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« The Joy of Groupthink | Main | The WSJ's Regional News Stand Pricing »

September 24, 2009

Foreign Misperceptions

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Bill Katz at Urgent Agenda posted some observations by overseas American Renee Nielsen (click here, scroll to bottom entry). Nielsen has lived in four countries (Denmark, Panama, India and, currently, Latvia) over the last seven years and is somewhat frustrated regarding news media perceptions of the United States. In her remarks in the link, she's upset that foreigners seem the think the USA is far more racist than she believes it to be.

When I was in business for myself I subscribed to the Financial Times for a few years because I was producing demographic and income forecasts for the world's countries and needed to be better aware of the foreign scene. At the time (early-mid 1990s) I was struck by how distorted the FT's coverage of the USA seemed. The general impression was that the US was a weird, dysfunctional place held together mostly by the efforts of President Clinton. There was little positive (or even accurate) coverage of ordinary middle class life in flyover country.

In short, the FT was simply parroting The New York Times, a newspaper I have long regarded as largely out of touch with this country. Reading the FT and NYT, one would think that America was typified by the nastier parts of The Bronx, Newark (NJ), and eastern Los Angeles. While there are indeed places in this country that are pretty awful, that doesn't strike me as being typical of the country at large (and I've visited 49 of 50 states).

This brings up another matter. If foreigners view the USA through a Leftist media lens (lazy journalists assuming that The New York Times actually reports fairly, and lifting that paper's perspective for their own stories), then to what extent is the news we in the US read about other countries distorted in a similar way?

Although I've spent about a year and a half traveling or living outside the USA, I don't have a good answer.



posted by Donald at September 24, 2009


I've noticed that foreigners interviewed for mainstream news coverage almost invariably respond with liberal boilerplate about what Obama means as a redemptive moral force for his wayward nation. Is this what most foreigners actually believe? If so, is this partly because of the sort of FT NYT commentary they are fed? Or maybe reporters aren't portraying foreigner opinion as accurately as they might. Who knows.

Posted by: Evan McLaren on September 24, 2009 2:29 PM

My perception is that the US foreign news isn't particularly slanted, it's just that there isn't all that much of it. In America, you can be part of the comfortable, educated middle-class without knowing anything about what goes on outside the USA.

As for the bias of the foreign media, it's a slant that the audience wants to hear.

Why do they want to hear it? Because they are happy with how their society is structured and want to keep it that way.

Specifically, everyone knows that the US is much wealthier than they are. This tends to make one unhappy with your own level of wealth. However, to have the same level of growth and wealth as the US would require policies that would make them miserable (you generally trade growth for security and greater social protection of your population).

So, by portraying the USA has a hotbed of awfulness, people can tell themselves that the wealth is only obtained by paying a terrible price. They don't feel miserable about their wealth.

If the media and general perception of the US was positive, then people would either (1) feel miserable about their level of wealth or (2) adopt US policies, and feel miserable about losing all the attributes of their society that they liked.

So think about it positively. If the media wasn't spreading such perceptions, populations around the world would *really* hate the USA for making them miserable, one way or another.

Posted by: Tom West on September 24, 2009 4:38 PM


It sounds like you haven't read the NYT since the mid-80s. My impression from reading the NYT is that the median salary in the USA is at least $500K annually, and that if you don't have a summer house in the Hamptons or Vermont and take regular ski vacations in Jackson Hole than you don't exist. You would also conclude from the NYT that Christianity is a quaint old fashioned minority religion and that Judaism followed by spiritual agnosticism are the dominant religious beliefs in the USA. The NYT is hardly "leftist" in any traditional sense, it's simply unthinkingly elitist, and it got much worse in the 90s as the income gap between New York/LA and the rest of the country seemed to grow.

There also is no such thing as "flyover" country. In my experience as a business consultant life in Ohio, Indiana upstate New York, rural PA, and the rest of the rustbelt really is about as awful as people in NY imagine - filled with mediocrities, crystal meth, and shabby depressing towns. Life in the Rocky Mountain states is generally fantastic, life in Texas is mostly pretty damn good, and life in the South is probably fine if you like fundamentalist Christians and nosy neighbors, which I generally don't.

Posted by: vanya on September 24, 2009 4:43 PM

Having lived abroad for years, I'll also add that American Conservatives/Republicans have some very sui generic values that often put them at odds with educated conservatives in Europe. The primary ones being Christianity and what even European conservatives consider a naive faith in free markets - when Europeans push for lower taxes and less regulation it's understood by all that the politicians and their supporters are doing so in their own self interest. Americans pretend to believe, or really do believe, that everyone benefits from richer businessmen, a crazy idea to a European. Europeans are far more cynical about everything and find American talk about freedom, free markets and, especially, faith in God just hopelessly childlike. British conservatives, for example, liked W because they thought he was lying. I think they just can't get through their heads that Bush might actually believe his own rhetoric - that would be simply class betrayal in the UK or France. Ironically European leftists tend to be more naive than American lefists - who I think resemble European conservatives in their cynicism, especially about race. But that's a whole different topic.

Posted by: vanya on September 24, 2009 4:56 PM

I saw this same phenomena in spades when I lived in France and, to a lesser extent, when I was in Colombia. The problem is that because America is everywhere--books, TV, Movies, the news, etc.--the locals think they know the United States. In fact, if you engage them in a little conversation you will discover the US they "know" is a media image, a brand, one that bears only a passing resemblance to the real United States.

Sometimes this is funny, like the poor New Zealand girl I spent a pleasant evening with a Le Coupole in Paris who was so scared of Los Angeles that she spent her entire 24 hour lay-over in that town in her hotel room for fear of gun violence. Being from LA, I explained to her the real picture of my hometown.

But most of the time it is just very frustrating. People who think they are very well informed about the US simply are not and their ignorance is often staggering. Many French thought that blacks still lived under the lash, ever fearful of the lynch mob.

I wish our government would do a better job of presenting the real US overseas.

Posted by: KevinV on September 24, 2009 5:24 PM

" what extent is the news we in the US read about other countries distorted in a similar way?"

Our news is distorted because it is no longer driven by solid journalistic standards, but by profits. Anyone who thinks the media is afflicted with either a 'liberal' or 'conservative' bias doesn't understand that fact. It is driven by a profit bias, sometimes favoring one political perspective and at other times another, although I know I've seen empirical data in the recent past that supports that in general the media is actually more biased in a conservative direction. And the NYT is no exception.

Posted by: KR on September 24, 2009 6:09 PM


1. I agree with Tom West - we don't read much about 'em. I have to keep up with my local interests in Europe online. I kinda care about Germany and care a good bit about Italy. You can barely get web coverage in English, let alone in American sources.

2. The differences between America and elite Europe are real (per Vanya) - but you know, there are LOTS of Europeans who wouldn't have any trouble in America. Kind of like the ones who the elites since the 18th C have been desscribing as "only partially Christianized." Only someone who believes in the integrity of nation states or their languages can believe that the opinions of Euroelites are particularly useful guides to Europe. I mean, why does NO one I know ever vote for Berlusconi, but he keeps being re-elected? Well, it's because I only know laureati in Italy. It's an occupational hazard.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on September 24, 2009 10:14 PM

KR - Our news is distorted because it is no longer driven by solid journalistic standards, but by profits. Anyone who thinks the media is afflicted with either a 'liberal' or 'conservative' bias doesn't understand that fact. It is driven by a profit bias ... - Exactly!

Posted by: Chris White on September 24, 2009 11:16 PM

Whaddya think the french thought of "freedom fries"...?

Posted by: Blacque Jacque on September 25, 2009 12:17 AM

I live in a country where people were somewhat surprised that in America a black man could be elected president while other blacks were being lynched right and left every day. Or so it appears....

Posted by: Johnnie on September 25, 2009 12:26 AM

Are their newspapers that report the news ''fairly,"? If there are, could you identify them for us?

Having lived in "middle America" for many years (upstate New York, South Dakota, rural Michigan) and in New York City for over eleven years, I'd be hard put to characterize this country, except to say that in many places, things are not what they seem to be.

It seems that you disagree, but I think that accepting people's mouthings at face value is the easy way out. In recent years, I lived in semi-rural Georgia. Racist? You betcha. Atypical?

Posted by: marik on September 25, 2009 12:57 AM

Difficulties I have when discussing racist Australia when travelling in enlightened Northern Italy:

A Sicilian or Calabrian in Australia is regarded as an Italian, not as a half-human brute to be politely but firmly marginalised for as many centuries as possible. After a brief generational adaptation - and in spite of our impolite, taunting ways - we think of them as Aussies and exclude them from absolutely nothing.

Also, I urge European visitors to Australia to come with umbrellas. This is because, when there is the slightest spit of rain, a dozen or more African-or-Asian-looking people will NOT appear on every corner offering to sell an umbrella for the equivalent of five euros. You can buy an umbrella from an Asian, but only if he has an umbrella shop.

Of course, you can keep your head dry with a bulky copy of the Age or SMH, which are our equivalents of the New York Times and Guardian. That way the trees won't have died completely in vain.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 25, 2009 1:58 AM

I e-mailed the NYTimes a few years back questioning the coverage of a story and the lack of coverage of another story.

Their response was interesting--and I guess obvious. They said the story that received coverage was more relevant and interesting to New Yorkers.

They are The New York Times. They are going to primarily write to the sensibilities, views, and interests of New Yorkers. Interpret that as you see fit. :)

Posted by: Steve-O on September 25, 2009 6:39 AM

It's not just the mainstream media that offers a distored view of reality. Read enough blogs and you'll start thinking that:

- all Jews and Asians are geniuses

- all blacks and Hispanics are subhuman

- except for a few warpigs, women under age 40 have at least twenty different sex partners a year

- a few men are Alphas with hundreds of "conquests," most men are Beta loser LJBF'ed nerds who can't get sex to save their lives

- women with children who have jobs are morally lower than crack whores

- the dominant political party in America is the Libertarian Party

- Islam is going to Conquer the World and haul us off to the ovens (they're already conquered Eurabia)

Posted by: Peter on September 25, 2009 3:00 PM

Have you ever watched CNBC Asia or Europe v. US CNBC? US is so dumbed down it's incredible.

Good stuff Peter. About 90% of the people I've met on the internets seem to be libertarian. I think I've met two in real life, myself being one of them.

I've always enjoyed the blog genre which goes something like "Muslims are gonna take over the US and make us all convert to Islam!" I mean could you think about the logistics of that for a second? Are they going to parachute in Red Dawn style?

Posted by: Bhh on September 27, 2009 10:17 AM

US journalists and public intellectuals aren't any better than their counterparts in other countries. The main difference is that where the European media tend to project their fears onto their image of the States, American media tend to project their hopes onto their image of Europe.

The reality, of course, is much more complex -- but it's a lot easier to see other countries as reflections of one's own.

Posted by: David at Cronaca on September 27, 2009 11:59 AM

I seldom meet a European who isn't a world-class authority on all things American in his or her own mind. Asians not so much, or perhaps they're just more diffident, or better-mannered.

Posted by: Narr on September 28, 2009 1:05 PM

Reminds me of James Lileks' pitch perfect screed after a reporter from The Guardian wrote about the banalities of the Olive Garden restaurant and Alabamans:

Posted by: aggieann on September 28, 2009 1:35 PM

Thanks for the link, aggieann. It's what Lileks does best.

Australia has a stable yet very mixed society; immigration has succeeded here like nowhere else; we have a solid political system which is hundreds of years older than our federation, which is also solid. We have had no domestic wars, no revolutions, no border wars. Our colonial administration of New Guinea was both needful and successful. (As I know from living and working next to a large aboriginal community, the clash of the machine age with the stone age has generated our one failure as a nation – yet even here the role of the Crown and later institutions has been misrepresented by the finger-waggers of the left.)

Yet I'm required to listen to blather and cant from Europeans about Australia's shabby origins, our racism, our primitive polity and society. I guess if they're dumb enough to hand their sovereignty to Brussels, they're dumb enough to engage in the next round of fascism when their dodgy, five-minute-old political systems start to shake a bit. When it's all in Euro-bits again, and the blood's been spilt, and the race-memories get another hate-boost...they'll restore confidence by looking down on les Anglos and sucking up to les Boches. If something always fails, is that a reason to stop doing it?

I guess that's why I love Siena. Someone else built that gorgeous town, seven-or-so hundred years ago, but at least they keep it clean and crime-free. Nobody there cares about Europe or Italy...or anything much at all outside their contrade and city walls. The predictable Bush-bashing and Euro-lecturing are half-hearted: their minds are on money, footy, the palio, mistresses, juvenile TV and tonight's pici caciopepe. They seem to know they're hopelessly insular, which is a start.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 29, 2009 8:29 AM

A bit late but some additional data. My father and I was recently having a conversation about something that my throw some light in the issue. The subject was media portrayal of events vs. reality.

He was stationed in Europe in the 50's. At least in Germany and in France the newspapers routinely carried feeds from Pravda. He stated that the following was a common occurance overseas:

Pravda (and German/French newspapers): Police in X shot to death a black man who was walking down a road.

US Newspaper: Joe Smith, who was wanted for murder, got into a gun battle with officers who were attempting to arrest him on X road and was shot dead.

I can easily image reporters who were raised on this just taking the attitude that the news slant they were exposed to was reality and just continued the tradition.

Regarding news coverage of foreign events in the USA - what news coverage? If the USA or a "celebrity" isn't involved you won't hear about it hear. For that matter even if it occurs here it is tough to get the complete facts. I noticed a couple of decades ago that you would often get far more complete coverage of an event from The Economist than from a local paper.

Posted by: Nobody on September 29, 2009 2:02 PM

I don't know about the news (too many Pinoys have lived in the US to presume Manhattan is the norm), but CNNinternational newsreaders frequently sneer while reporting US news.

And the real bias is the TV programs, especially MTV and the movie channels. If I were black,I'd sue for damages, since too many show blacks in sexually suggestive poses or being disrespectful (respect is big in Asia).

Ironically, Nat Geo Asia and Discovery Asia present programs that show a different US: The builders, the working class, those who risk their lives to rescue folks.

Posted by: Nancy Reyes on September 29, 2009 9:01 PM

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