Thursday, March 05, 2009

All The News That Fits What We Want You To Think, We Print

In the midst of all the embarrassment that Canada's national news media brought upon itself this week by its strange and hugely public display of myopia, amnesia, and perhaps something rather worse, I found myself a bit troubled by a nagging question.

The question wasn't just about why it appeared to be too much trouble for the Globe and Mail to check its own front pages from less than a year earlier before pronouncing that something Canada's prime minister had said about Afghanistan was a thing he'd never said before. That did bother me, but having spent almost my entire adult life as a working journalist, I'm merciful about these things. Newspapers do make mistakes.

The question I can't shake is this: Why is it that I have to turn to an interview on an American television news program (the interview that several Canadian newspapers so badly misreported) and then read the results of an expansive interview hosted by the editors of an American newspaper in order to get an idea about what Canada's own prime minister actually has to say for himself on the subject of this country's engagement in Afghanistan?

And now this morning, I see my friend Mark Collins, an astute observer of all things related to Canada's military role in Afghanistan, raises a similarly disturbing question about the Canadian news media's strange silence about this country's contributions to Afghanistan's upcoming national elections. "Why is this carried by the Chinese government's Xinhua (and MSNBC) but none of the Canadian media?" His suggestion: "One can only surmise that they are fixated on the death-watch at Kandahar and at home."

I guess it could be worse. You could be relying on the Guardian (UK) for your news about Afghanistan. Joshua Foust has just pointed this out in a withering deconstruction of a report by the Guardian's Julian Borger. Foust writes: "I’ve become almost permanently uninterested in reporting on Afghanistan. Reading these accounts describes a country and a people I have never visited or met. . . and I am there right now, spending time outside the wire."

I was left with precisely that strange feeling when I was in Afghanistan late last year, pretty well the entire time outside the wire: "It's as though there are two completely different Kabuls in the world. There's the city that routinely shows up in English-language dailies – a miniature, Central Asian version of Stalingrad during the siege – and then there's the one you never hear about, a bustling, heartbreakingly poor but hopeful and splendid city."

Speaking of weird reporting and the news media's amnesia, I'm happy to see that the Independent Elections Commission is standing up to President Karzai and his attempts at getting a snap election over with by April. But spinning this as a victory for western diplomats is a bit much. It's worth remembering that it was only a few short weeks ago that Karzai couldn't turn a corner in Kabul without bumping into a gaggle of western diplomats arm in arm with Afghan parliamentarians urging him to postpone the elections for a year, or cancel them altogether.

At the time, Karzai adviser Jafar Rasuli told me that the thinking around the presidential palace was that the best time for a vote would be late August, after the harvest and before the snows. It looks like we're back to that now. Here's my story in The Vancouver Sun on what the rumpus looked like back then.

And here's more from Josh Foust in the Columbia Journalism Review, on The birth (and death) of a meme: Embedded reporters don't always get the full story.

UPDATE: The Guardian's Borger makes his newspaper look silly, again. Foust: "You could be contributing to this instead of playing the know-it-all crank. What gives?"


Blogger kellie said...

I suspect the answer to the question is simple and familiar. For most news organisations the only story they're interested is the domestic political story, and the best domestic political story is the one about how the government is messing up. What happens in other countries is only relevant in terms of how it plays into this story.

The US is only temporarily an exception as the popularity of this story is eclipsed with the story of how the new government is so much better than the old one.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Terry: A real oddity. When one reads Xinhua's stories they generally seem a model of "objective" reporting, simply giving the facts. Sort of like AP (still pretty good) in the old days.

And unlike almost anything in Canadian media reporting. Perhaps our people are too po-mo to believe that just reporting is worthwhile. Got to provide that context.


4:37 PM  

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