Through a Glass, Starkly

Foreign coverage has a great flaw, an inherent distortion that becomes highly visible in wartime: We tend to learn about foreign countries and cultures only when they're part of a big story.

The World Loathes Us. It's the headline of our time. It's also a symbol of this administration's worst failures, certain to be a central theme of the presidential campaign.

The American media should be all over the story, and in a way, they are. We're awash in news about our new status as the great global pariah. I caught a telling specimen of the genre several nights ago on NBC Nightly News. Tom Brokaw introduced it with the apparently ineradicable Vietnam cliché: "Tonight, the question: Can anything be done to salvage the so-called battle for hearts and minds? NBC's Fred Francis with that story tonight from Egypt."

The voiceover begins: "On the Arab street and in much of the world, outrage has produced a consensus: Rumsfeld must go." The rest of the script is so familiar, an astute viewer practically could have written it from memory. We see shots of that proverbial street, where all those hearts and minds appear to spend every waking hour grimacing and shaking fists. Hopscotch around the world, to Britain, to Germany, to Russia, where we meet various erudite experts for a piquant sentence or two. One says of Rumsfeld, "He is reminding me of a sort of neo-Nazi character who's coming back to life, and anything which is not American is wrong." Finally to Italy, where we initially see an anti-Bush poster, then close with the inevitable Moment of Balance, as a vaguely pro-Bush professor from the University of Rome says, "What we know is that democracy has enough courage and moral integrity to face its own evil."

There you have it: America the Unpopular, in a few minutes and under 500 words—tight, superficial, and eerily familiar. Is that all there is? Of course not. It's never fair to judge the media at large by the unbearable liteness of the nightly news. In fact, there's stronger, more thoughtful coverage of this story out there, particularly in print outlets, scattered stories that go deeper into the nuances of world opinion.

Still, if the NBC piece is a caricature, it's a caricature based on certain essential truths about foreign coverage, ancient problems that are endemic to the genre but have been thrown into relief lately, as the world turns on us, and the media try to explain why.

Geographically and culturally, the U.S. is a pretty insular place. Americans have always relied on journalists to bring the globe to them, and those journalists have often acquitted themselves well. This is especially true in wartime, and it was true in the war that every newsperson of a certain age seems to be reliving right now—the Vietnam War.

But foreign coverage has a great flaw, an inherent distortion that becomes highly visible in wartime. Oddly enough, the flaw is in the news itself, and the formal strictures of journalism. Because the news is driven by headlines, we tend to learn about foreign countries and cultures not as they are every day, but as they are in relation to whatever happens to be the big story. I think it's fair to say that Vietnam basically didn't exist in the American media—or the public consciousness—until the Vietnam War came along. Thus, Vietnam the country became indistinguishable from the war, to the point where the word "Vietnam" all by itself was a synonym for the war. The public knew Vietnam only through the prism of the war—a limited view, to say the least.

This is a strange way to relate to the world, and I think it partly explains why we get into the global messes we get into, generation after generation. When the public knows little about a particular country or region—one that hasn't been in the news, was never a big story—it's relatively easy for an administration to come along with a few headstrong ideas and do something stupid. When all you know about Vietnam is the allegedly looming Communist threat, the war argument makes sense. When all you know about Iraq is the allegedly looming terrorist threat, ditto.

In an ideal world, I suppose, the media would constantly be producing serious, thoughtful foreign coverage about every country on Earth, sophisticating the American public about how life is lived from Mongolia to Mozambique. Then, when one of those places wound up in the news, we'd be well equipped to understand what it was all about, and prevent those fatal errors.

Obviously, what I'm sketching here is the media as one gigantic National Geographic Society. I seriously doubt that any of us would really want that. Nobody has time to follow the whole world in such depth, in a regular way.

The problem is, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, losing even the limited depth we had. In the past few decades, many major American news organizations, particularly in television, have cut back on permanent foreign bureaus. The reason is pure practical economics. Why spend all that money when you can send people and resources to whatever is the big story of the hour—the current war, for example—and thereby get more bang for your buck?

In this new world of foreign news, when there isn't a war, the world recedes from the front pages, and vanishes from the top of the broadcast. It happened in the self-obsessed '90s, when our great turning inward was abetted by a media obsessed with tech stocks, Clinton-Lewinsky, and all the rest. The terrorists were out there then. The world didn't matter—until it did.