Goodbye, Foreign Bureau

With the uprisings in the Middle East and the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake, media and how we view them continue to be revolutionized.

There's been a lot of talk about Twitter in both cases, but social media sites are only part of the story. Twitter is good for fast breaking news, but Twitter has its problems, some of which are described in this piece by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. It's hard to sift for information among the noise. Take the earthquake and tsunami, for example. When they hit, it was only because I visited CNN's Web page that I found out about them. My Twitter feed was occupied by other matters and news on the topic had scrolled by. Moreover, Twitter easily drags us into multiple, overlapping conversations. For example, yesterday the whole death of criticism discussion began again derailed my day for some time until I could finish a blog post on the topic and then discuss it with other individuals on Twitter. When crises like this are happening, its easier to turn off Twitter and look to media that demand less participation, like video streams.

But American news channels like CNN or MSNBC quickly lost their appeal for me as sources for what is going on in Japan. I don't need to see celebrity reporters like Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien in Japan describing how harrowing their trips from the airport were or how small their hotel rooms are. When one American reporter reported that Japan was strange, like the film "Lost in Translation," it was time to turn off the channel.

Instead, I've been watching NHK World's English feed on my television via a stream to my Mac Mini home theater PC. NHK repeats footage and, as the national broadcasting network of Japan, strikes me as the voice of the government, but if there's going to be breaking news, it seems likely that I'll see it here.   

Similarly, when the revolutions in the Middle East began, like many people, I turned to Al Jazeera. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's comments hit home:

Al Jazeera has been the leader in that [it is] literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective... In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.

(see here for more) 

Al Jazeera has hardly been a bystander in all this, repeatedly suggesting to viewers that they demand their local cable companies ask for feeds. At times this seemed a little crass, but given the kind of self-promotion that US news outlets revel in, understandable. 

Western media outlets once thought that as the world globalized, they would expand endlessly. But the opposite is proving true. With access to more news outlets, we are finding the older ones too ideologically corrupt and superficial (Judith Miller anyone?) and instead of monitoring hastily put together foreign bureaus, wind up turning to local sources. 

Of course the same goes for architecture. Why would anybody want to read an American critic flown to China on an all-expenses paid junket to praise a building by Zaha Hadid in China (or worse yet, look at some renderings and pronounce it cool) when a Chinese critic might critically discuss the building in its context?  

If the result is a better-informed world, saying goodbye to the foreign bureau will hardly be a loss to anybody but the reporters.