Yesterday was an interesting day around Oxford. It was Dump on America Day. I know what you're thinking: Everyday is Dump on America Day. But yesterday seemed different somehow.
It started with a seminar by James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College. Curran presented results from an interesting study comparing television and newspaper news stories in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Finland, slicing up coverage into hard versus soft news, domestic news versus foreign news. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me but basically while the four U.S. newspapers that Curran studied (which didn't include The Washington Post, sniff) had more international news coverage than their European counterparts, American television was way behind. The divide wasn't as great in the hard news/soft news sweepstakes but there, too, U.S. TV was more likely to be soft than hard--flaccid rather than rigid, if you will.
Curran and Co. also gave citizens in the four countries a test to see how well they could identify various issues and newsmakers. My countrymen, I fear, performed rather poorly. Again, I don't have the exact numbers, but something like only a fifth of the Americans knew what the Kyoto Protocols were, or that they had something to do with climate change. Kofi Annan? Who's he? Sarkozy? Is that a skin disease?
You get the picture. The only place the Americans did well was in identifying U.S. celebrities. We know our Britney Spearses from our Paris Hiltons.
This is all well and good, but what was Curran's larger point? That differences in the television structure is what causes the differences in civic awareness. Europe has a strong public broadcasting tradition, exemplified most visibly by the peerless BBC. Governments in the U.K., Finland and Denmark directly or indirectly help fund TV channels among whose purposes is informing the citizenry. In America, on the other hand, the market rules. That means news is pushed out of primetime and entertainment of the basest kind rules the airwaves. Curran argues that Britain and Europe need to resist Americanization since it will lead to an inevitable dumbing down of the populace.
Well what could I say? The digits don't lie. I'm sure the data are good. But it was like someone calling your dog ugly. Yes, he may be ugly, but he's your dog.
Ahem, I said. Could it be that Americans are just dumber than Europeans? I was joking, of course, and Curran agreed that many factors were at work. There is a greater divide between rich and poor in the U.S. than in Europe and that translates into education levels. It might be correct to say that our poor people are dumber than their poor people, and we have more of them.
I look forward to Curran's future findings.
Later in the day some of my fellow Reuters Fellows and I gathered to talk about recent news stories from our respective countries. I had selected one from yesterday's Post about how Federal and state agencies are launching programs to educate kids about how to prepare for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. (Great headline: "Boys and Girls, Can You Say Anthrax?") I find these programs--cartoon characters extolling "readiness," rap songs about tornadoes and earthquakes--kind of creepy. When does "preparedness" turn into paranoia?
The foreign fellows agreed wholeheartedly, so wholeheartedly that now I felt I had to defend the impulse behind these silly campaigns. But it was like a great cork had been removed and the slights they'd suffered at the hands of the United States came tumbling out. They'd all been stopped--especially the browner among them--and searched at U.S. airports. U.S. visa regulations are so onerous now that you need one even if you're only changing planes in America. Americans only seem to care about Americans. People in America think there's crime everywhere in their cities and are afraid to walk down the street. Then again, there is crime everywhere in America because of all the guns.
Even though I agreed with everything they said--because of its misguided post-9/11 policies, America has squandered much of its global goodwill--I felt my hackles rise. It was fascinating, this autonomic reflex. Yeah, I wanted to say, but in China you can't criticize the government! And in India widows get thrown on funeral pyres! And in England you eat...mutton! And who invented the airplane anyway?
Calm down, John. If you can't have these sorts of conversations at Oxford University, where can you? And the fact that my friends wanted to talk about these things at all showed that they cared about the United States, saw in its recent history a diminution of what it stood for. I can't see anyone getting that exercised about Belgium.
There are some in America (mostly from Texas, I've noticed) who don't really seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of us. Certainly some of James Curran's results can be attributed to the fact that the United States is a vast, self-contained, self-assured country that stretches from sea to shining sea, and not a puny place with a lot of neighbors just a train ride away. But the world neighborhood gets smaller every day and we would do well to be a part of it. Besides, we might even learn something.