It was no coincidence that the first sentence Czech Defense Minister [Martin] Stropnický heard last week in Washington at the beginning of two separate consultations with Sen. John McCain and his junior colleague Marco Rubio was identical. Both senators, independently of each other, opened their discussions with the Czech minister with "you’re going through interesting times in Europe."*
By that, of course, they meant the crisis in Ukraine, which is a big issue in Washington — but only right in Washington, and only among politicians. The broader American public is indifferent to Ukraine, even though, for example, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — whose term in office coincided with war in the Balkans — it’s the most dangerous crisis in Europe since World War II.
How do we explain the American apathy? Recent military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have unquestionably played their role. American society is psychologically weary. If we add to that a shaky economy, then it’s no surprise that America is self-absorbed. But even these two substantial points don’t explain everything.
The aforementioned Madeleine Albright indicated another important reason before the weekend, at a conference of the Washington think tank Atlantic Council, when she complained that American media are practically not disseminating information about Ukraine. We might be tempted to wave it off — after all, politicians like to make a lightning rod out of journalists. Albright is aware of this herself, evidently; she accompanied her rebuke with the remark that she is known for never hesitating to criticize the media, but in this concrete instance, she is right.
The issue here is not with large dailies, like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, or the publicly and congressionally funded National Public Radio. These sources devote themselves to Ukraine and to reporting from abroad in a manner that is thematically variegated and in-depth, but these media outlets, around which only a small segment of American society orients itself, are not decisive to how well-informed the country is in general. It's television, broadcast networks and cable news channels that convey an image of the surrounding world to the average American. And if we’re going to limit ourselves to the two most followed news networks, Fox and CNN, then their coverage of the Ukrainian crisis is anywhere from sketchy to random, lacking explanation of its wider European dimension.
Apparently, there’s nothing new about this. If cable television has access to such strong domestic issues as the racist comments of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, or tornadoes and floods in the South, then there's not much room left for world news. And it’s not surprising that even when there are reports from across the ocean, they’re about the missing Malaysian airliner or the tragedy of the sunken South Korean ferry.
At least in the case of CNN, the [news channel's] method of disseminating information about Ukraine — which makes its way into reports downright marginally (with no tie-in to events, but as an obligatory clip) — falls back on a previously important part of its portfolio. CNN used to always be on the scene, and not just in wars and conflicts. Its reporting from abroad also had an explanatory, contextual dimension: often a bit superficial, typically for television, but always sufficient for a basic understanding of things. And that was part of the image and respect that the station acquired.
Media enterprise is a business; the goal isn’t edification or charity, but profit. The managers of Fox News and CNN have evidently decided that world news is a money-loser, and therefore, dear viewers, we will no longer trouble you with that incomprehensible outside world. In its own way, for America, CNN was a window to the world. Now, it seems they’ve lowered the blinds on that window at CNN, but it’s silly when that [becomes the reason] Americans overlook a crisis that is not that distant from them by its very nature, [but remains] somewhere outside their space-time continuum, as it erroneously appears through television coverage.