2 – The Media Filter For Europe and Asia (Dec 08)

    Where does the news about world affairs come from? This would seem a important question, but it is rarely asked and inaccurate ideas about it appear to be taken for granted in Europe as well as parts of Asia with which I am familiar. A crucially relevant fact in the backgroud of a lot of what I hope to put on this site is that there are few independent European and Asian purveyors of world news, and that in the selection of what is supposedly worth knowing among the myriad happenings on our planet their influence is virtually nil. The first draft of history, as seen by most of the world, goes through an American filter, because what we get to know about events beyond national borders reaches us mainly through American mediaries, with some help from the British.
     Some things like big earthquakes, major train crashes and the like do not require superior skills of judgment for inclusion among the dozen or so “stories” served up every day, but for political and economic developments the skills and preoccupations of those who do the judging is clear. The more complex the matter, the more important the appraisers. European audiences may get homegrown assessments of what is going on outside their countries. But what is considered news to begin with, if it comes from far away, is first of all almost always predetermined by American editors and correspondents. Al Jazeera TV broadcasts are a wonderful new development, especially because of the much more detailed attention they pay to what is happening in the poorer parts of the world, but selections of these broadcasters, too, tend to follow a beaten path.
     What Japanese or Koreans learn about European events goes through that same mainly American filter. There are Japanese correspondents based in Brussels, but a lot of what their newspapers consider European news has become news because of American preoccupations. And the same is true again for a majority of European correspondents working on other continents who are not given the time to acclimatize in non-Western political systems. I know this from my experience as a correspondent covering many stories unfoldign in East Asia.
     In Europe the American-British filter even overlays unfolding reality more than one border away. There exist no European-edited quality broadcast programs and no European newspapers or magazines to give the Danes and the Spaniards and the Rumanians and the Irish and the Finns a forum to inform each other about what is going on in their corners of the Union. What happens in one part of Europe mostly becomes known in another part of it as seen through American editorial eyeballs, because the only newspaper that is widely read in the entire region is the International Herald Tribune, edited and reported by the New York Times and some Americans in Paris. A second serious paper widely distributed throughout the continent is the Financial Times, which is edited with an ear cocked to the Anglo-American business world. It becomes poignantly clear how great a handicap this is when considering public attitudes toward European integration. The member states have surrendered significant aspects of their sovereignty to Brussel-based institutions and yet the means are not available for a discussion amongst them on what would be desirable collective policies, and what a unified Europe ought to look like.
     Many Europeans in a discussion about this are likely to say that the International Herald Tribune is a good paper. Which is normally true enough, by common standards. It has been more than the advantage of the internationally most useful language and more than the superior financial backing, that has brought Anglo-American journalism to the height it occupies, it has also delivered quality. The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the BBC, to name several influential channels, have over the post-World-War-II decades gained a largely deserved reputation of reliability. But that is not the point. Reliability is less a problem than the priorities, preconceptions and prejudices of a particular group of editors. What occupies their minds obviously helps determine what we think of as news and what to make of it. Hence, what Europe believes to be shared reality – the reality adhered to for opinions to make sense to others – is in huge measure the practical responsibility a powerful group of largely anonymous editors outside the European continent. For understandable reasons American frames of reference and American interpretations were the main guides for European discussion about global political and economic topics during the Cold War. These frames of reference are today still with us. If anything has changed since 1989, it would be that because of the dwindling influence of an organized political left these interpretations meet with even less European competition.
     Making everyone see the world through your eyeballs constitutes the essence of hegemony, as defined by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony eschews coercive power and follows from seduction, from the ability to impose on others an ideology that draws upon the hegemonic state’s own beliefs and methods for its details. The acceptance of American ideology has never been complete, of course, but until George W. Bush’s adventurism American assumptions were rarely contradicted when the ruling elites of what used to be the Cold-War alliance got together.
     The reach of American editorial direction in creating global political reality for this side of the Atlantic is continually demonstrated by European newspaper and TV commentary. Not only foreign policy areas deemed worthy of debate, but also the terms of such debate are mostly produced in Washington. How far this could go was demonstrated day after day during the controversies centered on the Security Council stand-off before the invasion of Iraq, in which questions, targets of objection, and even choice of words in media coverage were mostly under American control. If a few Europeans realized this, they did little or nothing to set straight the inherent distortions.
    So when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that his country would oppose an Iraqi invasion this was greeted with much disdain in other European countries. Commentators up and down the continent agreed that this was just an electoral trick of a weak leader, one that would result in an isolated Germany; precisely the explanation that most American commentators were peddling. The Belgian and French obstruction of American wishes within NATO awoke the ire of other European NATO members. How could this be otherwise, as long as the relevant discussions were built on American terms of debate handed down by the Bush Administration? In the same way, European governments and commentators could still imply, throughout the George W. Bush period, that a looming end to the Atlantic Alliance was being brought about by recalcitrant European members, rather than by unilateral cancellation in Washington. What was judged appropriate comment on the failures and horrors of the Iraq occupation in Dutch mainstream media had to wait for cues from the United States. Only once the flow of domestic American criticism about American politics becomes unstoppable does such a thing make itself felt in Europe as it dribbles through to TV talk programs and other popular means of mass opinion formation.
     There exists no European public sphere to offset the reality as produced by American editors. British newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent do come with corrections, but their influence is too meager to make much of a difference. The BBC is a multi-sided institution that has produced significant documentaries, but as one academic study shows it has also mainly propagated the government line on the crucial matters listed here, and as long as there exists a self-consciously “special” Anglo-American relationship it is likely to continue doing so. So when it happened, Europe was hardly made aware of the details of the single greatest war crime of the past decade: the destruction of the city of Falluja. Home to a quarter million inhabitants, it was virtually bombed to the ground. “The story of Falluja is a tale of cluster bombs, napalm, depleted uranium, banned weapons, families crushed in their homes, dogs devouring dead citizens on the city streets, and masses of displaced people victimized by a vengeful and implacable enemy. It’s a story of unspeakable crimes, of absolute impunity, and unfathomable cynicism.”
     2008 has seen the removal of fear from editor’s offices across the United States, something unlikely to return under a Democratic administration. But much unrecoverable damage has been done – new habits, fewer and more cost-conscious owners. And the American “center-left” is pretty rightwing by European standards. Without a serious sustained effort to create European news purveyors Europe will continue to have its enemies and other threats identified by Americans, as is already happening with Iran and Venezuela. The same is true for Japan, but those threats are taken less seriously there. American media will set the tone for the Dutch and the Danes and the Portuguese on how to think about Putin. They will help hinder Brussels from arriving at the urgently needed collective European policy toward Russia. They will set traps like the one that dragged Europeans into a doomed diplomatic exercise vis-à-vis Teheran. Worst of all, they will throw out of focus, again and again, what Europeans ought to be most concerned about with respect to European integration.