by the stormy present
Wed Apr 25th, 2007 at 08:30:01 AM EST
Spiegel Online asks, can't we all just get along? And answers: Maybe not. And maybe it's the media's fault. Or maybe we're just too different.
The Role of the Media in the Trans-Atlantic Relationship
By Gregor Peter Schmitz and Gerhard Spörl
The trans-Atlantic rift of the past few years has been accentuated, in part, by anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism in the media when covering "the other side." But although there are real cultural differences, the time has come for both sides to ditch the easy clichés and stereotypes and foster some cultural understanding.
I really, really wanted this to be a better article. It's an important topic, one we've dealt with (for better or worse) repeatedly here at ET, and one that still hasn't been talked about enough in the mainstream press on either side of the Atlantic.
So I really tried to like this article, but unfortunately I think the authors sort of missed their mark. At the risk of setting off another trans-Atlantic ET battle, there's much, much, much more after the jump.
You know you're off to a bad start when two out of your first three paragraphs deal with William Kristol.
Apparently one of the authors paid a visit in January of 2003 to Kristol, who they describe (rather admiringly, I think) as a "media-savvy conservative" with "valuable" views.
He had hardly shaken hands and was still ushering us into his office when he blurted out: "I believe that Europe and America are on the verge of the most crucial test in my political memory. There are signs of a rift that I never would have thought possible."
It wasn't long before he was proven right.
Oh, good Lord. The almight Bill Kristol has "forseen" the future! Or the, er, present.
"Signs" of a trans-Atlantic rift in January 2003?! If Kristol was only seeing "signs" at that point, he's blinder than I thought. And as for being "proven right," well... let's see, I "predict" that there will be a funeral for Boris Yeltsin today. Oh, look... the pictures on my TV screen of the funeral happening right now prove that I'm right!
But OK, we'll give them that maybe Kristol was only then realizing the possible impact of the trans-Atlantic rift that he and his fellow neocons were so busy trying to widen for their own political expediency. ("Good night, our actions have consequences, how was I to have known?")
At the outset, the authors of the Spiegel article state what they claim is their thesis, which is that the mass media on both sides of the Atlantic contributed to the widening of that chasm:
The rift went deep and its effects are still being felt. This was not a spat that could be patched up quickly. The question of what actually happened, who contributed and how still exercises the academic world, the intelligentsia and other observers of transatlantic affairs. Much of the war of words was waged in the media and even orchestrated by it.
But is that really their thesis? In their conclusion, it's not so clear:
Europeans and Americans live in a different world, see the world differently and therefore also register news differently. Examples of this are how they view risks and threats, as well as the death penalty or ethical questions such as abortion. In cultural terms they are more different than they might like to admit and these days cultural issues are just as important as economic ones. This is an insight propagated by the Neconservatives. When they get it right, they really get it right.
The media did not invent this difference, but simply reflect it.
Oh, make up your minds. As for the rest, that stuff about the Neocons "really" getting it right....
Throughout, it seems like the authors of the piece touch on important (and true) matters, but they also seem to dance around the more difficult issues, and they repeatedly conflate issues that really are separate phenomena. The analysis seems rather superficial, which is strange considering how incredibly long the article is. Despite going on for more than 6,000 words, it often seems like the authors have more to say, and that the stuff they don't quite get to is probably a lot more interesting than the stuff they actually include.
I guess I just kept wishing they'd written a different article.
First, despite their claim to be analyzing both the American and European press, they spend almost all of their time dissecting anti-Europeanism in the US mass media, and relatively little on the reverse. Fair enough, since America was doing the invading, and the coopting-of-others-to-invade. I don't think that anybody would argue Britain, France, Spain and Poland would have invaded Iraq on their own. So I'm not overly concerned about their focus on the US press.
Besides, the sudden "anti-Europeanism" in the USA was more like a convenient political tool. The most fervent critics of Europe were often neocons, who reserved the same vocabulary for Chirac, de Villepin or Schröder that they used at home to pillory their "liberal" political opponents on the left.
But it seems that they believe there was some kind of similar dynamic happening in Europe, and it would be nice to have a little more detail about the situation there.
Schröder chose to understand that Bush would not make a decision about the war until after September 2002, when federal elections were due to take place. Two men intended to cover one another's backs.
However, events took over in summer 2002. The German Chancellor, staring defeat in the face, discovered a lifeline in anti-Americanism and set out the long-term foreign policy of his country to a crowd of shoppers in a market square in Hesse: there would be no support for a resolution by the UN Security Council favoring war against Iraq. Because a particular dynamic was often apparent in Europe in such situations, a familiar pattern began to emerge: France couldn't leave the moral high ground against America to the Germans.
Hmmm. So German and French opposition to the war had nothing to do with the actual morality of it, it was just politics. I see.
Well, in fairness, yes, I think it was partly political, as everything is. But what I don't see coming out of this piece is a systematic analysis of how politicians and media were driving each other into this spiral, on both sides of the Atlantic.
They also write:
It is not difficult to spot the change in perspective in the pages of "Die Zeit" and "DER SPIEGEL" during the months of estrangement between Europe and America.
But that's it. No examples. They just move right along...
Oh, and I love this part. After reading about America's "easily persuaded public," I found this amusing:
There is no doubt that anti-Americanism in Europe was equally partisan and slogan-based. It can be surprising to see how a thoughtful, intelligent person capable of focusing fully on the complexity of social or international relations can easily fall prey to an unfettered, biased attitude.
For a couple of guys who acknowledge elsewhere in the article that "a certain attitude of cultural superiority is the norm" in European reporting on America... I dunno, I thought it was funny. Sue me.
At times they contradict themselves:
The [U.S.] media comment pages in particular portray Europe as a disaster swinging back and forth between appeasement and Auschwitz. Is this simply the mobilization of popular opinion among an easily persuaded public? Are the spin-doctors in deadly earnest, or is it all an act?
The spokesmen and spin-doctors of the Iraq conflict probably really did operate in their own little world. At any rate, the burgeoning "anti-Americanism" of the Europeans was certainly matched by "anti-Europeanism" in America. Normally, anti-Europeanism actually only represents a tiny school of thought. If you google the phrase "anti-Europeanism" you will get about 26,000 hits (the corresponding number when you google "anti-Americanism" is over 1.2 million). Americans don't think about Europe often enough to develop strong feelings of antipathy. When they do think about Europe, it is as a destination for a "spring break" or honeymoon, rather than a military, economic or political competitor - a prospect Europe would actually aim for, in economic terms at least.
In quieter times the American media contribute surprisingly little to anti-Europeanism: since the end of the Vietnam War, members of the American media obviously assumed that their audience had lost interest in Europe.
There has always been a latent tendency towards "Europe bashing" in the American media.
So the American media typically ignore Europe, except when they bash it. That may well be true, but the article cites scant evidence, and at any rate it's secondary to what's supposed to be the topic at hand, which is the media's contribution to the widening transatlantic rift over the last six years.
This brings me to a major flaw in the authors' analysis: They conflate a number of issues, namely bad reporting on European institutions and hostility to multilateralism (which is not unique to America, as any glance at the British press will illustrate) with "anti-Europeanism" of the "freedom fries" variety.
They cite US media references to:
- "The inability of an angst-ridden Europe to decide on a set of values for itself (or to defend these values)"
- "lack of interest among the American media in the European Union
- "skepticism toward Brussles"
As Jerome and others here at ET have repeatedly shown, there are plenty of Euroskeptics in Europe, so it seems rather disingenuous to cite the presence of Euroskeptics in America when discussing the trans-Atlantic rift. What we're talking about is a mistrust of multilateralism, which is endemic on the right in America, but also a feature of rightwing movements in Europe and elsewhere, and that's much more complicated than simple Europe-bashing for political gain.
(The Spiegel authors also seem at several points to conflate "Europe" with "Germany and France," but that's up to other people to discuss....)
What they also fail to do is allow for ideological (right/left) differences either in Europe or America. The piece is written as if the left/right divide doesn't exist.
But, um, it clearly does. To wit:
The erosion of neoconservative and republican power in Washington inevitably led to a toning-down of anti-European aggression in the media.
This was helped by the changes at the top in several European administrations, in particular Gerhard Schröder's replacement by Angela Merkel in Germany.
But as I said, the authors do raise a number of important points, notably about the simplistic and stereotype-reinforcing stories that pass for news coverage of "the other side" on both sides of the Atlantic. Yes, absolutely, we should "ditch the easy clichés and stereotypes and foster some cultural understanding."
They're also right about the alarming decline in foreign coverage in the U.S. press. But they miss out completely on the implications of that -- an American public that is growing less informed and less aware of not only Europe but the entire world, and at the same time electing leaders who are more inclined to wreak havoc outside U.S. borders. Instead, they conclude that this is the time for Americans "to return to the good old days of cultural diplomacy as successfully practiced in the Cold War era." Huh?
(They also ignore the influence of the Internet on the entire debate; honestly, it's impossible to talk about the media's influence anywhere anymore without accounting for the fact that a growing number of people are self selecting their news, and the so-called mainstream media are growing less powerful in driving the political agenda, but that's another article, and another diary.)
What I wish the authors had done was rigorously demonstrate the way politicians and news media on both sides of the ocean were affecting (and driving) the suspicion and hostility that has become too frequent a characteristic of transatlantic debate. Sadly, I'm not convinced that their long list of anecdotes followed by a series of unrelated conclusions is good enough.