The charisma of Volodomyr Zelensky is so compelling that the mainstream American news media have decided to rewrite their rules of coverage.
News coverage of the War in Ukraine -- specifically Zelensky's leadership of the resistance against Russia's invasion -- has overturned all normal patterns of journalistic response. March 2022, the first full month of war reporting since the invasion of the final week of February, was one for the record books.
Normal expectations are that wars are always more newsworthy in America when American lives are at risk: Iraq or Afghanistan more newsworthy than Syria or Bosnia. Beyond that, perceiving a lack of audience interest in international turmoil, the television networks have scaled back their commitment to foreign bureaus remorselessly over the past three decades.
Statistics from Tyndall Report's 35-year database of coverage on the broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts (ABC, CBS and NBC combined) tell the story: in the late 1980s, they averaged an annual total of 3,600-or-so minutes filed from foreign datelines; by the late 2010s that average was down to around 1,200.
The decade-long civil war in Syria is the most vivid example of the mainstream media's decision to turn foreign carnage, even of the most extreme and gut-wrenching kind, into an afterthought. Persistent Russian-backed atrocities against civilian populations attracted ever diminishing returns. Now Russia commits those same atrocities in Ukraine and editorial decision-making is turned on its head. The first full month of the Ukraine War received more attention than the single heaviest entire year of coverage of the Syrian Civil War (562 minutes in March 2022 vs 461 for all twelve months of 2012)
But it is not just Syria. Last month in Ukraine attracted more attention than the heaviest single month of coverage of the war in Bosnia (272 minutes in December 1985) and just as much as the heaviest Kosovo month (565 minutes in April 1999). The difference between the intensity of the coverage of the two Yugoslav wars was NATO's involvement: the alliance committed its air power over Serbia during the Kosovo conflict; Ukraine was just as heavily covered even as NATO's planes stayed on the ground. As for other wars where American troops were involved, the first full month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was more heavily covered than the heaviest month for three American invasions: Panama (240 minutes in December1989), Somalia (423 minutes in December 1992), Afghanistan (306 minutes in November 2001).
Astonishingly, the two peak months of coverage of the Iraq War each saw less saturated coverage than last month in Ukraine (414 minutes in March of 2003 and 455 minutes in April). Needless to say, that datapoint arises not because the attack on Saddam Hussein's Baath Regime was treated as less newsworthy. It was because Donald Rumsfeld's shock-&-awe conquest was speedy and successful, unlike Vladimir Putin's. Which brings us back to the argument that all this coverage is Zelensky's accomplishment. It was under his leadership that Putin's shock-&-awe was stymied.
The only three months of war coverage in the last 35 years that have been more intensive than last month in Ukraine were Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 (1,208 minutes) and his subsequent removal in January and February 1991 (1,177 and 1,033 minutes respectively).
It is a demonstration of Zelensky's perceived newsworthiness that both ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News decided to assign their anchors to an extended interview with him, despite the fact that he would not be speaking English, meaning that the audio would consist of the stilted tones of a simultaneous translator. ABC's David Muir aired a ten-minute q-&-a with Zelenky on March 7th; NBC's Lester Holt had five minutes on March 16th, the very day that Zelensky's remote video address to a joint session of Congress led all three evening newscasts.
It is not that the networks find Ukraine intrinsically fascination. During 2014, when the pro-Kremlin regime was ousted by Kyiv's Maidan protests and Putin responded with annexation of Crimea and trench warfare in Donbas, the networks spent 392 minutes on Ukraine over the entire twelve months. To repeat: just the single month of March saw 562 minutes. Again we return to the argument that this saturation coverage is Zelensky's accomplishment, a television-savvy leader who played the part before he was elected to it.
In addition to those personal appearances by Zelensky by remote feed, the overall structure of the coverage has been Kyiv-based. That is partly from the necessity that Putin's draconian censorship laws against calling the war by its name have all-but prevented its coverage from the Moscow angle. Yet, more unusual for the American news media, there has been precious little coverage from Washington. Apart from Zelensky's address to Congress, the Ukraine War was covered from inside-the-Beltway only a handful of times during March: CBS and NBC three times each from the White House; CBS' David Martin three times from the Pentagon; and once from NBC's State Department veteran Andrea Mitchell.
Note that none of these inside-the-Beltway reports was filed on ABC. For ABC's newscast, especially, Kyiv has been the focus of attention -- yet symbolically so, rather than concretely. ABC has not actually delivered more on-the-ground battlefield reporting from the capital than the other two newscasts. Instead, it organizes its war reporting so that a compendium of the day's video highlights from all theaters is narrated from there by its flak-jacketed correspondents. These narrated segments can run as long as five minutes at the start of the newscast. First Ian Pannell, then James Longman: they are tantamount to playing the role of sub-anchors rather than reporters in the field.
CBS and NBC, by contrast, have tried to push their war correspondents closer to the frontlines, filing reports that tend to be more vivid yet more anecdotal than ABC's, less of the day's overview. CBS started the month with Charlie d'Agata in Kyiv and Christopher Livesay along the southern Black Sea front; later Syria veteran Holly Williams arrived to cover the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northern outskirts of Kyiv. NBC's Iraq veteran Richard Engel led its frontline coverage from Kyiv before heading to the eastern front around Kharkiv, while Molly Hunter filed from Odessa in the south.
Needless to say, it was too dangerous for any correspondent to be based at the epicenter of March's carnage, the bombarded city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. All three newscasts had to rely on pooled footage of its razing and its massacres, supplying voiceover narration and gathering the firsthand accounts of those fleeing residents who managed to escape alive.
Away from the frontlines, there was a second major strand of March's Ukraine coverage. Zelensky can also take credit for the prominence of this second strand, if only indirectly. Normally in a war in which the United States is not involved, it would be the default position of the American news media to search for a fair-and-balanced way to present both sides of the conflict. It is to Zelensky's credit that, this time, the networks had no problem seeing the conflict from his point of view.
The force of his moral clarity and charismatic outrage made the (accurate) decision easy to make: that Ukraine represented heroic resistance, Russia barbaric aggression. A corollary of thus taking sides was seen in that second strand of the story, the mass exodus of refugees from the warzone, covered both from Lviv, away from the frontlines, in western Ukraine and at the border with Poland.
For this reporting, both ABC, with Matt Gutman, and NBC, with first Tom Llamas and later Gabe Gutierrez, deployed domestic-based rather than foreign correspondents. In other words, the plight of these refugees represented, for these networks, a crisis that did not require international expertise.
Again, this is a radical departure from the networks' standard procedure. Normally, refugees are a seen-from-both-sides problem: desperate Syrians, or Haitians, or Central Americans clamoring at a border for humanitarian relief -- and immigration officials at checkpoints guarding against an untrammeled influx that might overwhelm the host country. In this case, for the networks, just as much as there was no doubt that the government in Kyiv was mounting a righteous resistance, there was no doubt that these refugees, mostly woman and children and the elderly, were on a righteous "unarmed road of flight" as the bard puts it.
Nowhere was this endorsement more emphatic than when all three newscasts brought out the biggest and most traditional reportorial device in their toolkit: Big Foot Journalism. It is a guaranteed sign of both commitment to a story and a moral certainty about how it should be framed when the newscasts spend the time and money -- and take the extra security precautions -- to jet the news anchors themselves into the scene of the story.
ABC sent David Muir to the border of Polish border with Ukraine on two visits for a total of five newscasts during March. NBC sent Lester Holt to Lviv for three newscasts and later to Poland after covering Joe Biden's attendance at the NATO Summit in Brussels. CBS sent Norah O'Donnell to Poland for two newscasts. And on each visit, the anchors focused not on the war but on the refugee crisis that the war created -- although O'Donnell did fit in an inspection of a Patriot missile battery too.
It turns out that the high-profile long-form presidential interviews that Muir and Holt conducted with Zelensky were aberrations from the modern image that the networks have of the role of their figureheads. Remember their predecessors from three decades ago: Dan Rather famously donned mujahedeen garb with the fighters in the Hindu Kush; Tom Brokaw attended the breach of the Berlin Wall and rode his bicycle with a hidden camera around Tiananmen Square; Peter Jennings famously established his global bona fides by displaying encyclopedic knowledge at Opening Ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games.
Rather than rubbing shoulders and debating geopolitics with heads of state like the Voice Of God anchors who came before them, today's anchors -- we can see it from the way they are portrayed by their own networks' publicity and promotion -- are characterized by their empathy, their common touch, their ability to see the world through the concerns of everyman. Jennings may have been a precursor here, when he decided to cover the Siege of Sarajevo from a hilltop through the eyes of a war-weary 13-year-old boy.
Nowadays bonding is the name of the game. ABC's America Strong participants routinely give a shoutout to "David" for his understanding of their struggles. NBC's Inspiring America allows Lester to lift up his viewers' spirits. Norah routinely gives us a pep talk about service or loyalty or family or friendship after watching one of CBS' human interest features. What better way for these anchors to display their true touch with our common humanity than to greet wartorn Ukrainian refugees as they head for European safety? What better way then to kneel to comfort the weeping toddler clutching its last remaining cuddly toy?
So, again, let's give the charismatic Zelensky credit for inspiring these Big Feet to jet across an ocean to show their sympathy for Ukrainian refugees when those from other warzones have rarely had such solicitude bestowed on them (an exception being a trip by David Muir to the Bekaa Valley in September 2014). Let's give Zelensky credit. Otherwise we might be forced to focus on the difference between the blue eyes and blond hair of these tiny refugees and those refused entry in the camps along the Rio Grande.
And to insinuate that such an ethnic difference would be the explanation for the contrast in the way the networks treated their respective plights would be invidious.
You must be logged in to this website to leave a comment. Please click here to log in so you can participate in the discussion.