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.

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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