Uncovered at Home and Abroad
The international online media often jump on stories that the U.S. media pass up.
In the past five days, five stories from around the world illustrate how this happens. Why it happens is another question that is open to a variety of interpretations. I include my own very subjective views here, not as "truth" but as points of departure for discussion.
1) In September, British housing prices fell for the 15th month in row, according to a wire service report in the Guardian. At a time when tens of millions of American homeowners are feeling flush, you might think that U.S. media would devote some attention to the real-life experience of our cousins across the Atlantic who are watching their paper wealth dissipate. Think again. There are plenty of stories in the U.S. media speculating about a U.S. real estate bubble. Virtually none is informed by reporting on what is actually happening in England and Australia.
2) After this weekend's suicide bombings in Bali that killed 22 people, an "atmosphere of ultimate defeat and desperation hovered like a strange, dark cloud over the island," says the Jakarta Post. In the bastion of pleasure-seeking and pacifism, intense media coverage of the carnage "has done nothing but intensify the Balinese's humiliating feeling of defeat, portraying the terrorists as the victorious conquerors."
Who wants to hear that? I suspect that most American news editors doubt their readers are very interested in people who feel defeated by terrorism, especially in a place where pacifism is a way of life.
3) The U.S.-led war and military operations in Iraq killed 24,865 Iraqi civilians in the first two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to the latest study by the British-based Web site Iraq Body Count. The report got more play in Baghdad's leading daily, Azzaman, than it did in most U.S. news sites.
U.S. forces were responsible for 37 percent of civilian deaths, says the IBC study. Anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9 percent of civilian victims, the IBC study concluded, adding that "killings by anti-occupation forces, crime and unknown agents have shown a steady rise." Almost 20 percent of the victims have been women and children, says IBC.
The IBC researchers based their findings on news reports in which mortuary officials and medics were the most frequently cited sources.
The U.S. government does not compile statistics on civilian casualties in Iraq, even those inflicted by terrorists. Nor does any international agency. Without an official Western source on the subject, most U.S. news organizations have shied from reporting on the subject except in the most tentative terms. The Baghdad press is not so reticent.
4) An old joke holds that Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it. Maybe that's why Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez doesn't get a whole lot of front-page coverage, even as he wages a propaganda campaign against Washington.
"We are going to play the oil card against the world's rudest [power], the United States," he told Clarin, a leading daily in Argentina, on Monday. "But we are going to use it with transparency and respect."
Chavez is attending a summit of South American presidents where he is seeking support for his idea of a regional bloc that would steer the continent away from policies of "social exclusion," his label for U.S. priorities of free trade and electoral democracy.
When asked about Venezuela's oil company, Chavez didn't deny that it loses money. "We don't have the egotistical viewpoint of capitalism," he explained. The company "is a mechanism of redistribution. We are going to take from those who have an excess and distribute to those who don't have anything."
Maybe the idea of an oil company as an anti-poverty agency is too far-fetched a concept to be regarded as newsworthy by North American news editors.
5) An African king has just taken his 13th wife and some local women are critical, reports Mmegi in Botswana. King Mswati of Swaziland recently presented a 17-year-old girl as his new wife-to-be, prompting the leader of a local women's group to say, "Any self-respecting person will find it abominable and offensive."
No word on whether wife No. 12 prompted the same reaction. In most American newsrooms, where doctrines of liberalism and feminism are pervasive, editors may hesitate to play up a story that might result in an accusation of racism and sexism.
What all these stories have in common is that they take place thousands of miles away from the places that most Americans call home. That is surely the main reason that U.S. news organizations don't pick up on them. The fact that they often involve people who don't speak English or share American mores and customs is also important. So is the reality that government officials in Washington may not care to discuss them.
More subtly, but perhaps no less importantly, these stories don't quite mesh with the optimistic, individualistic, benevolent, militaristic and multicultural themes that run through many Americans' narratives about themselves. As a result, the reported events may seem implausible, uninteresting or otherwise "foreign." And foreign news, for many Americans, is no news at all.
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