LONDON, UK — From the Arab Spring to the Russian Winter, historians will mark 2011 as an inflection point that changed the course of the 21st century. It was one of the most eventful years that I have seen in a lifetime of reporting world events.
Any one of its extraordinary stories would be enough to make it an extraordinary year — including the apocalyptic tsunami that destroyed a Japanese nuclear power plant, and a near-meltdown of the world’s second most-important currency that threatens to plunge the world into another deep recession. 2011 has been just one big, unexpected event after another.
As the year reaches its frenetic finale, it’s time to ask how well the American media handled the biggest news year in decades.
Were they up to the task of reporting these huge events? Barely. Did American reporters do a good job of explaining what they portended? Not really.
The Tunisian awakening, which was touched off a year ago by the self-immolation of a poor street vendor, caught everyone by surprise — governments, academics, intelligence services and journalists. Virtually no one saw it coming, so news organizations had to scramble to find enough journalists to cover it. A few still had experienced foreign correspondents, but most were caught short-handed.
The great New York Times still has a slimmed down corps of highly-capable foreign correspondents, but other American newspapers and the once great American news networks (apart from CNN) years ago decided to outsource most foreign news gathering to agencies such as the Associated Press or Reuters.
The Tunisian uprising was a real revolution in a country with a large middle class and wide use of social media. It was relatively easy to cover, and the American media did a B-minus job of reporting it.
The Egyptian uprising was different. The mass protests in Tahrir Square made great television and exciting reporting, but they were only part of the story. The part most of the American media missed was that Egypt underwent a military coup rather than a revolution. The army sided with the protesters in order to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak and his heir-apparent son, who they saw as a threat to their cushy perks and prerogatives.
It’s only recently that the American media (and indeed even the Egyptian media) began to realize that the army, which has run Egypt from behind the scenes since 1952, is still running the country. I give the American media a C-minus for Egypt.
Libya was even more complicated. It appears to have been a civil war manufactured by the French government for domestic political reasons. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is running well behind in the polls for re-election next year and was looking for a foreign policy win to boost his standing.
President Barack Obama was reluctant to be sucked into another Middle East war, but contributed American airpower to bomb and strafe the country to “save civilian lives.”
Much of the Western propaganda that surrounded that war was patently false — such as the story that Col. Muammar Gadaffi’s government was handing our Viagra and condoms to its troops and encouraging them to rape women on the opposite side. The story made news in leading American newspapers and was carried around the world by major broadcasters including the BBC and CNN.
And it took a long time for the American reporters in Libya to perceive that the militia that was fighting for the anti-Gadaffi side were not all boy scouts. Some of the bearded Libyan “freedom fighters” had interesting backgrounds with links to Islamic jihadists. I give the American media a D for Libya.
It is hard to grade the America media on the other manifestations of the Arab awakening because most news organizations rarely or never went there. They found them too hard to cover — such as Syria, where the government initially banned all foreign journalists, or countries such as Yemen, which most Americans have never heard of and could not find on a map. News organizations must have decided it was not worth spending money on conflicts they believe their readers and viewers don’t give a damn about.
That’s too bad, because some of these smaller uprisings in the Middle East may have long-term consequences for the West. Only sporadic coverage has been given to Bahrain, where the ruling family is trying stamp out protests by an oppressed Shia majority. Bahrain is the home base for the United States Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Arabian/Persian Gulf, through which a third of the world’s exported oil flows.
Even more worrying are the Shia protests in the Eastern part of Saudi Arabia, which have been severely repressed by the rigidly authoritarian Saudi royal family. Barely a whisper of these protests have been reported by the American media. Why did news bosses decide that unrest and oil are not news?
For all of these “minor” stories, I give the media a big fat F.
Coverage of Iran also deserves a mention because the American media hardly covered it at all. It is a difficult place to report from, but that is no excuse for being almost totally absent from the country that both the Obama administration and the Republican opposition see as America’s biggest foreign-policy challenge. Another big fat F.
And a D-minus at best for coverage of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of these conflicts have all but disappeared from newspapers and television. And when the last American troops pulled out of Iraq before Christmas, America’s evening news shows failed to explain the political, social and economic mess they left behind in the country the United States occupied for almost nine years.
Among the copy-cat protests that have been spawned in other parts of the world by the Arab Spring, the Russian unrest is the most recent and in the long run may have great consequences for America’s touchy relationship with Russia. Many American news organizations closed their Moscow bureaus in recent years and use stringers or agencies to cover a former Cold War adversary that bears close watching. Coverage of the Russian protests rates a D-minus, at best.
I would give a better grade to American coverage of the European banking and currency crisis, especially by the business press and market-watching TV cable world. That’s a no-brainer. What happens to the euro, the world’s second most-important currency, can have real and immediate impact on the pocketbooks, jobs and mortgages of millions of Americans. Most of the coverage rates a B-plus, although I note that American network evening news shows visit the story only rarely.
The best coverage I saw this year was from the Japanese tsunami and the dangerous release of radiation from the devastated Japanese nuclear power station. Natural disasters are relatively easy to cover and explain. The news media get an A for that.
But most of the year’s American coverage of the world outside its borders was a shambles, with only bits of brilliant reporting and insights gleaming through the slapdash journalism and cheapskate news budgets that made American coverage of foreign affairs look amateurish compared to the sort of job they once did in the old Cold War days.
If journalism is the first draft of history, what the American public was given in 2011 was a very rough draft indeed.