Great To Be Home Again

One of the joys and pleasures of foreign travel is experiencing different ways of living and sharing different viewpoints. Such exchanges can grant greater perspective on typically American ways of doing things; what things can be improved upon and what things we should be grateful for. By and large, especially when visiting Europe, it is amazing to see how broadly and remarkably similar Western cultures are. The range of cultural differences between the US and among the countries of Europe is certainly smaller than it was a century ago. How different can places be when globalization permits us to watch the same movies, buy the same cars, and even eat at the same restaurant chains. However, it is still not clear whether the ability to buy beer at a McDonald’s in Europe compensates for the fact that in Europe McDonald’s charges for each individual package of ketchup.

Some of this homogenization is resented. France, ever desperate and fearful of its loss of cultural distinctiveness, recently decided that the term “e-mail” cannot be used in official French documents. The official term is “courrier electronique,” literally “electronic mail” or “courriel” for short. But we live in a democratic age. What is right is not is determined by linguistic heritage or consistency but by popular usage. The use of “courriel” will likely only remain a monument, as if another is needed, to French snobbishness.

Despite the fact that people will determine their own practices and ideas, popular perception can be driven by media coverage and this coverage seems to differ between the US and Europe more than cuisine. It is, therefore, particularly disheartening, after a week in France, to see the persistent and almost maliciously negative coverage of the United States in the foreign press. In fairness, my French is not good enough to listen to French coverage with an ear attuned to subtleties, so my perceptions apply only to watching CNN (directed from their British offices) and the BBC.

Of course, all news is slanted by decisions on what to cover. The pursuit of those stories that editors and producers consider important can definitely affect the overall perspective the public receives. Within this context, CNN-Europe and the BCC do a credible job covering the straight news at the top of the hour. They report the latest news from Iraq and other news centers, the current levels of the stock market indices, and the worldwide weather.

However, during the intervening times, the news hosts discuss the news with guests and it is here than biases become even more apparent. Last week, the major news surrounded the killing of Saddam Hussein’s cruel and brutal sons Uday and Qusay, after a shoot out with American troops. On the first day of coverage, even before the details of the shoot out became clear, there was rather idle speculation about why the sons were not captured rather than killed. All this speculation came before it was known whether such a capture was even possible. It only came out later, that at least one of the sons probably committed suicide. Of course, if a delay in the siege of the building holding Uday and Ousay allowed the sons to escape, that too would have been viewed as an American failure.

The day after Uday and Qusay died, BBC rattled on about Iraqi incredulity about the deaths and how the US would have to provide proof that the sons were dead. As some have suggested, Iraqis were in the same positions as the Munchkins in the movie the Wizard of Oz, incredulous as to whether the their tormentor, was “morally, ethically … spiritually, physically … positively, absolutely … undeniably and reliably dead!” The BBC assured us that photographs confirming the death of the sons were necessary to assuage the Iraqi fear of retribution from the former regime.

The next day, CNN and BBC waited breathlessly for the release of photographs of Uday and Ousay and broadcast them as soon as they possibly could. Although the photographs were not particularly appealing, they were not in my judgment, as gruesome as CNN and BBC warned us. However, not twenty-four hours later CNN and the BCC were prattling on about how the US was violating its own rules in releasing the photographs. If there was something unethical or inhuman about showing those photographs, surely CNN and the BBC were complicit since they showed little reticence is displaying and regularly re-displaying those images.

Liberia was also an issue during the past week. CNN and the BBC relentlessly warned of the chaos and the need for US military intervention. One can be sure that following any such intervention CNN and BBC will be at the forefront showing problems with such an intervention without ever returning to the original context that they helped provide.

Finally, the BBC interviewed Senator Bob Graham from Florida, the Co-Chair of the Joint Inquiry on the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks who made some very critical remarks about the Bush Administration. While Graham is certainly a reasonable person with important contributions to make on issues of security, not bothering to mention that Graham was also running for the Democratic presidential nomination withheld from the viewers important if not crucial context for weighing Graham’s remarks.

In short, foreign news coverage made the US’s PBS look like Pat Robertson’s CBN. The only unifying theme of the foreign coverage was whatever the US government (and in particular the Bush Administration) did was wrong; even if the news coverage previously encouraged it. It was nice to return back to the US and watch Fox News coverage. I can now even appreciate CNN-US and MSNBC coverage. There is nothing like a trip to a foreign country to make one grateful for what one has at home.

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