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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Post-Election Regime Change in the Newsroom

In these last days before the election, the foreign media seems to be concentrating on a view of America that I don't recognize.

Looking at tv reports on the BBC, the CBC and France's TV5, the overwhelming presentation of the American voter seems rooted in a stereotype. That stereotype is that of the unreconstructed American racist.

While there is no doubt in my mind that these people exist (I have met or heard from far too many during my time as NPR's Ombudsman), I doubt that they exist to the extent that they are presented as mainstream American thinking.

My view (which may be tainted as well) is that most Americans are not the racist, anxious and fearful people that appear with alarming consistency in the foreign media - both print and broadcast.

I think that the foreign media is (perhaps unconsciously) is putting in the boot as the Brits say, to a George Bush/hard right vision of America that has been presented constantly to foreign audiences for the past eight years. What these reports are saying (also subconsciously) is that the stereotype of Bushian America is a thing of the past and that if Barack Obama is elected in six days, then foreign journalists will have to come up with another way of describing America - one that won't be quite so easy.

I blame the foreign editors in newsrooms around the world for their desire to find a ridiculous view of America. True, George Bush and his acolytes did all they could to serve this view up. But editors and reporters took the easy way out and presented a view of America that made Canadian, Brits, Germans and others comfortable in their sense of cultural superiority. I'm sure they'll miss these good old days.

A few years ago, I visited a tv newsroom in Ankara, Turkey. The managing editor, a woman in her 30s, offered me coffee, then attacked me and all American media for the distorted view of Islam that Americans are offered.

Taken aback by this uncharaceristic and deeply un-Turkish display of inhospitable chauvinism, I asked her for details.

"It's always the same," she said. "First you show roadside bombs, then you show Shiites whipping the skin off their backs, then you show people praying in a mosque, then you show the pilgrimage to Mecca, then you show oil fields. It's always the same cliches."

"You are right," I said. "But let me suggest how you show America to you viewers."

"Have you ever watched Turkish television?" she asked. "No," I said. "Only a few minutes in the hotel room."

But this is how I described it:

"First there is a longshot down 5th Avenue in New York. Then you cut to a shot of traders on the floor of the Chicago Grain Exchange, screaming and gesticulating. Then there is a night shot of Las Vegas. Finally there is a shot of scatily clad young women roller blading along the ocean at Venice Beach, California."

She was astounded. "So you have seen our programming!"

"No. But I do know how tv news resorts to cliches both here and in America."

All our audiences will be ill-served as long as we fail to move past the easy ideas and images. If there is an Obama administration, the foreign desks around the world will have to start doing some real journalism instead of pandering to our worst but most dramatic views of one another.


  1. You just don't like the picture foreign editors see. It is like holding up a mirror. I find it very strange that someone in the media would criticize the messenger for the message that they are conveying. I lived in Europe for many years and found their view of America much more accurate than innacurate. Foreign editors have been to the United States, and some like the editor of England's Guardian have lived here for a long time. I take it you are most sensitive about the racism charge, but I listened to an hour-long program on this very issue of how racism will affect this election on the American-broadcast NPR recently. Was that mistaken impression, too?

  2. if you think their portrayal of America is inaccurate, try their portrait of Texas. The second largest state, an increasingly urban area where Hispanics will be a plurality of the voters, is routinely depicted in Europe as a scene out of a bad 1940's western.

  3. It's true that I don't like the view of America seen through the foreign media. The last eight years have made the US an easily mocked notion. Some is legit. But much is imo, just throwing out all nuance just to amp the story. Foreign reporters in the US know this and seek out the most outrageous examples of America. I hope we as American journalists hold up the clearest mirror of ourselves, to ourselves so we see all the warts. But there's more to that story than the warts. But that doesn't make for good copy...Thanks for reading and for commenting. JD