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The War Over War in Georgia

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, I have a quick rundown of the continuing American media war between Georgia and Russia. But there is something I left out, and it speaks to how we can try to make sense of global events: opinion journalism.

In this Great Newsmedia Contraction we're all puzzling our way through, most news agencies have either removed or severely constrained their foreign bureaux. As a result, there are far fewer reporters covering global hot spots -- both print and TV. A few years back, in 2007, well before the current crisis point newspapers have hit, the Washington Post wrote:

In the 1980s, American TV networks each maintained about 15 foreign bureaus; today they have six or fewer. ABC has shut down its offices in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo; NBC closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg. Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there are no network bureaus left at all in Africa, India or South America -- regions that are home to more than 2 billion people.

Newspapers have seen an even more precipitous decline: in 2007 alone, the number of foreign correspondents working for American newspapers dropped nearly 20 percent. During this same period of time, however, the number of columnists covering trendy foreign policy topics either remained steady or rose slightly. An opinion journalist, even a very well paid one, like Tom Friedman at the New York Times, is cheaper to maintain than the millions of dollars it costs to run an office for a small team of reporters in Baghdad for just one year.

So in that context, we can view the coverage of the Russo-Georgian Conflict as one in which traditional journalism has been crowded out by opinion journalism. I mentioned a few in the CJR piece -- people who are based stateside and, rather than reporting events, they advocate events.

And in a conflict where one president speaks almost perfect English and one does not, it seems kind of obvious how the columnist-o-sphere would tilt, even if it weren't laden with people old enough to remain saddled with Cold War paranoia about Russia. And that's the real phenomenon -- the real tragedy, when you get down to it -- that I was trying to describe.