Media Department: The idiot box

Having lived in the US for more than a decade, I have long believed that Europeans (even reluctant ones) are generally better informed about the US and the rest of the world than Americans are about anywhere outside the US.

National Geographic’s surveys of international geographic literacy, for instance, portray Americans much as 14th-century explorers poring over fantastically drawn maps of the world; yes, England’s out there, but 69 per cent don’t know exactly where.

Rather more unnerving, if you believe geography is destiny, 85 per cent of Americans aged between 18 and 24 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East in 2002, even as George W. Bush was making the case for invading it. More astonishing still, only 17 per cent could locate Afghanistan, which the US had invaded the year before in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Ignorance writ this large is open to scorn, but it is neither inexplicable nor irrelevant. Beyond the familiar urbanity of the coastal cities, America is a perpetual frontier of self-absorbed isolation, a continent so vast that the dead from Iraq return to rest in places as remote and obscure as the country in which they met their end: Bauxite, Arkansas (pop 432); Coahoma, Texas (pop 933); Northome, Minnesota (pop 230). It is this America, one that has sacrificed its sons and daughters in disproportionate numbers to the war on terror, that will decide the future of US foreign policy in November’s presidential election - a decision that, unhappily, binds us all to what Americans know or don’t know about the rest of the world.

It doesn’t look good: If cartography leaves Americans looking almost medieval, television, their key source of news, makes the rest of the world look virtually Hobbesian. Throughout the 1990s, television increasingly portrayed the world outside the US as nasty, brutish and undeserving of much in the way of airtime. This is just one of the dismal conclusions of a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC completed last year on the way the US media has covered international affairs. (”A World Apart: Coverage of Foreign News Before and After 9/11”).

Foreign news shrank by 30 per cent between 1990 and 2001 (before 9/11) to one out of every five stories aired in primetime. At the same time, coverage morphed into infotainment. Conflict and disaster were in (good visuals), context was out (too time-consuming to explain economic, ethnic, social, cultural or political backgrounds to these crises, or why they might be relevant to Americans or a consequence of US foreign policy).

September 11 left few in any doubt that this was not the way foreign news should be covered. Media pundits and executives solemnly declared a new era in international reporting, one that would give Americans the substantive coverage they needed to make sense of a war on terror that could rival the cold war in length and change the character of life in the US.

Instead, we found television news gave Americans more of the same, with an important twist: the narrative logic of an irreducibly violent and irrational world meant that diplomacy had become, if not a fool’s errand, then something that could be ignored. Military force was advocated in news reports 10 times as often as diplomacy (even after the Taliban had been defeated in Afghanistan); and the US was urged to act on its own three times as often as in concert with its allies, despite the international furore this created.

The crucial question is how this affected public opinion. Polls conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (Pipa) at the University of Maryland suggest the effect may be profound. For instance, in 2003, Pipa found that a majority of Americans who relied exclusively on television for news still believed one or more demonstrable “misperceptions” about the war: namely, that Saddam Hussein worked closely with the 9/11 terrorists, that US forces actually found weapons of mass destruction, and that world opinion backed the US invasion. Pipa also found that the more likely television viewers were to hold one or more of these misperceptions, the more likely they were to support the war.

But if television has (knowingly or not) become a political tool, it is one that constrains politicians. If foreign policy decisions have to be sold through television, they must resonate as advertising jingles: “Look, they’ve got weapons of mass destruction and they’re going to use them!” (and, when that fell foul of advertising standards, “Hussein was a very bad man”). How saleable would the case for war have been if it had been prefaced by “We should turn Iraq into a pro-US democracy because... “?

The power of television in wartime has long been seen as immediate and dangerous, transfixing viewers with either lapel-button jingoism or gore and folly. Yet such moments are merely elements in a larger story told over a longer period of time. The most frightening thing about the November election may well be that no president can erase the image of the world that television has created.

Trevor Butterworth is a fellow of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC.

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