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As the World Turns

Naif that I am, I always assumed that the term ”news,“ as it pertains to television, suggested a series of reports carefully selected for their journalistic importance. Obviously, I was misinformed. Now the news is shown only for lack of something better, i.e., a Big Story like the Saga of the Sniper. As soon as anything like that comes along -- and you can almost feel your average CNN anchor waiting -- the networks will discard the regular news quicker than a local newscaster can say freeway pursuit.

Recently, 90 percent of current events vanished down the media plug hole as we watched journalists obsessively follow a single story, regardless of whether they had any fresh information to impart. Fascinating as the drama was, the plot proceeded so slowly it was like news directed by Andy Warhol. If you wanted to hear about something else, such as the result of Ireland’s referendum on joining the EU, or the progress on the precise wording of the latest U.N. resolution on Iraq, or the arrest of Abu Bakir Bashir in connection with the carnage in Bali, or the Moscow theater hijacking, then you could open a newspaper, read one online, turn on National Public Radio, or -- and this is the news about the news on television -- you could look to the increasing number of English-language foreign news channels now available to cable and satellite subscribers.

The best known of these is the BBC World News on BBC America, a mostly predictable British-export channel specializing in Monty Python and Absolutely Fabulous reruns, as well as the leering talk-show host Graham Norton. The Beeb‘s news, however, is still the news, and though the sniper was given his due, the rest of the world got a look-in as well. Here Messrs. Malvo & Muhammad had to fight for screen time with Chechen rebels, Boris Becker’s tax-evasion woes, a deadly bus-and-train collision in Australia, an EU summit meeting in Brussels, stock-market updates, the first parliamentary election in Bahrain in 30 years, and even a smattering of sports.

For the serious news junkie, WorldLinkTV, a San Rafael--based channel available to DISH Network and DirectTV satellite subscribers, is a place where the news not only does not succumb to the temptations of the Big Story, but where television journalism -- culled mainly from European and Arabic sources -- often bears head-scratchingly little relation to what we normally see and hear. From that viewpoint, Mosaic must be one of the strangest news shows on television. Flipping from Lebanon to Jordan to Syria to Iraq and elsewhere, the program offers news segments from various English-language broadcasts throughout the Middle East, often delivered -- against expectation -- by a female newscaster wearing modest headgear, severely applied makeup and a bad case of exaggerated newscaster intonation.

Mosaic is a useful and informative news source; it‘s also frequently soporific. Stories on Iranian state TV about Iran’s Supreme Council for Supervising Toys, or the setting up of ”a specialized data bank on Iranology by the National Center of Iranology,“ or an ”eruption of oil and contamination“ in the Black Sea that turns out to be ”nothing but an eruption of mud“ could put even the most caffeinated couch potato to sleep.

But just as often, the program is a real eye-opener. For instance, a segment about Lebanon‘s dispute with Israel over water rights on the Hezbollah-funded Lebanese channel, Al-Manar (”The Lighthouse“), was absolutely fascinating, and gave an American viewer an almost palpable sense of just how close Israel is to its enemies, in this case the radical Shiites in Lebanon, and vice versa. Al-Manar’s viewpoint is violently pro-Palestinian, of course, and the station openly advocates suicide bombing. (In a recent New Yorker article, Jeffrey Goldberg states that Ibrahim Mussawi, Al-Manar‘s head of English-language programming -- what we see on Mosaic, in other words -- has called Jews ”a lesion on the forehead of history.“) Nonetheless, as a news station, Al-Manar seems pretty professional. In fact, the stern young anchorwoman, with her acutely angled eyebrows and hair hidden behind a voluminous blue scarf, appears to have spent a lot of time studying her counterparts on CNN, judging by the deft way she tilts her head to signal a cut to videotape.

In European Journal, the faces, dresses and suits belong to the altogether more familiar landscape of the EU (Euroland to our Dollarland). For those who suffer from wanderlust, the program also provides the pleasures of virtual travel. A segment on British electronics company Vodafone’s move into the French cellular market flashed brief glimpses of London (red double-decker buses, naturally), then the glossy interior of a Vodafone store, followed by an establishing shot of Paris (Eiffel Tower, ho-hum) and a sleek, Euro-biz guy chatting on his cell phone while strolling over a bridge across the Seine. No doubt an important deal was concluded before he got to the other side.

European Journal is also carried by the Newsworld International channel, available on DirectTV and cable. A round-the-clock news fest that puts the dim bulbs at CNN to shame, Newsworld runs broadcasts from Russia, China, Mexico, Germany, Japan, and both French- and English-speaking Canada. A recent episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.‘s weekly Foreign Assignment, which took a look at life in Iraq under a no-fly zone, did a good job of reminding us that there’s more to the country than just Saddam Hussein -- the somber parents of a boy killed by an errant American bomb, for instance. Fox News has a segment called ”Round the World in Eighty Seconds“; the Canadians, fortunately, are willing to take a little more time.

The immediately noticeable thing about news shown abroad is its emphasis on the world as a collection of continents and countries where every action has a reaction, and where the need for consultation and cross-cultural understanding is paramount. Often this simply boils down to holding an absurd number of conferences, like the confab of French-speaking countries recently staged in Beirut, but nonetheless the interest in other nations is real. Hence as Irish voters were going to the polls to vote on whether they should join the EU, much importance was attached to how closely Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians and other Eastern European peoples were following the results. If the Irish voted yes (they did), then their own admission to the EU became possible; if no, they would have to wait for at least another year and another referendum. The Irish acted, the Eastern Europeans reacted, and they were all bound together in one increasingly large, if irritatingly bureaucratic, family.

The contrast with the news here, which was all sniper all the time, was sobering. Even the hostage taking in a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, an innovation in terrorist technique so startling it might have emerged from the avant-garde theater itself, could barely fight its way onto our screens.

So thank God for the proliferation of cable and satellite channels, which, in their modest way, show that Americans are not quite so bored by the rest of the world as the rest of the world thinks. I even enjoy the weather reports (”Rain and cloudy skies will dominate over Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden. Winds will be moderate to strong . . .“), as well as the odd glimpse into hidden corners of the planet. One of the saddest things I‘ve ever seen was a North Korean businessman dressed in what looked like a cheap polyester suit, enjoying -- if that’s the word -- a solitary lunch in front of an empty lake. There he was, in my North American living room, providing me, for just a second, with an unforgettable sense of the loneliness of life in a totalitarian regime.

That was on a program on Colors, another channel available only on satellite. Several of its news shows, including Dateline Punjab, India Today and Focus on Africa, have extended reports on countries and societies we rarely pay attention to. Given the paucity of Third World coverage elsewhere, and the subsequent lack of any point of comparison, it‘s often hard to gauge the accuracy or political slant of the reporting, but it’s heartening that it simply exists.

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