Hurricane Irene and American Self-Centeredness

How non-Americans see our media coverage of the storm

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When will we be able to see ourselves as others see us around the world? In a year that has seen the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, with entire towns of thousands of people being swept away in minutes; a famine that is killing thousands of people, particularly children, daily; and genuinely world-historic scenes of extraordinarily brave protesters willing to die for their principles across North Africa and the Middle East , the U.S. media is literally showing round the clock pictures of rain, trees blowing in strong wind, flooded storm drains, patches of minor debris, a few downed power lines, and, I kid you not, moved benches on the New Jersey boardwalk. Headlines blare the number of "fatalities" without telling us that every hurricane or major storm always, tragically, causes car and boat accidents, heart attacks, and trees falling on houses.

At times it almost seems like a caricature of disaster coverage, with swelling music, grim-faced broadcasters (all in bright rain jackets and baseball caps with the requisite network logos), and dramatic pictures sent in by viewers that turn out to be ... wait for it! ... a cracked telephone pole. Anderson Cooper, who after all made his name reporting live and honestly from New Orleans during Category 5 Katrina, at least looks uncomfortably aware of the ridiculousness of the situation and is beginning to point out that perhaps it's really not so bad?

When I sent out a tweet expressing similar sentiments with the tag line "what must the world think," I immediately got back the following selection of responses:

From England: "rest of world doesn't care are watching Libya coverage on Sky or AJE or BBC or RT, what is CNN!!?"

From Serbia: "I cannot speak for the whole world, but I think, nobody outside takes 24/7 US 'news'-media serious. We study you like ants. ;-)"

From India: "Wait, u don't like that CNN is doing that? Wonder how I feel when they always have their anchors air from ghettos in New Delhi?"

From Australia: "Nation building in the ME or a storm over NY. Guess which leads the news?"

And perhaps most tellingly, also from Britain: "Ask a tourist where they're from. A Londoner will say, "England". A Frenchman: "France". An American? "Delaware"!"

Like any great power, we are extraordinarily self-centered, although even by American standards, given the incredible tornadoes that wiped out entire towns this past spring, this is a bit much. I fully understand that it is far better to be prepared than not, and it's hard to fault government officials for acting preventatively. We can all imagine what could have happened if authorities did not take the predictions seriously and then disaster really struck. But then let's have a sense of humor about it, and be willing to admit that perhaps this is not the storm of the century, and that in fact we might just have over-reacted just a teeny bit. It's one thing to share our gust-by-gust accounts of riding out Irene with each other, but in a 24/7 global news environment we cannot forget that how others see us matters. A little irony would go a long way.

Or perhaps not. A Dutchman sent in the following response: "the world thinks that happy peoples only have boring news... Keep it that way!"

Presented by

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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