How U.K. Coverage of the Presidential Race Feeds Anti-Americanism
British journalists seem determined to portray the Republican contest in oversimplified and distorted ways, reawakening familiar prejudices.
Back in 2006, the BBC's Washington correspondent, Justin Webb, broadcast a radio series on anti-Americanism abroad. He mentioned that the protests his mother participated in always had a slant against the United States. Webb argued this wasn't just about U.S. foreign policy. "More than that, they seemed to be part of a general attitude towards America, an ideology almost that regarded that place in particular with hostility," he said.
In keeping with that tendency, the British media too often over-simplify and exaggerate the American political scene. As the presidential campaign ratchets into full gear, that unfortunate impulse, which frames perceptions of Uncle Sam within the United Kingdom, is on full display. It is as if in revenge for the decline of Britannia's power, we can still legitimately look down on our American counterparts because they are overrun by Tea Party fanatics. While President Obama's election helped lift U.S. favorability from 51 percent in 2007 to a peak of 69 percent in 2009, the rise of the Tea Party has reversed the trend. Coverage of the conservative movement has informed the average Brit's understanding of the American mindset, U.S. favorability fell back to 61 percent in 2011 following Tea Party electoral successes.
It's little wonder why. Countless articles and videos, from journalists like Matthew Norman of The Independent and Gary Younge of The Guardian, have portrayed the Tea Party as hillbillies who firmly believe that Obama is a native of Kenya. For many in their audience, this resonates with a deep-seated sense of superiority to Americans. It's a common problem across Europe, according to Joseph Joffe, editor of Die Zeit. He notes that Europeans believe "America is the land of intolerant, fundamentalist religion, with screaming televangelists calling homosexuals Satan's semen-drenched acolytes, while Europe is charting a path toward enlightened secularism."
Commentary from Michael White of The Guardian on the January 19 Republican debate in South Carolina seems to confirm Joffe's take:
I watched Thursday's CNN-sponsored debate at Charleston, all flag-waving and heart-on-sleeve patriotism, more brawn than brain.... In their self-absorbed American way, the word China barely featured... blissfully ignorant that the best EU healthcare -- including the NHS -- delivers so much more for less than America's unfair and inefficient system. Who pays out most but still wins the Obesity Cup? Why, they do!
Britain still reserves the halls of power for its elites, and a whiff of classism is evident in much of the coverage of the United States. At the height of Herman Cain's popularity, The Independent's Archie Bland wrote an article titled "How an idiot could still end up in the White House." Bland pointed to the infamous clip in which Cain was unable to recall his own stance on the allied intervention in Libya and wrote that the former Godfather's Pizza CEO is "brazenly thick." Bland is of course right that Cain's credentials were never presidential caliber, but his tone rankles: It's that of an effete European dismissing the notion that a Horatio Alger-style self-starter should ever be considered for the presidency -- much less win it. Hadley Freeman, a Guardian journalist born in the U.S. and educated in the UK, says, "The truth is that some high-profile Americans who have received a lot of coverage do, to a certain extent, embody some American clichés, Sarah Palin being the most obvious example." But Freeman adds that most Britons will know that this is not the full story.
More often, however, it is race and political extremism that captivate the British press. Every article on American politics now includes an obligatory paragraph on the Tea Party, the strong influence of the religious right, and the fractious state of American politics. Andrew Preston, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University, says the British media have "a tendency to over-exaggerate, to miss nuance and instead overplay the divisiveness." He says the British press portrays Tea Party supporters as racists and over-emphasizes the power of the religious right. "I'm not a fan of the Tea Party," he adds, "but the issue of racism in the Tea Party has been over-egged."
Indeed, even the most minor story is pounced upon if it confirms the stereotype. For example, British media outlets were keen to give traction to an interview Piers Morgan conducted with Jimmy Carter -- little noticed at home -- in which the former president argued that Newt Gingrich was practicing veiled racism in South Carolina. Even The Economist emphasized the race angle:
Mr Gingrich engaged in some expert racial dog-whistling. He called Barack Obama the "food-stamp president" and accused him of declaring war on religion and traditional American values. He was not merely condescending to Juan Williams, the lone black moderator in the most recent debate, but effectively called him lazy at a campaign event. He then used this tussle as a campaign ad arguing that he could most effectively beat Mr Obama, who just happens to share the same skin color as Mr Williams. These attacks seemed to go down well with primary voters, who were 99% white.
Preston says the British press' coverage suffers from a lack of historical context. Anti-Washington sentiment is nothing new: it's been central to the populist American politics since the 1960s heyday of George Wallace, and reached its apotheosis in Ronald Reagan, whom Mitt Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum all cite as a model. Wallace's rise "coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government," writes historian Dan Carter, with the portion of Americans who trust the government dropping ever since it hit 80 percent in 1964.
Nonetheless, British journalists have delighted in portraying the Republican race as representing the disintegration of U.S. politics. Perhaps this is a by-product of the fact that they are foreign correspondents. In a study on European reporting on the 2008 presidential election, the authors noted that "journalists are less constrained by the political context that they operate in when reporting on domestic politics and as a sort of compensation will demonstrate an even larger interest in the competitive elements of the US presidential election." Whatever the reason, while there is no doubt that the GOP is struggling to reconcile the "establishment base" and the Tea Party fringe, American journalists seem to be trying harder to understand the goings-on in the GOP primaries, exploring political science and economic explanations for voter preferences.
British media seem content to blame the results on something more extreme. The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland proclaims that America is moving "towards an anti-government fervor that recalls the militia movement of the 1990s, convinced that every Washington move... is motivated by wickedness and constitutes a step towards tyranny." But non-incumbent parties frequently adopt more radical candidates in their first election out of government. During his days as a young congressman, Gingrich himself said, 'The number one fact about the news media, is they love fights. You have to give them confrontations." It seems the UK media has fallen for the former House speaker's tricks, and when they see him fight, they see it as a much larger, all-encompassing brawl.
There's no denying the Tea Party's potency within the GOP, but the British media both misrepresents the movement and exaggerates its hold on the broader American body politic. Reading recent articles, the British leader would be led to think that Tea Party sentiment was still in full swing the States. However, recent surveys show its support plummeting -- even in districts that it dominated in the 2010 midterms.
However, it seems UK journalists would prefer to focus on the smear campaigns and divisions in the GOP, rather than focus on either what the Tea Party means or how strong an influence it actually exerts on either the party or the country. In their rush to do so, they've missed the opportunity to draw meaningful parallels with politics on their own side of the pond. For example, countless columnists have overlooked the meltdown within the UK's Labour Party, which is less keen on its own leader than the GOP are about its candidates.
Maybe Brits just don't get the American way. While the rest of America was tweeting about Tim Tebow and Tom Brady during the NFL playoffs, the former BBC America anchor* -- now with News Channel 4 in Washington -- had something else, something a little more British on his mind:
Finally getting round to watching Downton Abbey. Big TV catch up. No one does class in costumes like the Brits.— Matt Frei (@mattfrei) January 15, 2012
Correction 2/20/12: This item originally incorrectly described Matt Frei as the BBC America anchor.