“Western reporters are no better than unofficial PR agents for powerful western politicians. They should get over themselves and stop acting like pre-teen girls at a boy band concert.”
Yesterday, the BBC published a piece which should not go unnoticed; not as a worthy contribution to political or geopolitical debate, but for its significance in serving as a prime example of why Westerners should be highly skeptical of the British network’s coverage of the Obama presidency.
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America Editor, published a write-up of his recent interview with the American president, whom he called, sadly without a hint of irony, the “leader of the free world” — as though we were all living in a game of The Sims 3.
The headline on the piece?
The candour, humour and body swerve of a US president.
Candour: Obama is honest and up front
Humour: Obama is a nice guy who you can have a laugh with
Body-swerve: Obama sometimes avoid questions, like all presidents
Those three uncritical assumptions combine to give the impression to interested but unskeptical viewers — and those are the majority of news consumers — that Obama is a guy you can trust implicitly; a man doing the best he can to preserve all that is good and great about the world, and to fend off that which would harm us.
It is all part of the merry-go-round of Western reporting on US foreign policy, in that everything seems to be going around and around in an increasingly familiar circle, but no one wants to stop the ride and spoil the fun — and journalists, suffering repeated cases of collective amnesia, hand Washington a blank slate every four years.
Western correspondents in Washington have shown a clear propensity towards reporting on American presidents in terms of how ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ their job is, rather than focusing on deep critical analysis of their successes and failures. Faced with an almost impossible choice, the fate of the world in his hands, the great American president made the best decision he could, in the hopes that he could serve the greater good.
That is the constant and overarching narrative that the populations of America’s allies are fed by their domestic media — state or otherwise. There is nearly always that element of sympathy there. Kind of like the sympathy adult kids have for their parents when they realize they’re human; you were dysfunctional, but you did your best in the circumstances, so we forgive you.
Yes, kind of like that, only worse.
Sopel devotes a not insignificant portion of his word count to describing the atmosphere in the room while he waited for the president to arrive; the drama and excitement of being inside the White House, the sweaty palms and the hard-to-believe-it’s-real feeling that one gets inside Washington’s famed halls of power. Like a giddy teenager, Sopel even manages to make reference to The West Wing TV show.
“…it felt as though I was part of the Aaron Sorkin drama,” he writes.
Lacking all self-awareness, at one point he even calls his interview with the president a “chat”.
It’s a random remark, but a telling one.
And Sopel is not alone. He is joined by hundreds of other foreign journalists in Washington, so many of whom feel that same awe; that creeping but never acknowledged sense that their glamorous personal experiences are more important than the consequences of their work and the impact it might have on the world.
A few months ago, the Washington correspondent for my own country’s state broadcaster, RTE, gave an interview about working at the center of American power. She too, referenced The West Wing as she excitedly relayed the Hollywood-worthy details and delights of covering America to her interviewer. It was cringeworthy.
For many a young political journalist, Washington is the ultimate; the dream, the thing worth working towards. It will be just like Sorkin wrote it. But Sopel is not young — and he should not be so naive.
I’ve stood in the White House press room and spent days on end wandering the halls of the Capitol. I’ve watched from the House Press Gallery as the president delivered his State of the Union address to Congress and the DC elite. I’ve stepped into an elevator and realized I was sharing it with Madeleine Albright. I’ve driven through town in the press vans of Obama’s motorcade.
Let’s be clear; in Washington terms, I was about as lowly as it gets, wholly unimportant — but still I had access I could not have imagined. And Washington is seductive.
But you’re supposed to grow up – and Sopel’s piece is what happens when you don’t. It provides the perfect example of how that seductive power can work insidiously over time — and it is a crucial element to understanding why Western allied networks cover American presidencies in the way that they do. If you can’t acknowledge that, it is impossible to detach yourself. Washington simply cannot be effectively covered by reporters acting like giddy girls at a One Direction concert.
While Western reporters go to Russia or China looking to reaffirm their preconceived notions and to relay those horrors to the world, they go to Washington to explain and rationalize American actions. It is of course not coincidental that their biases line up perfectly with the decisions their own governments have made about who is a friend and who is a foe. In that way, the result is a not excusable, but almost understandable human reaction of self preservation.
Sopel writes of Obama’s “extraordinary candour” during the interview. This candour, he explains, is demonstrated by Obama’s willingness to admit to having more work to do on gun control and race relations in America. As an experienced journalist, Sopel should know that such an admission does not amount to anything close to “extraordinary candour” — but rather is something so obviously a failure that it would be utterly impossible to plausibly deny.
Washington’s vast eco-system of mutually-dependent politicians, journalists, lobbyists and think-tankers is not well understood by most who switch on the BBC in the evening for what they think will be a balanced reading of the day’s news.
What must be better understood by many who ingest as gospel all that comes from Western media, is that a similar article or interview produced by Russian state media, with the same tones of reverence and awe, would be immediately dismissed as propaganda — nothing more than PR for Vladimir Putin. We set one standard for ourselves and a different one for everyone else.
That is not pro-Russian whataboutism — it is simply about time Western reporters stopped turning up their noses in contempt at the supposedly inferior journalistic practices of everyone else, and took a long, hard look in the mirror.
Sopel’s full interview, while not exactly hard-hitting, was not terribly bad.
It was the fawning write-up he published afterwards that gave the game away.
By Danielle Ryan. Blog can be found at: journalitico.com
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