Journalists frequently complain about their American audience's lack of sophistication. Americans, they argue, care little about what is happening in the world outside their borders.
But how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy? How much of the problem results from the behavior of editors and programming directors?
Last week, Egypt's first attempt at republican constitutional government unraveled. With a Wednesday night decree, the military removed the nation's first popularly elected president -- a power-hungry and deeply unpopular advocate of Islamic law. President Mohamed Morsi's followers, many of them armed, took to the street.
It was a complicated, multifaceted story. It was an opportunity to learn about a part of the world that affects Americans' safety. But as these events unfolded, Americans who depend on their televisions for news could hardly even get an update.
Why? Because Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC -- all three major American cable news networks - were running the same live, nonstop coverage of tedious and technical DNA testimony from an overhyped murder trial in Florida.
Comedian Robert Lowe spoke for many Americans when he tweeted out: "A coup unfolding in Egypt and CNN's priority is live coverage of DNA testimony in a murder trail. Wow."
At least the cable nets had the sense to cut away from the Full Zimmerman for a few minutes when the coup was formally announced on Wednesday afternoon. Amusingly, CNN did so with a graphic reassuring its viewers, "Back to Zimmerman Trial in a Moment!" Just over 90 minutes later, all three nets were back to testimony and discussions about DNA from the stains on a sweatshirt.
By Friday, violent clashes were erupting across Egypt, with dozens killed and more than a thousand injured. Tensions were high, and civil war seemed a real possibility. But on U.S. cable, we got the Full Zimmerman once again. Americans were treated to the lengthy but customary and completely routine motion for dismissal by George Zimmerman's defense attorney. (It took all of eleven seconds for the judge to deny it.) MSNBC at one point featured the incisive commentary of host Al Sharpton, whose guest congratulated him for the activism that put the Zimmerman trial on the map.
Meanwhile, if you wanted to see live footage of people firing guns at one another in downtown Cairo, you had to pull up Al Jazeera's live online stream.
People of good will may disagree on the Zimmerman trial's importance. But no matter how important you think it is, the non-stop live coverage provides nothing that nightly (or even hourly) summaries of the important parts could not. This is supposedly why reporters and editors exist -- to identify the important parts for you and save you time. Apparently, they've all been on vacation.
Meanwhile, there's no question that the fall of Morsi is a big deal. It's certainly important to the Obama administration, which recently spent $1.3 billion in taxpayers' money to aid his regime, and which has at least pretended it's trying to restore America's image in the Islamic world.
And Egypt isn't just any Arab country. It's the biggest one, home to about one-third of all Arabic speakers. When people talk about what "the Arab street" is thinking or saying, they're really talking about Egypt, whose population (83 million) is four times that of Syria and 14 times that of neighboring Libya.
An American interested in what was happening in the world would have needed a premium TV package with foreign news networks.
So why do Americans lack interest in inter-national affairs? Perhaps it's partly because American media are too fearful of losing a ratings war to distinguish themselves by putting important news ahead of hype.