. "It's not that they're not bitter about the almost daily U.S. bombings," Mr. Harris said, in a warm and fuzzy tone. "They simply don't blame individual Americans." 

A Taliban spokesman said Osama bin Laden should not be turned over "to Americans who are killing our innocent people," but Mr. Harris ended the report by saying: "Most people, however, preferred more pleasant conversation. Before we left, one Taliban soldier smiled and said he wanted to leave with us and go to America." 

The soft American and the stern British tone is typical of these reports, and the difference highlights the value of seeing the world from a broader perspective. If a priority of America's war on terror is holding a global coalition together, it helps to know, without sugar-coating, what the rest of the globe is thinking.

"BBC World News" is the best of several foreign-based, English-language programs available to American viewers, all with a wider scope and a blunter attitude than American networks and cable channels. These are programs from friendly nations, not from places spouting anti-American propaganda. In fact, Mr. Ingram included his own country in one of his harshest assessments about the difficulty of defeating the Taliban. "If the U.S. and Britain were hoping that this unusual regime was about to crumble, they may well be disappointed," he said. 

But the range of issues and less defensive tone are wildly different from what American viewers get on network or cable news programs, which share a myopic view and a tone that says, "They'd love us if only they understood us." 

 From the time the antiterror coalition was formed, the BBC has offered a stark view of its fragility, something the American media have just begun to focus on (a valuable "Nightline" segment addressed the issue with European journalists on Tuesday). And in the midst of covering anthrax, foreign- based programs have continued to report regularly from Jerusalem and the West Bank, offering a sense of how volatile the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become. For American television, with its relentless focus on a single issue, covering anthrax and the Middle East at the same time is the news equivalent of walking and chewing gum.

The differences are not only war- related. When President Bush spoke about the economic downturn last Friday, American networks assumed a tone of cautious pessimism while a BBC reporter said, "even the president is forced to admit" that the economic future looks "very grim." 

The increase in ratings for foreign-based news since Sept. 11 suggests a hunger for what is not being offered by American reporting, and alternatives are increasingly easy to find. 

The half-hour "BBC World News" program is updated and broadcast live 24 hours a day to countries outside Britain. The program can be seen five times a day on BBC America, a channel available mostly on digital cable and satellite services, but it reaches viewers most easily on public television. In New York City, "BBC World News" is on several times a day on Channel 21. Since Sept. 11, two dozen more public television stations have picked up the program, so it now reaches 160 of them, covering about 70 percent of the country. 

Also since Sept. 11, ratings have gone up 50 percent for ITN's "World News for Public Television," a daily half-hour produced in England for American audiences and carried on 92 stations, including Channel 13 in New York. Like "BBC World News," it offers a range of international stories. ITN's reporting is more perfunctory, but some of its stronger segments are included on the PBS "Newshour." 

Viewers willing to do a little searching have a wealth of other options. C-SPAN's three channels often carry foreign news and public affairs programs late at night on a random schedule. 

For years, of course, American television has been criticized for paying too little attention to foreign news, and the consequences are freshly obvious. After the terror attacks, stunned and baffled "Why do they hate us?" articles flooded the news media, addressing a public that had been blinkered to what other parts of the world were thinking. And a homebound point of view persists, even though plenty of American journalists are in Pakistan and northern Afghanistan. 

The Fox News Channel anchors are still wearing flag lapel pins identical to those worn by the Bush administration, a signal of their allegiance. (On local news, red- white-and-blue ribbons are common.) But usually the signs are more subtle. On a recent edition of the CNN call-in program "Talk Back Live," the question of the day was a loaded one: "Is it unpatriotic to speak out against the war?" And on ABC's "This Week," Sam Donaldson reminded a representative of Al Jazeera, the Arab-language television station that has been a conduit for videos from Osama bin Laden, "A lot of people in the U.S. don't like the idea that Al Jazeera broadcasts Osama's messages to the Arab world." 

Some of the American skittishness and us-against-them attitude is understandable. The attacks did happen here and created a war mentality. But after two months, American television's cautious approach has turned into knee-jerk pandering to the public, reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know. Even as American reporters are expressing frustration at how fiercely the Pentagon is controlling information, the emphasis is not on getting better answers but on covering "the propaganda war" in the shallow, horse-race way elections usually are ? who's winning?

"BBC World News" and other foreign-based programs offer an essential supplement to this tunnel vision. In one of his reports from Kandahar, Mr. Ingram was skeptical of a villager's angry claim that Americans wanted only to stop him from feeding his family, as the camera showed a Taliban ministry building that had been destroyed nearby.

"Evidence like this could be less than wholly convincing, and the Americans could well dismiss it as propaganda," Mr. Ingram said of what the Taliban led him to see. "What's harder to deny is that the anger felt by the people here seems to be directed not at the Taliban but at the United States." 

That may not be pleasant to hear, but it does something American television usually does not: it assumes that the public is smart and grown-up enough to handle what the rest of the world thinks.

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