WASHINGTON—Before the end of the year, we can expect some news media to proclaim the major stories of the year. That list may include the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the flood of unaccompanied immigrant children across the U.S.-Mexican border, the rise of ISIS, protests in Ferguson, the Ebola outbreak, Hong Kong democracy protests, Veterans Administration scandal, and security breaches at Target, Home Depot, eBay, and Sony Pictures.
However, some significant stories received little media attention, according to Jane Harman, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and former congresswoman. Harman introduced four leading journalists from some of the world’s largest media organizations who spoke on a panel Dec. 10 about what they considered to be the most underreported news stories of 2014.
For Robin Wright, journalist, author and, Wilson Center-USIP distinguished scholar, the situation in Syria is underreported—which seems an odd nomination, because in some respects it’s the most reported. Wright said that there are really two wars playing out in Syria. The crisis with ISIS is getting the attention while almost nothing is reported on the war connected to the government in Damascus, she said.
“While the outside world is focused on little Kabane and the U.S. air strikes, [President Bashar] Assad has used this moment to drop hundreds of barrel bombs. They’ve dropped 2,500 bombs in the last 50 days alone,” she said.
Wright, an expert on the Middle East, said the rebels are being encircled in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. There are about 1 million left of its pre-war 4 million population. While Kabane is a small town, the battle for Aleppo is where the stakes are highest. If they lose Aleppo, they will have little territory left, and could not be considered a viable force to fight both the Islamists and Assad.
Wright said we’re also not paying much attention to the fact that half the Syrian population are refugees or displaced people inside the country. “That’s one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II,” she said.
South Africa, Egypt
Little hope exists in South Africa—”the rape and murder capital of the world,” Wright said. “Many blacks are far worse off than they were under Apartheid”—a controversial statement, she said, “but the sad reality is that it’s true.” Unemployment is officially at 24 percent; unofficially it could be as high as 40 percent. The life expectancy has dropped from 64 years in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was freed, to 51 years today.
“South Africa is one I worry about a lot and the rippling effect across the region,” she said.
In Egypt, the revolution has given way to repression and a massive crackdown by General Abdel-Fattah Sisi, who was elected president in June. Wright said, “12,000 demonstrators have been killed. Some 1,400 people have been sentenced to death just since Sisi came to power.”
Egypt is representative of the region, where moderates have been replaced by militants, she said. We could do business with the former, but never with the latter.
While the news media had been rightly sickened and appalled with the beheading of freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS, during the same month, “Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people in 17 days, and nobody has said anything about it.”
“Just yesterday [Dec. 9], they beheaded another person for smuggling amphetamines into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has the third highest practice of the death penalty in the world.”
Labor Force Stops Growing
Greg Ip, U.S. economics editor of The Economist, said that the underreported story for him as an economist is evident in the fact that most Americans don’t realize the recession has ended. The unemployment rate—the key indicator of the economy—has declined from 10 percent to 5.8 percent and, at its current pace, will be 5 percent in a year from now, he said. A rate of 5 percent is what economists consider to be below the “natural rate of unemployment.”
“Yet opinion polls tell us that people think we are still in recession.” The reason for this discrepancy is that wages have been stagnant. Ip said the economy needs to grow, and that requires more labor and capital, but the labor component is problematic.
The underreported story is that the labor force is not growing like it once did in the 1970s when it grew 2.5 percent per year. Now it is growing at 0.25 percent annually. He criticized reporters for paying too much attention to the “demand side” (i.e., not enough stimulus or consumer spending) and too little attention to the “supply side” for explaining the low growth.
It is “an inextricable, unavoidable fact,” he said, that the U.S. population is aging and not growing much. “There is simply no way we can grow as fast in the next 10 or 20 years as historically we have. There aren’t enough people and people are not having enough children.” Ip worked for The Wall Street Journal as a financial markets reporter in New York from 1996 to 2008 and will be returning next year.
Elisabeth Bumiller, Deputy Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times, said the Keystone XL Pipeline has been regarded as the big environmental story of the year. It’s easy to grasp and has become a symbol of the environmental movement. However, a much bigger, underreported story happened in June, “when the president announced this new reg[ulation] which would set a standard for carbon emissions on existing coal-firing power plants across the country—that is huge.”
“Over the long term, [the EPA regulations] will have far more impact on the environment than whether or not the Keystone Pipeline is built,” said Bumiller, who was a former Pentagon and White House Reporter.
Edward Schumacher-Matos, who is currently ombudsman for NPR, said that it is commonly believed that the Republican Party is “condemned to a demographic death,” because the party is allegedly not reaching out to Hispanics. “Yet in the past primary, some 35 percent of Hispanics voted Republican,” he said. He concluded that something is going on in the Hispanic community that is not being reported.
Schumacher-Matos charged that the 24-hour news cycle is preoccupied with stories about violence. The over-coverage of the violence in society has made the public fearful. “Yet statistically, none of it bears out.”
The underreported story is that “murder levels in the United States are equivalent to what they were in the Korean War years,” he said. “It is [the public’s] fascination with violence that’s growing at a time when statistically, violence is declining.”