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.
• 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.