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[Washington Babylon]

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

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