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Breaking through the American media bubble

A week without English media sources

american-mediaThe United States is the only country in the world that treats other nations as completely optional. Obviously, I don’t mean when it comes to manufacturing our critical goods or providing us with tankers full of light sweet crude, but culturally, American media acts as if Other Countries are places that exist only in text books or vacation brochures. This is most acutely evident in the narrative projected by our media outlets: America remains the center of the world and Other Places are only worth describing if 1) something is on fire or 2) we have declared war on the people there. So if you live in the United States, your view of global events is myopic at best and completely distorted at worst.

I decided to undertake an experiment – to rely completely on non-American, non-English-language media for a period of a week.  I have spent almost thirty years studying French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, Japanese and other languages. For news analysis, my French is very close to native, my Spanish is fluent, I can read Portuguese and Italian with little problem and my Japanese is limited to smack talking and effusively complimenting sushi chefs. Those were my biases in this experiment: lots of French, quite a bit of Spanish and Portuguese, considerable focus on Europe, where many of the media conglomerates for those languages are located.

Here’s what I ascertained during my week-long fast of American media:

Things are happening in countries that are not the United States

Did you know that Japan is installing Patriot missiles in Tokyo because of North Korean aggression, that France is at war in Mali, and that Iran just had an earthquake that killed thirty people? Yes, all of these are important events that took place outside the borders of the United States and which were reported widely – everywhere but in the US.

The most important bias you get beyond when leaving US-English media is the presumption that the United States is the only country worth covering with the rest jammed in the “Global” section of some website. For the rest of the world’s media (possible exceptions: Iran, North Korea) events in Perú, Austria and Thailand are not trivia for people who “studied abroad that one time” – they are simply the news.

The media is not the most important topic of the media

One of the best things to get away from in US-English media is the juvenile self-obsession of the media with itself, especially the recent focus on helping the poor media conglomerates stay in the black ink by using free labor and/or puerile moron click bait in place of maturely analyzed news. America now has TV shows about making TV shows, cable programs about making cable news programs, Narcissus on the cusp of drowning. The whole American media industry is so busy trying to maintain huge empires, luxury office space and big salaries for its “stars,” that it is taking significant time away from just doing their damn day jobs and reporting the events of the day for an interested public.

I’m not naive about the issues of quality and bias in foreign news. Having lived and worked in Paris for close to twenty years, I am intimately acquainted with the slants of French media outlets, for example. Le Monde is center-right and quite small-c conservative, a bit authoritarian. La Libération is into splashy headlines and socialist biases that would make my father’s head explode. Le Figaro has almost a royal reserve about its coverage, and Les Echos is a great financial read with simple, direct news analysis. There are new kids on the digital block with post-political biases, such as the now ascendant Mediapart. There are strengths and weaknesses to all these outlets, but all week I didn’t read one piece about how tough it is to report news in this new economy, we need free interns, bla bla bla. From Canada to Italy, I just got to focus on the news. It was refreshing.

Opinion is not news

After about three days of non-US digital news, a realization gently revealed itself: I wasn’t required to wade through page after page of anecdotally-driven opinion pieces masquerading as news. The majority of the clicks out there were of hard news stories, not a series of self-important “here is how I feel about the news” pieces. Sure, there are OpEds, and some great ones, like this piece from a Portuguese official ripping apart the German finance minister for saying that other “countries” were “jealous” of Germany. (International affairs pro tip: countries have interests and policies, not feelings)  What is missing is that which comprises a shocking percentage of US coverage – thinly researched, perspective free assertions about what something “means.” There are three categories of this that are epidemic right now:

  • Lobbyist-activists producing “analysis” pieces that are really doing advocacy for some undisclosed goal (usually war)
  • Executives from some institution executing a broader corporate branding plan
  • “Staff writers” from Ivy League schools with zero practical experience opining about how what business or government ought to be doing this week, based on the unexamined feelings of 1400 people in San Francisco, New York, Boston and DC, as opposed to data

Opinion pieces are fine – but in non-English media, I find that they are clearly marked and provide some value other than an argument for the status quo.

Time for an enriched diet

To sum up, your choice of media very much shapes your perception of the world; my experiment reminded me that it shapes mine. This week showed me how much American media is focused on propping up authority figures, reinflating unsustainable financial bubbles, and maintaining the lowest possible cultural and intellectual standards. The thing is, America is a huge country and its media industry industry is pervasive. Also, there is a preponderance of media in English because of its use India, China, Korea and other countries as a lingua franca for business. If you live in the U.S. and want a global perspective, getting away from the US-American media bubble is going to require effort on your part.

You wouldn’t be very healthy if your food diet was both limited in diversity and low in quality. Sadly, America’s intellectual diet is increasingly resembling its food choices – heavily processed, weighted towards a juvenile palate, providing little value for a balanced life.

Fetch me my passport.

  • Deb D.

    I wholeheartedly agree having lived abroad for a year. However, my Italian isn’t great, so I’d need to rely on an English-language news outlet. Any suggestions besides BBC?

  • Jeff B

    Thank you for this essay. Coincidentally, I just returned to the U.S. after two weeks visiting my wife’s family in The Netherlands. Every time I return, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News just seem like so much noise. Even though my proficiency in Dutch is very limited, their TV (and radio) news is just so…dignified.

    Since my Dutch is limited, my conversations were, too. Still, it’s clear from my visit that in Holland and Germany — the two northern European countries who are to an extent propping up the Euro Zone — there is real disdain for France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Spain.

    Interestingly, in years past, friends and family of my wife would quiz me on American politics and policy; they really hated “that cowboy” Bush, for one thing, and it was clear we’d squandered the sympathy and goodwill in the aftermath of 9/11. On this trip, though, there was very little discussion of American politics. The stagnant economy in The Netherlands and Europe in general probably had a lot to do with that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ae-Wehr/1322844727 Ae Wehr

    The trouble is the first amendment and its selective interpretation.

    For protestors it does not exist, but for tv organizations it’s carte blanc to say whatever they please regardless of fact-twisting, strategic omission, or outright fabrication.

    I keep mulling this over and think the best solution would be a license to call yourself “news”. The devil is in the details, however. Having government dictate this license would be terrible. I think repeating the studies on how informed watchers of a specific news network are and having a minimum score required would be the best answer, but this opens the practitioners of this survey to corruption.