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:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

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.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today