Thursday, 15 November 2007

You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay!

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.


Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I don't watch TV news unless you count The Daily Show back home. I miss getting The New York Times (sorry, John.) My favorite UK news source is The Week magazine which does quite a balanced sum of domestic and international news. For dumb Americans like me, they even have a column "It Must be True...I read it in the tabloids" as well as "Boring but Important."

Akinoluna said...

Ya, TV news is a joke. I can't stand watching it anymore. "Breaking news" consists of things like "OJ Going to Court Again!" Come on...

Henry L. said...

I feel your pain, John. Curran's talk made me feel defensive, and I'm not even American. (well, technically I am but I only got citizenship so I could vote for John Kerry. How sad does that sound in retrospect?). Granted, it's a problem that over 50% of American thought that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and so on, but there a bunch of problems with public broadcasting that Curran didn't talk about:

1) Supporting public broadcasting to get better informed citizens is partly a matter of subsizing public tv, but it also means restricting alternative choices. After all, there is plenty good hard news freely available on American TV and radio. The problem is that most people don't watch it. How are you going to force them to unless you keep the junk off the air? And who gets to decide what people "should" be watching?
2) Public broadcasting is much easier in countries which have (or think they have) relative consensus about the values which should inform TV broadcasts (which I suspect better describes Finland and Denmark than the US). As a practical matter it's much harder to make popular, informative programming in a country where there are deep divisions about religious and cultural values. PBS discovered this the hard way when they tried to do an educational children's TV show featuing a lesbian couple, and a large section of the American population went ballistic. (I wrote about this on

3)Curran didn't address the danger of giving such huge influence over the national discourse to a small group of broadcasters selected (and often funded) by the government. One of the main reasons the US doesn't have strong public tv is the First Amendment, which enshrines a nifty little idea called Freedom of Speech.
4) With John Reith's BBC people learned the names of quite a few world leaders. They also learned that one should observe the Sabbath, that the Empire was a Good Thing, and that the ideal citizen was a straight, white Oxbridge-educated man with a plummy accent. So were they better citizens that today's slackers? I don't think it's as easy a call as Curran makes out.
Whoops, sorry for ranting on so long...

Boutros said...

Amen, amen, amen to all that.

mark from alexandria said...

I think that the big problem is the fact that TV news in America is believed by the broadcasting and cable "powers that be" to need to be punchy and ratings driven. This causes the "celebrifi-cation" of the news. I'll save my thoughts on the politicians to blame for another day.

cktirumalai said...

In my experience, there are exceptionally well informed Americans and unusually poorly informed ones. Some of the latter might say, if they were given to philosphical reflection, that one man's knowledge is another man's aversion.

suburbancorrespondent said...

That Washington Post article on preparing children for disaster raised my hackles, John. What is wrong with us, that we keep putting adult responsibilities off on our children? In our town a number of years ago, there was a pedophile who was grabbing elementary age boys who happened to be outside. Instead of making sure that parents picked up their children from school or met them at the bus (because we wouldn't want to disrupt anyone's work schedules) until the perpetrator was caught, the powers that be frightened the kindergartners and first and second graders half to death with their stupid (as in, ineffective) classroom "stranger danger" programs. Ineffective because, obviously, a 6-year-old boy cannot prevent a grown-up from picking him up and molesting him.

So now, instead of making sure adults are prepared for a terrorist attack, we frighten the children, who really have no power over what happens to them whatsoever. What a misuse of government funds! It is pathetic the way we treat our grade-school children as though they are competent adults to be taught, rather than trusting innocents to be protected.

Pet peeve, I guess.

As far as that study went, it sounds as though James Curran was saying that our newspapers are fairly good, but the problem is no one is reading them, they're watching TV instead. And TV news is crap. Which last statement seems rather obvious to me. But what about everyone who is now getting their news from the Internet? How does that compare to TV and print? Did he lump the Internet in with print, because these papers all have websites? Just wondering....

reader said...

I'd like to see some social historians take on this question. Are the people who get most of their news from television the same sort who a few generations ago were illiterate or didn't bother to take any newspaper for other reasons? In other words, do we have fewer well-informed people or do we just expect more people to be well-informed? Is the news media "dumbing down" to appeal to people it used to ignore, or does it need to "dumb down" because the people who have always followed the news avidly want it to?
Another point: I prefer print news to television news because 1) I can read the entire State of the Union speech in much less time than it takes to listen to it being delivered, and 2)in general I am a visual learner--I remember what I see written down better than what I hear. ("In one ear and out the other," my mother used to fume when she tried to send me to the store without a written list.)

Henrik said...

Henry L: Your points are well taken. Public broadcasting is not a cure-all, as it often (historically) rests on values of cultural elitism and paternalism. Still, there is quite a lot of evidence that the presence of strong public broadcasting also has an indirect effect on commercial broadcasters, "raising the standard" across the media landscape, as it were. I write about that in my blog (see link in name) this week.