Foreign News Channels Drawing US Viewers

Television viewers in the United States seeking international news are starting to switch over to foreign channels to learn what is happening in the outside world, media watchers here say.

"They are comparable to CNN," said Steve Randall, about television news channels such as Russia Today, Al Jazeera, CCTV of China, and the Press TV of Iran, which are now being watched by millions of people in the United States via cable and dish networks.

According to a survey by Nielsen Media Research, many people in Washington, DC now turn to Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Euronews, and China Central Television to get their foreign news.

However, Russia Today easily led the pack, with a daily audience over 6.5 times bigger than that of Al Jazeera English, the second most popular source of TV news among foreign broadcasters in the U.S. after BBC.

Randall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, thinks many people are turning to foreign media outlets because there is so little coverage devoted to foreign affairs on U.S. network and cable television news.

According to the latest annual review of U.S. network news by the authoritative Tyndall Report, all foreign-related news in 2009 – some 3,750 minutes – that appeared on the networks’ programs accounted for only one-quarter of the approximately 15,000 minutes they devoted to all news coverage on weekday evenings over the course of the year.

Despite the build-up to last December’s long-anticipated Copenhagen Climate Summit, for example, the three networks devoted a total of only 76 minutes to the issue of global warming.

In the past decade, FAIR has documented scores of cases indicating that mainstream U.S.-based news channels and print media not only ignore issues of global concern, but sometimes distort the facts for political reasons.

On Feb. 15, 2003, some half-a-million people took to the streets of New York to protest the U.S. plan to attack Iraq. The next day, in the New York Times and many other media outlets, there was not a single word about the march or arrests.

In a bid to challenge the U.S. media claim that it sticks to the principles of fairness and objectivity in reporting, Russia Today, the state-run TV channel recently ran an ad asking, "Who poses the greater nuclear threat?"

It showed an image of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, morphed into one, with the tag line: "RT News. Question More."

Over the past decade, the United States and its Western allies have accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons and most Western media outlets have followed that line. Iran says its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes and that it has the right to do so under the U.N. treaty on nuclear-nonproliferation.

"That is a fair question," Randall said of the provocative Russia Today ad. "The U.S. media is magnifying the question of the Iranian nuclear program" He said that most major television stations in the U.S. have consistently failed to report the issue objectively. Vladimir Kikilo, a senior Russian journalist who has been reporting for Tass news agency from New York since 1979, agrees. "The way the U.S. media presents facts about the outside world is far from ideal," he said.

That does not mean he defends state-sponsored media efforts to project Moscow’s image. "During the Soviet times, we tended to portray the Western world in black and white, but we have overcome that. We have changed our rules," he said.

"It’s financed by the government," he said of Russia Today. "But it’s the right source to find out what is happening in Russia and the world. This is a chance for ordinary Americans to see for themselves how the Russian thinks about America and the world."

Russia Today, which started reaching out to U.S. audiences about two years ago, also produces programs in Spanish and Arabic. Its producers say they are winning over viewers because they do not compromise on neutrality.

The station receives more than 200 million dollars a year from the Kremlin, according to Russia Today’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan. However, she insists that whether it is a story about Iran or any other part of the world, it must be told with fairness.

"The broadcast was non-existent in the times of the Soviet Union. Russia was not doing anything," she said in an interview with IPS. "In those times, it was Deutsche Welle (of Germany), the Voice of America, the BBC and Radio Free Europe."

According to the U.S. State Department, there are currently nearly 800 media outlets from 113 countries operating in the United States.

"Much of the growth of recent years come with an influx of media from Asia, especially China, the Middle East and Africa," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

These are the regions where Washington’s policies have taken on increased importance over the past decade, he said. According to the center’s research, there are nearly 1,500 foreign correspondents in Washington alone.

"This growth has been spurred by technological advances that make communication with home offices continents away cheaper, faster and easier," the center found.

The September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the administration’s resulting "war on terror" were major factors behind the phenomenal growth of the foreign media presence in the United States.

For his part, Kikilo thinks that since there is no longer any "ideological conflict" between the U.S. and Russia, both countries must share sources and information to address international conflicts, such as that over Iran’s nuclear program

"It’s government-funded," he said about Russia Today. "But I think it’s a good source to let the people of the world to find a common ground. I hope it would not lose its neutral stance."

(Inter Press Service)