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Paternalistic Clichés Mar Non-Western Coverage

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 30th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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I recognize the patronizing voice in American reporting about countries struggling to find their way out of chaos or recently overturned dictatorships.  

It rings of the arrogance that too often accompanied our foreign aid, when it wasn’t politically incorrect to refer to used cans of cooking oil as “appropriate technology” for Third World women fetching water. 

Similarly, too many journalists also slip into post-colonial, post-Soviet language when they refer to imminent “free and fair” elections or “new democracies” of Eastern Europe. 

At its worst, smarmy superiority taints so many U.S. news stories about elections in struggling non-Western countries. If this reporting didn’t affect our national decisions, policies, action and inaction, I’d dismiss it as simply distasteful. Instead, it’s offensive and destructive.

At its heart, paternalistic clichés reflect our expectation of  “one man, one vote, one time” in too many countries emerging from post-colonial dictatorships. It screams, “They’re not like us. What more could we expect of those people?” After the revolutions, new dictatorships emerge, whether secular or clerical, civilian or military. 

Arrogance makes itself heard in familiar formulaic language that passes for insight when some military revolts or a head of state wins 99 percent of the vote. Skip to the next story when you encounter “In an apparent … ” or “Arguably.” Apparent to the reporter? Who’s arguing? 

But back to elections. Sometimes, reporters’ pessimism is justified. We’ve seen what passes for elected parliamentary government reveal itself as a facade for authoritarian or kleptocratic rule. 

But we don’t know that in advance. If reporters’ foresight is that keen, why didn’t we anticipate the collapse of the USSR, Enron, Lehman Brothers, the Icelandic economy, Royal Bank of Scotland or the newspaper business? 

In Africa and Asia, the what-ifs, the caveats and the guesswork often smack of failed colonialism, patronizing coverage of Westernized Oriental Gentlemen who didn’t get it when they studied or trained in England, France or the United States. They embraced the forms but not the substance of older democracies: open debate, trustworthy elections with universal suffrage and peaceful change. 

In Eastern Europe, we forget democratic attempts in the past two centuries and write them off as hopeless peasants addicted to autocratic rule regardless of politics. 

And as we’ve learned, elections and parliaments don’t assure democracy. Iran has both. We’ve even fantasized about “moderate” or “liberal” Iranian candidates facing “fundamentalist” clerics. 

We treat electoral attempts by countries such as Egypt with condescension, even as we anticipate that nation’s first “free and fair” ballots. That mantra ignores an important, basic journalistic ethic: report what is, not what you wish. How does any reporter know when an election will be “free and fair?”

If the runoff for Egyptian president proves to be fair and free, that’s the story. Until then, it’s opinion posing as expertise.  

Crystal ball journalism cracked in 1994 during the first nonracial election in post-Apartheid South Africa. Too much reporting involved too much conventional wisdom before South Africans of every ethnicity and color lined up — peacefully and seemingly to the horizon — to choose Nelson Mandela as their first nonwhite president. By contemporary standards, it was free and fair and it improved on the old “one man, one vote” by embracing female voters equally. Mandela handed over to Thabo Mbeki, who handed over to Jacob Zuma. Meanwhile, opposition parties faded, formed, merged; no failed candidates went to the gibbet.  

Has there been corruption under South African black majority rule? Yes. Nepotism? Yes. Odious racial preferments? Yes. Dubious political financing? Yes. Pandering to blocs of voters? Yes. So? 

Are similar accusations common during elections in older democracies? Yes. 

In the country where I lived and worked, the former British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia, each president of independent Zambia has yielded to the victor in subsequent elections. The country’s an economic mess but I’m talking politics here, not the predictable disaster that comes to any country’s vital private industry when it’s nationalized. 

North Africa will, if it’s lucky, follow a similar political path at the other end of the continent: fragmented parliamentary results, new elections, shifting alliances, and elected governments that at least initially suit voters. 

But hyperventilating over the role(s) of Islamic politicians and parties lining the Mediterranean’s south shore doesn’t dignify American journalism.

It smacks of White House talking points, regardless of Oval Office occupant.  

Labeling someone “Islamic” is a society where few are not Muslims reflects cultural anxiety and national fear that successive American presidents have nurtured. It tells me as much as calling George W. Bush and Bill Clinton “Christians.” 

But watch/listen/read to what’s being written now about Egypt. We’ll probably see a runoff between an “Islamist” and a creature of the Mubarak years who probably differs as much in his faith as W and his dad do.

Even in the past year, we’ve had little reporting on how successive Cairo regimes suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood core values that sustained and allowed the Brotherhood to survive and prosper.

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

• Read Jim McNair’s take on financial adviser Nathan Bachrach in a recent CityBeat. McNair is an investigative reporter with a feel for finance. He says the nation’s second-biggest bank has been after Bachrach to make good on $2.4 million it claims he owes for his involvement in Kenwood Towne Place, the half-finished retail-office complex on I-71 that went bust under $136 million in debt? McNair’s look at Bachrach’s finances raises a local question that has been asked most pointedly of TV and radio public affairs shows: who are these experts and what baggage do they carry? 

• When will the Plain Dealer quit publishing print editions some days? The New Orleans Times-Picayune says it will print Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays but be online every day. Newhouse  owns the PD as well as the Times-Picayune and other “dailies.” 


• Will the Enquirer follow the Times-Picayune and other Newhouse papers and reduce its printing schedule? Being the only daily in a major city is no barrier to this change. Some days, the Enquirer is so thin that it can’t reach our yard from the passing delivery vehicle. I wouldn’t be surprised if those lean Enquirer's cost more to print and deliver than they earn from ads and subscriptions. I’d miss my local daily at breakfast, but I could accept fewer printed papers if the talents of the reporters and photographers were freed for the web site on no-print days. The trouble is that Newhouse is firing lots of journalists; ads online pay much less than print. 

The Times-Picayune decision to print only three days a week makes New Orleans the largest American city without a “daily” paper if “daily” means print. The Times-Picayune won two Pulitzers with only online editions after Katrina forced the staff to flee and inundated the presses. This column reported how Pulitzer print-only tradition and rules made the Times-Picayune ineligible. Rather than exclude the paper’s reporting on Katrina and its impact, the Pulitzer governing committee accepted entries for online reporting. 

• I’m not sure how Cincinnatians would react to an Enquirer shift to a reduced print schedule. Is the Sole Surviving Daily a pillar of the community where most households never subscribed? I don’t recall a lot of public grieving over the closing the Cincinnati Post and its journalists and their work were not inferior to the Enquirer. The Enquirer isn’t a lot more robust than the sadly reduced Post at the end. Most Cincinnatians — that is, most Tristate residents — believe they can live fulfilled lives without a local daily paper, no matter how many days it’s printed. 

Enquirer subscribers whose reading glasses were handy have been able to appreciate stories about the growing medical consensus on why otherwise healthy people should avoid the expense and dangers of unneeded tests. 
That’s why I laughed over a recent Enquirer full page ad offering six heart-related ultra-sound tests for $179, “valued at $2,300.” Individual results will be read by a “board-certified physician.” For another $99, you can have a “personalized report that assesses your five-year risk for major diseases including stroke, diabetes, heart disease and more.” Presumably, all this will be done in less than an hour in the bus pictured in the ad. If a customer pays for both, there is a “limited time offer” that knocks $20 off the $278 total.

I’m no physician: medical, osteopathic, chiropractice, podiatric, ayurvedic or empiric. My inferences are not medical opinion. But who pays for such tests on otherwise healthy persons? Do such tests on the “worried well” fit into our national call for controlling health costs? Do healthy persons need such tests? If they do, a person’s primary care doctor probably would have ordered them. Do sick people need these tests? Their primary care or specialty docs know best. 
The healthy-appearing older man pictured in the ad who is worried about his heart and vascular system fits the image of a hard-of-hearing and denture-wearing Enquirer reader. Maybe he should start a gentle exercise program, three sets of 10 lifts using the Monday Enquirer as the weight. 

• Andrew Beajon at nonpartisan Poynter.org reports on two new surveys that suggest where American journalism is going. The first, by DigiCareers, said “more than half of media professionals polled immediately leave a website after encountering a paywall. One-quarter said they were unlikely to return to the site.” Beaujon added that “in a Pew survey done two years ago, 15 percent of respondents said they would continue to use their favorite news website if there was a pay wall, while 82 percent said they’d get news somewhere else ... Taken together, though, the results align with news organizations’ goal to monetize their most loyal readers, which is typically about 15 percent of the audience.” Good luck. Paywalls block me from the Enquirer’s archive and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, London Times and London Sunday Times and sharply limit my access to London’s Financial Times. I don’t pay ... yet. 

Poynter.org's Beaujon also reported a study of TV news audiences by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind. It found that Americans who watch no news correctly answer more questions about international current events than viewers of partisan cable news and opinion programs. The study found that “NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge. People who watch MSNBC and CNN exclusively can answer more questions about domestic events than people who watch no news at all. People who only watch Fox did much worse. NPR listeners answered more questions correctly than people in any other category.” The survey in early February follows a similar poll last November which returned similar results.

Beaujon added, “The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well. And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.

“Interestingly, the results of the poll controlled for partisanship. MSNBC, Fox and talk radio consumers answered more questions correctly when their political views aligned with those of the outlets they preferred. Moderates and liberals who watched only Fox did worse than conservatives who watched it. This mirrored the results at MSNBC, where a conservative viewer could be expected to answer an average of .71 international questions correctly, for example, and a liberal viewer could be expected to answer 1.89 questions correctly.”

He said none of the other news media had effects that depended on ideology.

 
 
 
 

 

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