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
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
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
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
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.
• 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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
• 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 ...
• 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
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.
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.