No Comment — November 23, 2009, 6:38 pm

How the American Press Mistook China for a Fish

President Obama is winding up an important trip to East Asia this week. A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton concluded a significant visit to Pakistan. Shortly before that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an historic address to a joint session of Congress. A common thread runs through these three events: the American media’s coverage of each was a demonstration of its own utter cluelessness on questions of foreign relations and politics.

Tish Durkin touched on the issue in The Week:

To read the bulk of the U.S. press, Obama fell short on three counts: One, his contribution to China’s human-rights struggle was limited to one answer at a carefully staged student forum in Shanghai, where he extolled the American people’s right to Twitter, internet-surf, and diss him personally. (Naturally, that portion of the program was censored by Chinese news outlets — although a pretty full translation of it was easy to pull up the following day.) Two, he didn’t talk turkey to the Chinese leadership on anything because the U.S. has sold so much debt to China and needs to sell more. Three, he can’t close a deal. The day after Barack stepped foot on the Great Wall, China was the same repressive, polluting, trade-tilting outfit it was before.

The irony here is that, although the Chinese are the ones who get their information through the twin filters of propaganda and censorship, they are also the ones who seem to have a firmer grasp than Americans on what constitutes a realistic expectation. People in the street — at least those in the malls and market-stalls of Dalian, where I have been living — are giving Obama real credit. They give him credit for coming here in the first year of his first term. They give him credit for saying friendly things about the U.S.-China relationship (although they have serious doubts about whether his actions will prove so nice). They give him credit for holding his own umbrella in the rain, thereby emitting a humanity and a humility that they rarely see in their own, distant leaders…

Want to get the real low down on the visit? Better renew your subscription to Beijing Review. James Fallows, writing at The Atlantic, concurs and lands his own punches, “marvel[ing] at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama’s just-ended tour of Asia.” And in an interview styled “Not for all the News in China,” former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French similarly laments the stupidity of the press coverage. It’s not just China, he adds; “There’s a growing reflex of instant punditry and reflexive reaction that works counter to more meaningful analysis. We’re in a state where we’re very often privileging the gut or the knee, as in knee-jerk, rather than thinking more meaningfully about things.”

I agree completely with these criticisms. What is the source of the problem? Closing foreign bureaus and withdrawing foreign reporters has a lot to do with it. There are ever fewer reporters available who actually understand (or care) about the on-the-ground conditions in the countries involved. The perspectives are therefore increasingly and intensely sociocentric. Now the coverage of foreign visits comes from the White House press corps, and the style of coverage almost perfectly matches that of a 24/7 political campaign. What’s “newsworthy”? Why, a “gaffe” by the President will always merit a headline. Of course, recent stories suggest that most of these reporters have no earthly idea of what a “gaffe” really looks like. What’s an “issue”? Why, that would be whatever emerged as an issue for the country in question in the last presidential election cycle.

The result is reporting on foreign relations issues that is a dullard’s replay of the last presidential campaign. The trivial is magnified beyond all significance, and the core issues are often simply missed. The coverage of the Obama trip to China was a textbook demonstration. As I explained earlier, the same is true for the Clinton visit to Pakistan, which drew heavy coverage on points that were consistently misunderstood by those who wrote about them.

Angela Merkel’s speech to Congress on November 3 was a significant event similarly misunderstood by the broadcast media. Merkel gave her country’s thanks for the role played by prior American administrations—particularly that of George H.W. Bush—in German reunification. But carefully wrapped in those compliments was also a bit of a brickbat. Where was that leadership over most of the last decade? You’ll have our support for efforts in Afghanistan, she pledged—and now assume the leadership role we expect of you on issues like global warming. Merkel’s voice is that of a new and much more conservative Europe that looks to America for a forward role and has been sorely disappointed. But how much of this message got through in the American media? None of it. Alas, our media was too much focused on the congressional elections in Plattsburgh, New York, to be bothered with such trivia.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today