Washington Babylon — May 21, 2008, 1:34 pm

The Colbertian Guide to Foreign Policy Coverage

“Here’s how it works,” said Stephen Colbert during his famous appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, describing the rules for covering the President. “The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type.” Turns out that’s a pretty good guide to foreign news coverage as well.

One of the most flagrant cases of electoral theft in recent memory is taking place in plain view, and the American media–so righteous in its support for democracy and clean government–can’t be bothered to mention it. Just a few weeks ago, as I reported here, voters went to the polls in Equatorial Guinea, the pro-American, oil-rich nation led for the past 29 years by Brigadier General Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

“Equatorial Guinea’s ruling party has overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections, reducing the opposition presence in the 100-member assembly to just one seat from the previous two, electoral officials said on Tuesday,” according to a Reuters brief. “In the municipal elections also held on May 4, the [ruling party] and its allies obtained 319 councillor seats, while the opposition won 13…Observers say the national assembly is seen as little more than a rubber stamp for presidential decisions, and often as a vehicle for political patronage and personal enrichment.”

My colleague Taimur Khan reviewed major American press coverage of the sham vote in Equatorial Guinea since the balloting was held more than two weeks ago. Here’s the note he sent me yesterday:

I searched LexisNexis for “Equatorial Guinea” and elections, and nothing from the American press was found. The VOA was the only news outlet to feature anything at all. I also searched the websites of the big papers; the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicago Tribune and found nothing.

Meanwhile, forests have been clear-cut to provide the newsprint needed by the American media to cover the spring elections in Zimbabwe, where the indisputably awful government of Robert Mugabe worked to steal the recent voting but still lost its parliamentary majority, and where the presidential outcome is still in doubt.

Unlike the case of Zimbabwe, the United States has extensive ties to the government of Equatorial Guinea, which is one of our major oil supplies and hosts billions of dollars in American corporate investment. As a result, the United States has great influence in Equatorial Guinea–and very little at all in Zimbabwe. So why is the American press corps so outraged by Zimbabwe, even though nothing it writes will make much difference, and so apathetic about Equatorial Guinea, where international media attention could have a huge impact?

You have to go back to those Colbert rules: The president makes the decisions and journalists write them down. If President Bush decreed that the situation in Equatorial Guinea cried out for justice, press planes would load up to cover the story there. But that’s not the case, so instead we see the media express outrage–in lockstep with the President–over the crisis in Zimbabwe.

You think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the lead to a story I wrote in American Journalism Review 15 years ago, called “Follow the Leader”:

Remember Grenada? No, it’s not a car, and it’s not a syrup made from pomegranates. Perhaps vague memories come to mind? A breezy, tropical island..American medical students..commies running rampant. That’s it–the rescue mission! Whatever happened to that place?

After briefly rocketing into the media spotlight in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan labeled the tiny Caribbean island a dire threat, Grenada has plummeted from the news horizon like a stricken SCUD missile.

Press treatment of the country is typical of the media’s approach to the Third World. The guidelines are simple. Rule No. 1: Third World nations are largely ignored until the White House, almost always for reasons of national security, puts one on the map. Rule No. 2: Once the perceived national security threat fades, the country in question falls back into irrelevance and obscurity.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center last March, Robert MacNeil of the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” endorsed this approach to foreign news. The president, he said, “is like the chief passenger on the cruise ship. When he goes to the rail and points at something, that’s interesting for the rest of the passengers.”

Some things never change

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Post
A Band of Her Own·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What in the poem is an unappealing display becomes, with the addition of the soul-influenced, flute-inflected background, funny, almost self-consciously so."
Photograph by AP/Bill Chaplis
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows

Jobs created by every billion dollars of U.S. government defense spending:

21,000

Artists tend to have twice as many sexual partners as noncreative people.

Swiss retailer Migros cut off ties with a collectible-creamer company following the distribution of 2,000 creamers whose lids bore images of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk creamer,” said a Migros spokesman.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today