Ignorance and Malice: What Joshua Keating’s “If It Happened There” Says About Journalism Here

If you were one of the 120,000 people on Facebook who “liked” the first article in Joshua Keating’s Slate series, “If It Happened There”, then you probably found the satire on foreign affairs reporting to be funny. As with most jokes, what’s “funny” comes from the perfect juxtaposition of the novel with the familiar… and the scaremongering, condescension, and suspicion towards foreigners. The series is an idiom that most news-watching Americans know well. The literate lot of us drink it every day along with our morning coffee, in the flavor of either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal that only a subtle palate could tell apart.

You watch this man serve an hour of right-wing agitprop every night, but it's OK because it's "ironic". (Credit: US Department of Education)

You watch this man serve an hour of right-wing agitprop every night, but it’s OK because it’s “ironic”. (Credit: US Department of Education)

But consuming a satire of the news is not the same as having a critical consciousness about the news. In fact, the former is even more effective to internalize the satirized message than to receive the same propaganda in a flat or serious affect. Advertisers are well-aware of this ability for “funny-ness” to short-circuit the lizard brain, and they use humor to improve consumers’ brand attitude and information recall. Yes: this means that all the Daily Show and Colbert Report that super-smart American liberals are consuming might actually reinforce the jingoistic nationalism that it is supposed to subvert. There’s no shortcut to actually deconstructing the vicious idiom of the foreign news correspondent, and I cannot read this series without giving it comment.

Although Keating writes for “The World” blog, which seems to cover all continents in reasonable proportion, “If It Happened There” seems to almost directly satirize the journalistic clichés of China reporting in particular – something I’m personally familiar with. Some of the clues are more obvious than others, most notably the reference to Twitter as “an American version of Sina Weibo“; the Animal Planet-like coverage of Thanksgiving which maps directly to Americans’ coverage of Chinese New Year; and the use of a taxi driver as a vox populi stand-in for the presumably terrified citizenry, only recently surpassed by an arbitrary sampling of Weibo tweets.

“If It Happened There” is clearly not about all foreign countries. It’s about a certain style of reporting that tends to happen around China or some Middle Eastern countries; the proverbial Timbuctoo or Outer Mongolia. It’s a tone that would never be employed against quaint Luxembourg, friendly Ireland or backwater Bhutan. Yet there’s no primordial quality about a country that leads the American public to regard it as, or the American media to portray it as, a sinister threat. These shifts in perception can come very quickly, and sometimes literally with a snap-decision in US foreign policy. For example, before the US made it its job to depose Muammar Gaddafi as President of Libya, American newspapers referred to him as a “strongman” or an “iron-fisted ruler”, rather than as “a dictator” as they did after Obama readied the tanks.

New York's mayor, a "former Marxist revolutionary". (Credit: Bill de Blasio)

New York’s mayor, a “former Marxist revolutionary”. (Credit: Bill de Blasio)

Taking a page from the National Enquirer’s handbook of journalistic ethics, American foreign correspondents often describe highly-regarded local politicians in unflattering, even insulting terms. “If It Happened There” demonstrates the archetype: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a “tycoon” with an “eccentric leadership style”, and incumbent Bill de Blasio is a “former Marxist revolutionary who has cast himself as a champion of the city’s downtrodden”. Although this constant undercurrent of hostile skepticism is often dished out by Americans; it seems that we can’t take it in return. Keating reports that some of the most negative feedback he has received on the series focused on how he “made Obama sound like a tyrant”.

Although certain “funny” facts in the articles, such as that Obama’s CIA conducts “extrajudicial execution of the regime’s opponents half a world away”, ought indeed to put the President in the company of tyrants, it still seems strange to call him that. “Tyrant”, along with “regime”, “elite”, “extremist”, “fractious”, “fundamentalist”, etc., are words exclusively reserved for foreign objects, and are beyond the pale for writing about domestic subjects—at least outside of an opinion piece. Because of a basic sensitivity and respect by Americans for their government, the Obama–Hitler comparisons are clearly quarantined within newspapers of ill-repute.

However, the recipe for these stories contains equal parts ignorance and malice. After all, even a hostile reporter could not get away with such a description of an American state as Keating mocks: “the restive Texas region, known in the past as a hotbed of separatist activity”, because the whole country knows that the Texas independence movement has no traction. But would Joe Blow from Dullsville, USA object to a reference to “the restive Hunan region”? Probably not, yet Mr. Chen from Hunan Province would bristle, if not laugh, at what appears to be an attempt to spark fear, uncertainty, and the flight of foreign investment and repute from his place of origin. And he’s probably reading the American media with the expectation that it is more free, more fair, and more true than the trough of sanitized newsfeed that the Party serves the proles.

Calling somebody's president a "brutal dictator" is not a great way to achieve cross-cultural understanding. (Credit: Piers Cañadas)

Calling somebody’s president a “brutal dictator” is not a great way to achieve cross-cultural understanding. (Credit: Piers Cañadas)

Happily, the promotion of US culture and values worldwide via information technology has been a mainstay of US foreign policy towards states that maintain information self-sufficiency, like China and Iran. (Although places like France and Québec also have “protectionist” cultural attitudes, the Obama administration does not consider France “an adversary” as it does China.) In 2012 alone, the US spent $25 million on its “global Internet freedom” initiative, which basically encourages Chinese to bypass censorship to use Facebook, rather than Renren; to communicate via Twitter, and not Weibo; and to engross themselves in other services that are firmly under the NSA’s surveillance grip.

While some Chinese might feel particularly “free”, enlightened, or sophisticated while listening to the BBC, gorging themselves on Tweets, or browsing the Chinese edition of The New York Times, not a small number have noticed the disdainful attitude towards their brand of foreigner that “If It Happened There” exemplifies. In November 2013, over 140,000 citizens of China signed a petition demanding the expulsion of CNN from that country after its publication of an op-ed that was sympathetic to the perpetrators of a deadly suicide attack by Islamist militants in Beijing. In 2008, a similar grassroots backlash against the Western media’s anti-Chinese framing of riots in Tibet did incalculable damage to state efforts to Cocacolonize the Asian mainland.

The “Great Firewall of China” trope contends that foreigners who don’t consume American media are blocked by technical barriers rather than by their own hurt feelings. This childish dualism of “censorship” versus “freedom” held by our diplomats continues to unnecessarily massage the egos of foreign affairs correspondents who are not doing a great job of cultural diplomacy. Like the Christian missionaries who sailed up the Pearl River into China four centuries ago, American reporters are not really performing charity work for barbarians, but are merely performing a self-gratificatory act for their own countrymen. When their visas are delayed, they do not become (because they never were) martyrs for free speech, guardians of “The Truth™”, or the conscience of their home or adopted society. As the eyes and ears of America abroad, they are jealous, fearful xenophobes, just like us.

James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Jamesprofile (1)James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.

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