Britain in the American Press
What kind of image of the British does a newspaper story create in the mind of the average American reader? An incomplete statement, a few words lifted out of context, can develop on occasion into an international incident. ALEX FAULKNER,New York correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph since 1934, writes from long experience with press practices on both sides of the Atlantic.
by ALEX FAULKNER
HARDHEADED American newspaper editors are no doubt aware that a good foreign news service is a sound, dollars-and-cents proposition. One illustration of this was provided by the announcement of the New York Journal-American that, judging from its newsstand sales records, the greatest news story of 1953 was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. “Readers were more anxious to buy papers giving details of the English coronation than any other single event,”this by no means highbrow newspaper reported.
The world’s great newspapers do evidently conceive it to be a part of their duty, as well as one of their paramount interests, to treat their readers as people who are in some degree citizens of the world, with a desire to be kept informed about everything of importance that happens anywhere. Yet foreign correspondents living in the United States have reached the following broad conclusion: “ In the average American newspaper the picture of other countries is generally objective, but spotty and incomplete, lacking in continuity, and uninterpreted.”
Some countries fare worse than others, and correspondents from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, West Germany, and India all find much to criticize in the accounts American readers receive of their homelands. By comparison, John Bull emerges as the white-headed boy of American editors. They do not exactly pamper him, but at least they notice him. However, vivid recollections of 1776 and all that color much of what the modern American journalist writes about England. To an Englishman it often seems that many American writers still carry this historical chip on their shoulder, and that they suffer from a strong temptation to look for things in Britain calculated to rekindle the revolutionary fury or contempt of true-blooded Americans.
Over the years I have collected scores of newspaper clippings illustrating this special feature of the Anglo-American relationship, and there was a neat latter-day specimen of it in an otherwise admirable report on the coronation printed in the Chicago Tribune (a newspaper, incidentally, which ranks about third among those American newspapers which devote a large amount of space to foreign news).
“The British people,” this story stated, “have spent an estimated 100 million dollars on the coronation, including a direct government outlay of 5 millions.” Then came the following jolt: “The American Government, however, has promised a new gift of 300 million dollars this year and will spend another 300 millions for munitions in Britain. This is only a part of the 7½ billions given to the British in loans and gifts since the war.”
The canard that American dollars are squandered on domestic events like coronations, which are of course paid for in sterling and are in no sense dependent upon American aid, often crops up, although the Tribune expresses it more brutally than some of its contemporaries. It never fails to exasperate an English reader.
One well-worn theme of many American journalists is the “Olde Tea Shoppe” England, picturesque for camera-bearing tourists, perhaps, but so inefficient, so old-fashioned, so remote front the world of television, radar, and jet planes. But if British scientific achievements are underrated, British diplomacy makes up for it by receiving more credit than some students of the subject think it deserves, and the British Foreign Office is popularly credited with a skill and a cunning that seem forever destined to carry off the traditional American diplomat’s shirt. The Intelligence Service once enjoyed a similar reputation (perhaps Sherlock Holmes had something to do with it), but the Communists seem to have tarnished it; now British security arrangements are no good at all, and Red spies help themselves to all the atomic secrets they want.
Having no colonial responsibilities, the Americans can with a good conscience deplore everything that the modern representatives of George III do in this field. In another mood the American cartoonist or commentator decides that contemporary Elizabethans are a decadent lot who speak English with a decidedly sissy accent and who are living impersonations of a cast of P. G. Wodehouse characters. Oddly enough, they also live with stoic courage in inadequately heated homes and have an almost total disregard for the culinary art.
Most of these myths are harmless enough, but like all illusions they generally end up by causing more trouble than pleasure. The harm they may do is offset by the steady flow from the United Kingdom of much that is true and understanding and enlightening. Many of the leading figures in Britain are well enough known in the United States to command attention whenever they do or say something interesting. One poll yielded the fascinating bit of information that while 83 per cent of the newspaper readers questioned were able to name Sir Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister, only 30 per cent could recall what party was in power in Britain.
Human-interest subjects predominate in the news from the British Isles, taking up perhaps a third of the space devoted to happenings there, and no mean proportion of this is always reserved for the activities of the Royal Family. But to proceed from this indisputable fact to the assumption that Americans generally therefore have a clear understanding of what is happening in Britain, of that country’s problems and post-war achievements, would be rash indeed. I still meet people in this country who shake their heads over the ravages of British socialism, evidently quite unaware that the Conservatives took over in October, 1951.
It is true that if all the special correspondents’ reports and all the agency reports and all the columnists’ musings that appear in one of the publications specializing in foreign news were pasted in a book over a period of time, it might well be claimed that they added up to a pretty informative account of contemporary life in Britain. Day-by-day analysis of the main events in Britain and the reports on them printed in a few of the influential American dailies shows that in spite of some rather surprising omissions, and a frequent lack of continuity and of adequate explanation of the significance of certain happenings, the broad picture is quite good.
It is not by any means as complete or as illuminating as the size of American newspapers might lead one to expect. There appears to be room for everything, although anyone who has observed a harassed make-up editor in the throes of putting his paper to bed realizes that this is an illusion.
In point of fact, when all domestic demands have been satisfied there is less space available for foreign news in an American newspaper than the casual observer might suppose, and American writers and editors make a less successful effort than their colleagues overseas to face up to this by cultivating the art of condensation. According to the International Press Institute, which compiled a report on the flow of news, the daily average of about thirtytwo columns of foreign dateline news stories carried by the New York Times during the period of the study compared with an average of a little more than four columns a day in all the 105 newspapers it selected for examination.
It is obvious that very few of the 1786 morning and evening newspapers in the United States can afford the expense of a special foreign service, but do they make as much use as they might of the heavy foreign file they receive from the news agencies? There are tremendous variations, of course, but one Southern afternoon paper, which seemed to be typical of the average, used about 14 per cent of the foreign copy it received from two agencies in the course of one week.
EXAMINATION of the foreign news of such agencies as the Associated Press results in high credit marks for speed, accuracy, and lack of bias, but by their very nature agencies are bound to avoid too much “explanation.” it might be considered editorializing. Only the special correspondent can risk that.
As a result, political events in a country like France may go unreported for weeks at a time in most American newspapers, and when the government suddenly falls it makes no sense at all to the American reader if no effort is made to tell him what it is all about.
This no doubt helps to explain the popularity of human-interest items from abroad. They stand on their own feet. They are used because they are readable; and while no one can object to editors’ efforts to make their papers interesting, the end result of frequently using foreign snippets purely as “ brighteners” is to produce a very distorted picture of the foreign countries concerned. The distortion is less marked in the ease of the British Isles because cumulatively the shreds and patches of information form some sort of portrait of life in that part of the world, and in any case British life, past and present, is sufficiently familiar to a large number of Americans, either from study or firsthand contact, for much of this material to slip into place.
But American reporting even of Britain, in my view, suffers in some degree from what might be described as cartoonism. Other countries are to an even greater extent victims of popular conceptions of their characteristics. In the case of John Bull (and Uncle Sam naturally labors under similar handicaps abroad) the mental image which sets the tone for much that is said about him is cluttered up with ancient memories running the whole gamut from the Boston Tea Party to the financing of the two World Wars. And the habit of always reaching for a headline, of always trying to pick out from a speech or a situation something newsworthy, often produces distortion.
As a case study of this, a speech which the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Clement Attlee, made in the House of Commons on May 12, 1953, provides a good example of how international misunderstanding can be encouraged.
His speech was an earnest attempt to explore what to many Europeans are the sometimes mysterious springs of power in the United States. Who speaks for the United States? Is it the President, or his Secretary of State, or the leaders in Congress of the party in power, or the chairmen of important Congressional committees? Americans have no difficulty about sorting these things out, but foreigners, whose very lives and fortunes sometimes depend upon the twists and turns of American policy, not infrequently find themselves bewildered.
Apart from the New York Times, most of the American newspapers that bothered with this speech at all used the Associated Press version. The author of this report treated it as a routine job and did his best to make it “interesting.”He achieved some unexpected results.
Mr. Attlee, he said in the first paragraph printed in the New York Herald Tribune and other papers, “charged” that the hands of Mr. Eisenhower’s Administration were lied in seeking peace in Korea by “elements in the U.S.A. that do not want a settlement.” Skipping the next paragraph (as printed in the Tribune), the New York Daily News went on to the third, which stated: “Striking out sharply at the American approach to foreign policy, Mr. Attlee” (it was just plain “Attlee” in the News) “told the House of Commons that “sometimes one wondered who was more powerful, the President or Senator McCarthy.’”
At this point the News gave up, but the Tribune went on for another hall-column.
The whole Associated Press story was made up of broken quotations, prefixed with such phrases as “He charged,” ”He assailed,” and “Striking out sharply,” and both the speaker and the reader were pretty much at the mercy of the reporter.
What made the report significant was the violent reaction to it. Senator McCarthy made an impassioned speech claiming that “Comrade” Attlee, “this creature Attlee,”as he called him, had suggested that Britain should withdraw from the Korean War if America would not reach a settlement agreeable to the British, and he shouted angrily: “Let them withdraw and be damned.”
Back it all bounced to London, where Mr. Attlee was so upset that he issued an eight-point denial of Senator McCarthy’s charges. All over America newspapers started publishing editorials. Some urged calm; some were furious; some, like the Chicago Tribune, were resigned. (“It is no novel experience to be sold out by the British.”)
The only snag was that up to this point no one in this country really knew just what Mr. Attlee had said. All they had to guide them was the Associated Press dispatch, made up of isolated sentences and phrases, and it was not until May 16, when the New York Times printed a fairly long excerpt provided by the British Information Services, a government agency, that it was known what everyone was talking about. On May 19, members of the House of Commons cheered when Sir Winston Churchill made the announcement that, in future, verbatim texts of important foreign affairs speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would be cabled to the British Embassy in Washington.
I rather expected to see some editorials saying that this was an insult to the freedom of the American press, but in fact several American newspapers acted in an extremely civilized manner. On May 17 the Washington Star printed the text of relevant passages of Mr. Attlee’s speech and insisted editorially that “he was not indulging in an antiAmerican tirade.” On May 19 the St. Louis PostDispatch did likewise, and said editorially: “A major share of the responsibility for the unfortunate breach in relations between the United States and our natural and inevitable ally, Britain, must rest on the poor reporting of the Attlee speech. It would have been much better, in our opinion, for the wire services, in this instance, to have sent to American newspapers substantial direct quotationsof Mr. Attlee, rather than to have cut up his remarks into the bits and pieces which gave Senator McCarthy and the other irresponsibles their excuse for teeing off.”The Milwaukee Journal also printed parts of the text on May 22, under the four-column headline: “What Did Attlee Really Say?”
The whole incident very neatly illustrated two features of American foreign news reporting. One is its great dependence on agency sources, not always balanced by the calmer analysis of special correspondents, and the other is its genuine anxiety to set the record straight, once it becomes apparent that someone has been misrepresented. What is disturbing is the thought that on many other occasions, when the alarm is not sounded, distortions of omission and improper interpretation creep in. It is only one aspect of the problem of reporting foreign news faithfully and adequately, but it combines with others to raise the whole question of whether newspapers anywhere have kept pace with changes in the modern world.