NEW YORK. (N-USA) With the financial backing of their government sponsors, news agencies from 17 countries announced the formation of News USA, a $50 billion consortium to bail out failing American journalism.
Parodying a famous quote attributed to American General John J. Pershing, Pierre LaPont of Agence France-Presse announced, "George Marshall, we are here."
According to the annual newsroom census of the American Society of News Editors, American newsrooms have lost a quarter of their reporters since 2001, with no end in sight to the lay-offs and forced retirements. Doomsaying has become a cottage industry, with a series of books speculating on what, if anything, can save U. S. news coverage.
Friday, News USA gave its answer: Foreign intervention.
"Most of our member organizations already maintain an American bureau, at least in Washington and New York," said consortium chairman Trevor McMillan of the BBC, "but News USA will operate on an entirely different scale. We plan to cover not just American news of international interest, but national and even local news as well."
News USA's business plan envisions distributing the news through a wide variety of media: television, radio, internet, and perhaps even by publishing 20th-century-style, paper-and-ink news dailies. "We'll do whatever is necessary," promised vice-chair Daisuke Yakura of Japan's NHK.
Speaking largely to representatives of a demoralized American print media at an elaborately staged press conference at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, McMillan explained: "The world's governments and news agencies realized that they had to act. The quality of news coverage in the United States has fallen to an unacceptable level. We can't let the fate of the free world be decided by unaccountable demagogues on cable TV and talk radio."
Plans for the roll-out of the consortium's local bureaus are still tightly held, but industry-watchers are focusing their attention on the Tribune Company, currently in bankruptcy. The company owns ten daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, in addition to 23 television stations. Purchasing the ailing media giant would give the new consortium an instant country-wide footprint.
Estimates of the price News USA might be willing to pay for the Tribune's news properties varied wildly, with some consortium representatives referring to them off-the-record as "damaged goods." Like most American newspapers, the Times and Tribune have endured years of budget cuts and have already laid off nearly a third of their former reporting staff.
"We can't really cover a city the size of L.A. any more," admitted an anonymous L.A. Times editor, describing his paper as "a fixer-upper." But he added, "We still have a large newsroom, and the reporters we have left could still be the core of a good organization, if somebody came in with some money."
The source of the consortium's money -- foreign governments -- is the most unexpected component of this surprising story. But numerous consortium representatives insisted that the investment made perfect sense if viewed from the right perspective
"Our governments really had no choice," said Gabriella-Maria Hansen of Germany's ARD network. Citing the invasion of Iraq and the housing bubble as two instances where early and accurate American reporting might have prevented an international disaster, she continued, "The United States has so much power, and ultimately that power is in the hands of its people. Most Americans want to do the right thing, but without a viable news media, they do a lot of damage just out of ignorance."
Annika Heldersen from Sweden's Sveriges Television made a similar point in stronger words: "If the American people continue to be so misinformed, they're just going to keep screwing up the world. Stockholm will be underwater before American corporate media stops telling people that global warming is a hoax."
Both Hansen and Heldersen predicted that more countries would join the consortium, and that the current 17 governments would throw in even more money if needed. "There's too much at stake," Heldersen said.
Still, $50 billion is a lot to put into news coverage of a foreign country, even one as large and important as the United States. "It does sound like a lot," admitted Jamail al-Raheem from the National Iraqi News Agency. "But it beats the heck out of getting invaded again."