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John Donvan

Nightline correspondent and ABC News guest anchor John Donvan hosted Tuesday evening's conversation at the Coffman Theater.

A conversation on the media and foreign policy

By Martha Coventry

Published on October 1, 2004

On Tuesday evening, the telegenic Nightline correspondent and ABC News guest anchor John Donvan hosted a conversation around the question, "Does the media shape American foreign policy?"

The occasion was the local offering of a nationwide program called "The People Speak: A Discussion of America's Role in the World," a five-week series about foreign policy issues. The Humphrey Institute, the Minnesota International Center, the United Nations Foundation, and the U's School of Journalism sponsored the night's program.

Joining Donvan on the Twin Cities campus's Coffman Theater stage--the perfect venue for such a gathering--were J. Brian Atwood, dean of the Humphrey Institute; veteran Belgium news editor Mia Doornaert; and Khaled Dawoud, chief U.S. correspondent for Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper. The theater seats were nearly filled.

"I think we should make all news interesting," Donvan said, "so what people ought to know becomes what they want to know."

What drew people to the theater on this fine fall evening was the opportunity to hear an inside perspective on the power of international news from those who have been in foreign affairs and covered events all over the world. The panelists also showed the audience, mostly through personal anecdotes, how the media can pull us closer to other countries or keep us apart.

Donvan first spoke about the "media," and the current habit of lumping together all the mediums into something vaguely powerful, a force that holds sway over public opinion. "As an individual reporter, the idea that 'the media is a machine' has never rung true to me," said Donvan. "We don't get together [and forge a plan], yet we do have an impact."

Atwood illustrated that impact with the story of his visit to Boma in Eastern Zaire as an administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President Clinton. He witnessed refugees from the Rwanda genocide streaming into the country--a horror story not then fully told in the media nor grasped by the public. Atwood got on the major news networks, painted a picture of what was happening, and said the only force capable of helping these refugees was the United States Army. Shortly thereafter, Clinton mobilized the army to help with the crisis.

Doornaert, with her European perspective, feels that the media can shift public opinion and thus drive foreign policy by what it does and does not cover. For example, the genocide in Darfur has not been widely publicized, thus there is no public opinion to push or shape an American political or military response. But, she added, it's not often the media's choice whether it covers a story or not. Coverage has to do with two issues. One is access. There is little access to Darfur, for example. Another is America's thirst--or lack of it--for international news. Most American viewers, listeners, and readers don't ask for international news and so the networks don't give it to them. And the number of foreign news bureaus has fallen drastically in the last 10 years, the panelists noted.

Dawoud noticed that the Arab side of the story is often absent or misrepresented in American news. He wished it would show more of the average Arab's opinion on events.

Atwood quoted a recent statistic from the U's Center for the Study of Politics that found that 62 percent of foreign policy decisions around a particular issue mirrored public opinion polls on that issue and also the coverage it received in the media.

The evening ended with a series of questions from the audience, mostly having to do with the coverage of foreign issues in the American press. One question came from a man who believed Americans should be more interested in foreign news. None of the panel disputed that, but Donvan answered, "It's easy not to pay attention." People are busy with helping their children with homework, working another job, caring for aging parents. "I think we should make all news interesting," he said, "so what people ought to know becomes what they want to know."

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