Thursday, October 14, 2010

Americans afraid of foreign media?

Peter Lavelle hosted a discussion at his CrossTalk, yesterday: a follow-up to Russia Today TV's fury over BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson's comments last week. This time, I should admit, the program was very interesting.

I guess, in this case, I cannot but agree with him and some of the points that the speakers make. The fact that every news outlet offers its own "twist" on events depending on its source (geographic, political, or financial) is not news to anyone who has ever followed anything on the international media. Nonetheless, what surprised me most (and still does), is the refusal of many in the U.S. to understand that (or, at least, to admit that fact). For some reason, no matter what CCTV, Press TV, Russia Today TV, or even Al Jazeera report is considered to be "propaganda" for many, while Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Farda, (etc..) and the likes of the CNN International are providing perfectly unslanted news.

Well - honestly? - this is tragic. Here, I do not mean to say that VOA or RFE/RL are involved in propaganda or intentional whitewash (and yet, it's all relative, too, right?). What people need to realize, however, is that the media - any media - can be considered as biased, even if only due to the principle of selective perception. After all, Russians or Zimbabweans are socialized within their own environment - their respective societal norms, educational systems, media outlets, dominant "orthodoxies", etc.. - and when faced with a presentation of an event from a completely different perspective (again - even if there is no malice or ill-intent involved), they can easily characterize it as "propaganda", because it is so incongruous with their own perception and knowledge of "reality".

Now let's turn to media production that is actually intended to sway foreign audience's perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Ironic (ridiculous?), but true: the Smith-Mundt Act, forbidding the broadcast of VOA, RFE, and the like within the United States (although long obsolete and irrelevant, it is still there!), was passed primarily due to the concern that these broadcasts might be affecting the American public as well. What was their true intent, then, one might ask? Oh, excuse me: it's public diplomacy.

Nevertheless, it is really sad that very few people inside the country (relatively speaking) are actually exposed to the broad-ranging work that these media organizations are doing: at least, their number is not as large as it should be. After all, MSNBC and FoxNews, and even CNN domestic, do not provide adequate coverage of international affairs, effectively preventing the American public from sufficient exposure to the world they so actively want to participate in. (Yes, there's the Internet now, but unless there is initial interest in foreign issues to begin with, it can be very easy to filter out everything that is not personally-relevant.)

Now, when Al Jazeera or Russia Today come in and start promoting their own interpretation of the story - and let's remind ourselves, again, that everyone has their own version - the country panics, so much so that law-makers pass bills banning the broadcasts of certain channels (to their own detriment, by the way).

Another interesting observation that I'm still trying to comprehend, was that the awesome Worldview TV Channel - which rebroadcasts programming from Al Jazeera, Deutsche-Welle, France24, Russia Today, NHK, etc.. - always puts up a notice on the screen that reads something along the lines of "viewer discretion advised: foreign-produced content". One might ask, then, why discriminate against the viewers of domestic networks and not warn them about the questionable content they get on their domestic channels?

In short, again, it boils down to double-standards and (by now unjustifiable) "single-truth" worldview; and unless people become more willing to admit that, they run the risk of falling behind all others.

I would suggest reading a related piece by Lavelle himself, from earlier this year.


  1. A very good post, relevant and to the point.

    I feel that, in order to get as comprehensive a picture as possible, one ought to take a look at BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, EuroNews, France24 and Russia Today.

    In particular, BBC and Al Jazeera seem to have the most minimal "self-interests", and so their reporting - taken together - might offer the most balanced view available, although still skewed one way or another.

    And there is nothing "wrong" with different outlets or individuals presenting different perspectives. I find it natural. It becomes questionable when there is a blatant agenda on display (which is more than evident with Russia Today, and with CNN as well), and outright discriminatory, one-sided reporting.

  2. yes, of course, Nareg, there are differences and varying extents of truthfulness in "public diplomacy" or "reporting" done by all these media organizations/outlets - I completely agree with you. nonetheless, even these characterizations are relative, and my basic point is that this needs to be recognized and acted upon... otherwise, the U.S. public runs the risk of marginalizing itself from the world and the "globalization" that the U.S. itself is so keen to promote...