Monday, November 30, 2009

The Obama Blues

Very few of us have first-hand knowledge of what’s happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Alaska, and even Washington. What first-hand knowledge we have is in bits and pieces, hardly ever a larger view.

That is why news reporting is so important.

What we need from reporting is not only the bare facts – Pakistan President Zardari turned over control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to Prime Minister Gilani, for a single example – but also how those facts fit into a context. That context includes history, culture, and what other nations are doing that is relevant.

It turns out that reporters have only bits and pieces, too, fewer and fewer as news organizations close down their foreign bureaus so that they can cover reality television, Tiger Woods’s midnight misadventures, and health news. They frequently misreport the health news, too, but that’s a subject for another post.

James Fallows, who has spent three years in China, was appalled at the coverage of President Obama’s trip there. He has been documenting the coverage and its problems at his blog. We can hope he writes an article for The Atlantic on it. If you only want to sample his oeuvre, I recommend coverage #1 and #6, and results #1 and #2. (The oeuvre so far: coverage #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, and the results of that miserable trip #1, #2, #3, #4)

One of the basic problems that the reporters seem to suffer from is the misunderstanding that diplomacy is a reality show. They would like loud confrontations, people being voted off the island, obvious results NOW! Much easier to report because that continuity stuff, which requires some factual knowledge, doesn’t matter as much. So they try to set up some of that with research they’ve been handed by partisans.

A theme running through Fallows’s coverage is that diplomacy with China is not done by banging shoes on the table and lecturing them on how they should act. In fact, diplomacy isn’t usually done that way, which is why we still recall Nikita Khrushchev’s act at the United Nations in 1960. I’ve written about that at WhirledView. It’s true that George Bush and some of the people around him seemed to believe in this sort of diplomacy, but they were outliers in this too.

For some reason, there seems to be a great desire on the part of the MSM, on all sides of the political spectrum, to tell us what a terrible job President Obama is doing. So a few people in the blogosphere are collecting some data on that terrible job. (Nathan Newman, TPM Café; Jacob Weisberg, Slate) I guess I'm still dazzled by that campaign rhetoric, but Newman's list looks pretty impressive to me.

It’s almost as though the press aspires to be Tareq and Michaele Salahi: anything to get the spotlight!

More news, please. And analysis means providing historical background, along with how the action being reported on fits with that country’s and its allies’ and enemies’ expectations, what they all might take it to mean in their contexts, not just who's politically in and who's politically out. I realize that in order to do a good job at that, the reporter’s ego needs to fade out of the foreground. That might be the hardest thing to achieve.

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