Press Corps Under Fire for Distorting Obama's China Trip

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Media coverage of President Obama's recent trip to China tended to focus on short-term political goals such as currency policy and whether China would join in sanctions against Iran. The trip was mainly covered not by China experts, after all, but by the White House press corps, which has long been criticized for inordinately focusing on short-sighted Beltway politics. That criticism hit new heights when The Atlantic's own James Fallows, who lived in and reported about China for a number of years, wrote a five-part take-down of media coverage of the China trip. Fallows's posts compelled a response from Chuck Todd, one of the highest profile members of the White House press corps.

  • 'Instant Scorekeeping'  Former New York Times China correspondent Howard French describes the problem to the Columbia Journalism Review. "I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff."
  • 'Manufactured Failure'  James Fallows laments "the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based 'horse race.' As you can tell, this really bothers me." He writes, "the traveling press covered Obama's meetings with Asian officials as if this were a bunch of stops in a presidential campaign tour, and as a result missed or misrepresented what was going on."
  • The 'Long Game'  An anonymous administration official who worked on the trip told Fallows, "the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories." The official said, "So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road. [...] None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game."
Plenty of folks have passed on comments about coverage of the Asia trip; It's caused the blogosphere/twitterverse to do the usual, which is focus on facts that support their own thesis; the generalization that goes on with judgments against the WH press corps are hypocritical in that folks backseat driving the coverage are doing to the press what they themselves are accusing the press of doing. The reality is this when it comes to the president's Asia trip: we won't know if this trip was a success or failure for some time. Short term, we'll get a sense of how this trip went when the U.S. presses for tougher sanctions against Iran. Long term, especially in terms of relations with China, this trip will be placed in proper context. But let's not just do the easy thing... when folks don't like how things are doing which is to do what sports fans do, blame the refs, rather than the players on the field. BTW, my favorite part of all this backseat driving is how 1 or 2 pieces of reporting gets collectively used to attack entire press corps. Even funnier already, how folks are so blind to their own rage, they are accusing me of whining. Apologies for trying to introduce nuance!
With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign "pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an announcement is a "failure."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.