Manufactured failure #2: the press, Obama, Asia
It's not just me. Two colleagues with different perspectives -- from each other's, and sometimes from my own -- marvel at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama's just-ended tour of Asia.
First, Howard French -- long of the NYT, now of the Columbia Journalism School, friend of mine in both Tokyo and Shanghai. He has a new online Q-and-A with the Columbia Journalism Review, here, in which he says that 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. Read the whole thing, but here are two samples:
From the set-up to the interview, by Alexandra Fenwick:
"In almost every analysis of the trip, Chinese officials were portrayed as optimistic and newly emboldened to stand up to American interests and Obama was cast in the role of the meek debtor, standing with hat in hand. The line is that little was achieved and Obama was stifled, literally by state television and figuratively by the Chinese upper hand in the power dynamic."
Howard French goes on to say that these assumptions were flat wrong. He offers many explanations, including this:
"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. You can't be an expert on every question, and so you're part of the Washington press corps and if you're really good and really diligent, you're going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China."
If you have seen Howard French's coverage over the years, including the five years he was based in Shanghai, you will know that no sane reader has ever put him in the category of "soft" on the Chinese leadership or China's faults. Yet his wonderment and exasperation at what he reads is palpable.
Tish Durkin, who has written for the Atlantic from Iraq and elsewhere, arrived in China recently. The subhead on her new column for The Week gets across the point:
"Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."
While I'm at it, here's one more: a story quoting the new US Ambassador to China, former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman (a Mandarin speaker), to exactly the same effect.
"Washington's ambassador to Beijing hit out on Friday at negative US media coverage of President Barack Obama's visit to China, saying it failed to take into account important progress on many issues...
"The trip was the top news story in China, drawing strong interest from the mainland public who, surveys suggest, are largely positive in their view of the American president.
"However, much of the US media coverage was strongly negative, accusing Obama of failing to gain concessions on key issues such as Iran's nuclear programme and climate change, as well as being weak on human rights."
"I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. "I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings," he said.
I wasn't in touch with Howard French or Tish Durkin (to say nothing of Amb. Jon Huntsman) before we all expressed the same amazed and negative reaction at the way our colleagues had missed the main point of what just happened in America's relations with a very important part of the world. We're all familiar with one "crisis of the press," the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: 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.