Seven months in as the host of “Worldfocus,” Martin Savidge is manning a desk job even though he is more accustomed to boots on the ground-type reporting.
This story first appeared in the May 22, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The nightly half-hour news show beams in the major foreign headlines of the day as well as such eyebrow-raising ones as Guatemala’s chronic malnourishment; female taxi services in Iran; how gay men in Jamaica are forced to live double lives; the possibility the Taliban is armed with U.S. ammunition; Uganda’s little-known film industry “Ugowood,” and dishing out llama pizza in the Bolivian Andes.
“Making foreign news less foreign” is WNET’s party line about the show, which is produced with a 25-person staff, an estimated $8 million annual budget and no satellites. Relying heavily on an array of news partnerships, plenty of provident fact-gathering, tell-it-like-it-is map graphics and the occasional telephone report, “Worldfocus” brings globe spanning within reach.
Here, Savidge, a former CNN and NBC reporter, offers his take on a litany of subjects.
“Whether you are living in Iran or Peoria, I think when we can show what life is like in any of these countries — and I don’t mean what it’s like for their leaders — what it’s like for the average person, I think by making those kind of connections then suddenly the people you thought were enemies or demons are actually more like your neighbors or families.”
“America is the only superpower in the world. As a side effect of that, we tend to believe that our opinions are the most important things in the world. As a leader, we don’t always necessarily take the time to listen. And I think within the last 10 years, we’ve suffered as a result of that with the policies of this country.”
“Last year was an all-time low for domestic networks’ international news coverage. The first African-American candidate sucked up literally all of the air on American networks, an understandably very important story. But at the same time, the world is going to hell in a handbasket financially and hardly any of that was being reported. It’s been probably the most common lead we’ve had….Many evening broadcasts are being consumed with feel-good stories or celebrity-type stories. Cable can be monopolized with the tragedies of lost children or murdered family members. There are some very serious issues we have to deal with domestically and internationally. It would serve us well if we were more informed and could discuss them as well as we could talk about who broke up in Hollywood.”
“You end up with about six topics every day that are literally run into the ground. Part of that is of course the belief that with a cable audience your audience is constantly turning over. More and more people do keep a television on as background and turn it up when they see something. When you do that you begin to realize, ‘Boy, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the world.’ That’s really unfortunate and that probably comes down to more of the business and the economic side of news as opposed to editorial and journalism.”
“Experience has taught me that the ones we tend to focus on are not the ones from which we will be surprised, shocked or saddened. Pakistan — certainly American leaders will tell you — that is a nation they fear. There is a militant insurgency that seems to be tearing at its very soul and [has] a lot of nuclear weapons. We fear those nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of someone [from a group] like al-Qaeda that has sworn to want to see the end of the United States or Israel. But I do worry that Russia could be a problem.”
China’s Social Unrest
“China could be a great worry, and I’m talking about the unrest that could come about as a result of so many people being without work. The days of it being the manufacturing plant of the rest of the world are over and I don’t know if it realizes that. Those factory workers that left by the tens of millions to go back to the countryside because they are now unemployed are not, in about three years, going to go back to those same factories and begin churning out what they did. China will have to find a new way to revive its economy, probably advancing as many modern societies do into a more service-oriented society for its own people as opposed to building something for the rest of the world.”
“We’re very big on the program about maps. If you look at a map, the borders, where they line up will tell you a great deal about why what’s happened there happened. It’s not the sharpest graphics or the best of whiz-bang, stuff but sometimes I think the benefit is simplicity. We’re dealing with complex topics as it is. Let’s try to not overwhelm you or ‘wow’ you — just tell you.”
On Drive-by Reporting
“You flew them in from overseas and parachuted them into some foreign land or distant dateline and expected them within about 12 hours to become fluent and an expert in the history and in the political circumstances of whatever was going on that you were there to describe. And then be so knowledgeable that you can explain it in a minute and a half to an American viewer — live. That’s not realistic.”
When Life is on the Line in Places like Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor
“In a conflict zone, there are two types of fear that you have. One is the very piercing fear, when somebody is shooting at you or dropping 120mm mortars. That’s that very panicky — ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ But you are reporting, so you’re actually focused on your job so much that I don’t mind that as much as the dread. The dread is the 24-hour background noise of angst — the belief that you’re in a place where at any time something bad could happen. And that’s what wears on you. That’s what I found when I would start to have some of the early signs of [post traumatic stress].”