Americans are famously incurious about the rest of the world.
— Rome Hartman, Executive Producer, BBC World News America
“How much of a good clean look at the world are we getting through American journalism?” With the start of the second season of The IFC Media Project, Gideon Yago poses a complicated and provocative question. U.S. journalism has long promoted itself as the most objective and complete on the planet. But reporting tends to be shaped by culture, politics, and economics, and while the American industry is surely diverse, sometimes outstanding, and frequently incisive, it isn’t always “clean.”
Yago notes that at least one aspect of U.S. culture has proved dominant across the globe: following the Soviet collapse, he says, “The world realize[d] that people do in fact prefer McDonalds and blue jeans to police states and crap pop music.” But such a glib assessment is precisely the problem. The triumph of commercial capitalism does not in itself translate into a persuasive central worldview. It can’t be a coincidence that Yago asks the question while standing in the Newseum in Washington, DC. Lively and interactive, the museum looks at the news from a distinctly American perspective, its displays asserting the excellence of American news gathering and reporting.
In “American Worldview,” The IFC Media Project (whose first season launched on 18 November 2008) takes up a series of topic, from the U.S. coverage of last summer’s Russia-Georgia conflict, U.S. news outlets’ ongoing resistance to airing Al-Jazeera English, and, on the animated “News Junkie” segment, the U.S. media representations of Somali pirates. Each story is sharp and energetic, organized around a youthful, skeptical investigative reporter.
For the first, New Yorker and j-school graduate Radmilla Suleymanova is struck by the one-sidedness of the news she’s hearing about South Ossetia, that is, “Mikheil Saakashvili pleading directly to us in English for help against the big bad Russian bear.” Born in 1983 in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains region, she heads back to discover how locals perceive the fighting. Here she learns that the war, however brief, was frightening and consequential for the people of South Ossetia, but, they note, Georgia invaded Russia first. Suleymanova comes up with likely reasons for U.S. administration support of Georgia (namely, its oil big pipeline that bypasses the bogeymen nations of Russia and Iran), but she’s up against a wall when she wonders about U.S. media coverage: “Aren’t journalists supposed to know when they’re being spun?” The most tellingly unsatisfying moments in her piece comes when she meets Christiane Amanpour, who blows off her question with a banality: “Truth is the first casualty of the fog of war.” Suleymanova resolves that in future, “It is my responsibility to dig deeper.”
Robb Wood digs into the dilemma represented by Al-Jazeera English. Donald Rumsfeld famously demonized the Arabic news organization during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but the fact is that the network is seen in 140 million homes around the world. Wood notes that while most U.S. outlets are shrinking their international news coverage, Al Jazeera is expanding (with 69 bureaus around the world). Now that AJE has been launched — and is only available in the States online and in a very few cable television markets (including Burlington, VT, Houston, Washington, DC, and parts of Ohio) and on Dish Network. Wood speaks with supporters and opponents of putting AJE on American TV. The former includes Eric Clark, lengthily titled the Strategic Communications Consultant for the U.S. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (“I see this as the sad state of the American psyche,” he says, “America building walls around itself”; the latter includes John Stuart of the Defenders Council of Vermont, a group determined to remove AJE from Burlington’s airwaves whose members argue that they wouldn’t permit a pedophilia network either. Wood pauses here, asking, “Is there anyone out there who’s pro-pedophilia?” His interview subjects look at him as if he’s missed the point.
The repeated argument against making AJE in the U.S. hinges on its lack of “objectivity” (the Arabic version has been called a “mouthpiece” for Al-qaeda more than once), but Wood intimates that this isn’t in itself a rational reason: “Even if it’s not an objective media outlet,” he asks, “Does that disqualify it from being shown in the U.S.?” Savvy consumers will feel smart here, knowing that all news in the U.S. is biased and subjective, no matter the regularly stated ideal of objectivity.
Clever and quick, The IFC Media Project assumes this sort of savvy. It’s a self-confirming view, but it also mostly respects viewers’ intelligence. Next week’s segment on “journalistic ethics” focuses on the Iraqi “shoe-chucker,” journalist Muntadher Zaidi, considers what happens when “the activist impulse that draws people to become journalists in the first place gets perverted.” Whether or not you consider Zaidi’s action or thinking to be “perverted,” the piece does what the Media Project does best: it digs deeper.