War of Words The Role of the Media in the Trans-Atlantic Relationship

The trans-Atlantic rift of the past few years has been accentuated, in part, by anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism in the media when covering "the other side." But although there are real cultural differences, the time has come for both sides to ditch the easy clichés and stereotypes and foster some cultural understanding.

By and


Anti-Bush protest in Vienna: Since the run up to the Iraq War there has been tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship. And much of the war of words was waged in the media.
DPA

Anti-Bush protest in Vienna: Since the run up to the Iraq War there has been tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship. And much of the war of words was waged in the media.

A German journalist and his editor were doing the usual rounds in Washington in January 2003, meeting with a few neocons, a couple of think tanks and one or two Democrats. At the time you couldn't ignore the beat of the drums of war in the lead-up to the Iraq conflict, however for anyone not convinced by historical determinism there was still hope that war could be avoided. True, six months earlier, in the middle of a barn-storming election campaign by the Schröder government, Germany had committed itself not to approve any form of resolution by the United Nations Security Council. True, France was gearing up to become the moral opposition to America. But wasn't this what France always did, before caving at the last moment? At this point, Dominique de Villepin's memorable performance at the United Nations in New York still lay in the future.

Transatlantic Thinkers


The transatlantic relationship is not over, as has sometimes been suggested in recent years -- but it has changed. There is still consensus in Europe and the US that the urgent global challenges confronting us today can only be met in a joint effort. The goal is to identify specific fields for strategic cooperation and formulate effective and coherent policy options toward them. Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung aims to help in this process. The new series "Transatlantic Thinkers" provides a fresh perspective on these opportunities, touching upon topics such as energy security, climate change, civil liberties in an age of terror, trade and many others. The series is planned as part of the run-up to the annual "Brussels Forum" in April.
Among the figures in Washington who received regular visits from the German journalist was William Kristol, publisher of the "Weekly Standard". Germans find Kristol very unusual, almost a phenomenon. They are used to hearing German conservatives apologizing for being reactionary, distancing themselves from Nazism past and present in an almost knee-jerk reaction. Germany's right feels guilty about its conservatism because it was the conservatives who helped Hitler climb the ladder of power. But here was William Kristol, a conservative to the core, seeing his politics as something to be taken for granted rather than apologized for, and robustly attacking left-wingers and nay-sayers of Europe in print. This was a media-savvy conservative who had been around the block a few times and who was fully convinced that history was on his side. His views were all the more valuable for the fact that he obviously had incredible connections within the White House at the time.

However, on that January afternoon, Kristol was in an uncharacteristically serious mood. There was not a hint of irony in his manner and no sign of his wit or robustly argumentative style. He had hardly shaken hands and was still ushering us into his office when he blurted out: "I believe that Europe and America are on the verge of the most crucial test in my political memory. There are signs of a rift that I never would have thought possible."

It wasn't long before he was proven right. The crucial test was indeed imminent and long-lasting. The rift went deep and its effects are still being felt. This was not a spat that could be patched up quickly. The question of what actually happened, who contributed and how still exercises the academic world, the intelligentsia and other observers of transatlantic affairs. Much of the war of words was waged in the media and even orchestrated by it. For this reason this article aims to examine the role of the media in the interaction between Europe and America.

1.) "Nous sommes tous Américains!" But for how long?

In retrospect, it is very difficult to identify the precise timing of the various stages of estrangement and tentative rapprochement between Europe and the US. The clock starts ticking on the days immediately following September 11 2001, the golden days of pro-Americanism, when "Le Monde" declared all non-Americans to be American in moral terms. It was hard to disagree with this in view of the shock felt at the murderous terrorist attacks. The close emotional ties that existed for a short time between America and Germany are best illustrated by the following episode: at this time naval maneuvers were in progress in British waters, involving German, British and American ships. Among the German contingent was the destroyer "Lütjens". Just before the Lütjens sailed for home, the officers and crew came up with a small symbol of solidarity. They made a banner for the American troops with the words "We stand by you". This was unfurled as the crew saluted. The gesture became a political issue when described by an American soldier in an e-mail home, spreading through the media like wildfire as the moving story of good Germans and their salute to America showing just how close Europe and America could be.

This was followed by other gestures of historical dimensions, also illustrated in the media. The solidarity shown by NATO was almost inevitable as a result of the united international front. A strike against the Taliban government for refusing to give up or expel the terrorists, seemed like an obvious move. The Europeans in NATO also disproved the provocative theory that Americans were from Mars, while Europeans were from Venus. Relations became strained, though, when President George W. Bush declared war on terror and the axis of evil in his State of the Nation speech in January 2002, bringing an end to the unity between America and the majority of the free world. It was sad to see something so beautiful destroyed so quickly.

However, there were two divergent attitudes to America's behavior at the time. There was still understanding for the country's get-tough stance and a reluctant admiration for President Bush in the fall of the year, but these feelings slowly turned to disenchantment. Europeans became familiar with the inner workings of the US government, the broad conflict between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, with Condoleezza Rice in the middle, Richard Cheney coolly stoking the flames and President George W. Bush tipping the scales one way or the other. It should be said that Europeans are relatively well versed in the workings of the American power game, simultaneously fascinated and puzzled by it.

America had once again become inward looking. It expected solidarity as it prepared to fight back, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq.

The American media reported in minute detail on the deliberations in the Pentagon, the rivalry between the State Department and Defense Department. One could see it as an absurd lopsidedness because, for example, that a single edition of the "New York Times" would run the same story from a number of different angles - the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. Europeans are unfamiliar with this tradition in which journalists report hard facts but avoid stating an opinion. Even the analysis of these facts, sometimes by the same reporter who has penned an article, whether in the "New York Times", "Washington Post" or "Los Angeles Times", differs little from the other pieces. What distinguishes American journalism from its European counterpart is the absolute divide between such articles and editorials, opinion pieces or regular columns. It is obvious where this can lead: readers who want to believe that the affirmative, patriotic America was the real deal would pay attention to one half of the papers, while those who wanted to read about questioning, self-critical America would stick to the opinion pages and journalists like Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman. That's how easy it can be to have your prejudices confirmed.

However, the role of the US media in these turbulent times had problems of its own. After the September 11 attacks, journalists also felt the need to express patriotism. It is well-known that patriotism and journalistic principles make strange bed-fellows. Leading conservative media such as "Fox News" or the "New York Post" transformed themselves into "war cheerleaders", leaving staff to smile weakly about the principle of objectivity, or, to put it more mildly, editorial distance. Even the more relaxed news media, though, plastered their front pages and TV screens with slogans such as "A Nation in Danger" or "A Nation under Attack", leaving little room for pondering or skepticism. The phenomenal ability of the Bush administration to declare its point of view to be the only possible opinion played a significant role here. The "New York Times" eventually found itself in the fairly unique position of having to print an apology to its readers for its reporting prior to the Iraq conflict because reporter Judith Miller had believed dubious sources about the existence of weapons of mass-destruction in Iraq, despite the fact that these sources were at the heart of the US administration.

But others should reflect on their performance, too: for example NBC News, which began the countdown on the "Road to War" early on. Major TV channels allowed air time primarily to experts who believed that diplomacy was the work of the devil and best left to the history books. CNN presented Donald Rumsfeld's press conferences like a daily live quote-fest without much probing behind the information on offer. Surveys show that around 80 percent of US citizens mainly source their news from the television, but this seemed to be letting them down with greater frequency. When US soldiers fired on a vehicle full of civilians at a checkpoint near the Iraqi town of Kerbela, killing seven women and children, their fellow-Americans had to rely almost entirely on up-to-date details from British broadcaster BBC World. For a long time the US channels hid the story away in a small sidebar. Although the then head of the BBC, Greg Dyke, was pleased with record viewing figures (foreign media in the USA had an audience up to 60 percent higher than usual at this time), he finally cracked. "Some American TV journalists seem to have wrapped themselves in the flag before the start of the Iraq War, making them unable to do the job the public expects from them," Dyke stormed soon after the invasion had started.

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