by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
violence, and extreme weather conditions --- mostly confined to the United States - dominated TV news broadcasts across America in 1998, according to a comprehensive new survey.
The authoritative Tyndall Report found that the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was far and away the most-covered story of the year on all three major television networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC.
The scandal accounted for fully 15 percent of all evening news broadcasts -- which run about 22 minutes each, not counting advertisements. At 1931 minutes, the scandal claimed more air time than the combined total of the next nine most-covered stories.
Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, which became the basis for perjury charges against the president in the Lewinsky case, received an additional 133 minutes during the year, making it the 10th biggest story.
Of the top
20 stories, eight featured events outside the United States, and six of those concerned events which directly involved the U.S. government or military, confirming a decade-long trend toward greater ethnocentrism in television news.
The foreign news that make it onto TV screens featured conflict, violence, and terrorism across a narrow geographic range from Kosovo in southern Europe, southward to the Middle East and East Africa and across to South Asia, where India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons last May.
Since the late 1960s, surveys have shown that television news was the most important source of information about public issues for the American public. They also revealed that viewers appeared to trust television more than newspapers as an information source.
Communications scholars discovered that the mass media, particularly television, tended to "set the agenda" for public debate in the United States; that is, to determine what issues people believed were important in the world beyond their personal experience.
TV networks and cable television companies have greatly increased the amount and variety of news programs shown in the United States in recent years. But talk shows and "news magazine" programs often blur the line between news and entertainment -- a trend which has begun to affect the evening news broadcasts of the three major networks, the subject of the Tyndall survey.
The top foreign news story last year -- and the second biggest story overall -- was the series of crises provoked by Iraq's dealings with United Nations weapons inspectors and US threats to compel its compliance with U.N. resolutions. It occupied 656 minutes of airtime.
Its high ranking was no surprise to Andrew Tyndall, who conducted the survey. Saddam Hussein, he said, has been a "household word" since the Gulf Crisis broke out with Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The Gulf War, according to Tyndall's survey, remains the biggest single story of the decade for the three networks, even eclipsing the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal which, as a result of its domination of the news last year, claimed the decade's number two spot. The O.J. Simpson trial, which featured the murder of the ex-wife of the former football star, has moved from second to third. "Iraq is easy for the networks, because (unlike other international news stories), they don't have to explain everything from scratch," Tyndall told IPS.
The third-ranked story -- at 389 minutes -- concerned the gyrations of U.S. stock markets, the only economic story of the year to rank in the top 20.
While 1998 is likely to be remembered in much of the world as the year in which the Asian financial crisis deepened and spread to other emerging markets and the Russian economy collapsed altogether, the main TV newscasts virtually ignored both events, according to Tyndall.
"They were only seen through the prism of what was happening to the New York markets," he said.
Conflict-laden foreign stories, the Serb crackdown against Albanian separatists in Kosovo (202 minutes) and the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (184 minutes), took fourth and fifth places among the top 20, respectively. Washington's retaliation for the bombings -- its cruise-missile attacks against suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan (93 minutes) -- ranked 16th.
The ups and downs of Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which Clinton himself played a decisive role last October, was the fourth most prominent international story (142 minutes) and ranked eighth overall, followed by the India-Pakistan nuclear tests (120 minutes) which ranked 11th among the top 20 overall.
Clinton's trip to China last summer (84 minutes) -- the only foreign story which did not feature conflict as a dominant theme -- ranked 19th, while the crash of a Swissair jet off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, rounded out the top 20.
from Clinton's scandals, weather stories dominated much of the news on the domestic front in 1998. The number five story (184 minutes) was the El Nino weather phenomenon which, while global in its impact, was covered virtually exclusively on the three networks in terms of its impact on California.
Similarly, deadly tornadoes in the U.S. South and Midwest (152 minutes), the mostly harmless Hurricane Bonnie which struck the Atlantic Coast (103 minutes), the summer heatwave in Texas (99 minutes), and Hurricane Georges which hit Florida (99 minutes) placed seventh, 12th, 14th, and 15th, respectively.
Many scientists believe that each of these extreme weather conditions may well be related to "global warming," but the networks paid little or no attention to that dimension. Tyndall did note that the networks covered Hurricane George's lethal impact on the Dominican Republic (but not Haiti) although the less harmful effect on the Florida Keys and Gulf Coast received more attention.
On the other hand, Hurricane Mitch, which the White House labelled the worst natural disaster ever to hit the Americas, did not make the top 20 list, despite the visually dramatic devastation it caused in Central America where more than 9,000 people died and three million others lost their homes.
"That's an example of an international blind spot, along with Mexico; Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa; and Asia, except China," according to Tyndall.
Other major stories included former astronaut Sen. John Glenn's mission on the space Shuttle Discovery (140 minutes); an autoworkers' strike against General Motors (99 minutes), abuses by the U.S. fiscal authority (89 minutes), and the shooting spree by two boys in an Arkansas school.
March 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.