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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, February 10, 2008

America Observed: "It's Not Me. It's My Editor"

A few nights ago I was asked to speak to a group of European journalists who were invited by the State Department to visit the United States for a few weeks during this extraodinary and remarkable political season. The journalists were mostly in their 30s and 40s...along with a few 20-somethings. They were from Germany, Scandinavia, Turkey, Italy, France and Canada (an honorary European for this occasion, I assume). Most had visited the US before.

Their voyage took them to places they hadn't seen before: Cleveland, Arkansas, Tennessee, Utah and Colorado before ending up in Washington DC where they were to meet various spokespersons for media organizations and government departments.

When I met them, they had just come back from the view of what the French might call "L'Amerique profonde" - the "real" America.

Their shared impressions were that Americans fit into a number of stereotypes - friendly, hospitable and curious, if somewhat jingoistic and even defensive about how this country has changed during the years of the Bush Administration. They hadn't met anyone (as far as they were willing to admit) who soured them on this country.

As we talked for a couple of hours, it became clear to me that whatever ideas and impressions they brought with them had been transformed by their time here. But they felt that Americans are equally ill-informed about the rest of the world.

It occured to me that this may have been, as they say, a "teachable moment."

I asked if they had filed reports for their newspapers from this trip. Many of them had.

Did their editors agree with the direction their stories took?

"No," they all said. "Our editors all want stories that show how stupid and undemocratic America is."

Why is that?

"Well," said one Spaniard, "It makes for a better story. It's easier to get something like that in the newspaper."

It reminded me of a visit to Turkey a few years ago. I was meeting with television journalists from NTV - a Turkish all news network, much like CNN. The managing editor, a very smart young woman took me and all American journalists to task for our appalling and simplistic coverage of the Muslim world.

"You always show the same things," she heatedly said. "You start with the muezzein's call to prayer, followed by a shot of men praying in a mosque, followed by explosions in Iraq, then a shot of Shiites flagellating themselves in the street during the festival of Ashura. You end the sequence with a crowd burning an American flag." She smiled as she finished and her journalists nodded in agreement.

"You are right," I said. "I've seen those shots too. But let me describe how Turkish tv views America."

"You've seen our reports?" she asked.

"No. But I can guess. You start off with a long shot up 5th Avenue in New York when the crowds are thickest. Then you go to a shot of the Chicago Grain Exchange with floor traders going berserk, screaming and selling shares. Then there's a shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by a night shot of Vegas. You finish with a shot of scantily clad women, roller blading along a sidewalk in Venice Beach, California. Of course you have to show an American fighter jet dropping bombs or staffing civilians in Vietnam."

She was stunned. "So you have seen our work."

"No. But I know television and tv cliches. We do it in America and I just assumed you do it in Turkey."

I told that story to the Europeans here in Washington, and we started to discuss how journalism could move past cliches. More importantly I heard about how hard it is to get past an editor's pre-conceived notions of America. I think I saw some light going on over heads all around the room.

Perhaps the next international exchange should not be just with reporters. Bring on the editors.

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