Me, Noam and the Media

In the last posting, I noted that the existence of a carefully considered, broadly-based, and widely-subscribed grand strategy could help countries situate themselves, and stay on a chosen international policy course, in constantly whirling world.

The reality, however, is that most governments, and their policies, are blown around like the flotsam and jetsam on the pond in Central Park. And much of the wind which causes the movement is generated by the conventional media. If a story is on the front page or featured as the lead item in the network news, then you can bet that politicians and officials will respond. For that reason – and more –  diplomats must understand how the media works.

And how to work the media.

Most of the stories which receive prominent coverage,  it must be added, either originate in the metropolis – or the A-world, in GD parlance – or have some direct connection to metropolitan interests. Events in planet’s margins, whether a homeless shelter in Toronto or a barrio in Rio, will rarely receive protracted prime-time attention or main event billing. If vital interests are not at risk, coverage will be limited to disasters or conflicts, and treated as unfortunate sideshows, instantly terrifying and just as soon forgotten. If the scale of the tragedy is sufficiently overwhelming – like the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean – or if the news media happens to be fully engaged, as during hurricane Katrina in August 2005,  then the popular resonance may linger.

For the most part, however, mass suffering in Darfur or the disintegration of the Congo receive at best episodic treatment. Indeed, much of what happens outside of the metropolis, or at least outside of areas of immediate metropolitan interest, commands about as much serious or sustained international attention as the Maoist insurrection in Assam, the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka or the struggle of the Sarahawi people for independence from Morocco in what was once the Spanish Sahara.

In the early 1990s, while working in the Canadian Foreign Ministry as the intelligence analyst for Central, South and Southeast Asia, I had an interesting exchange with Noam Chomsky on this issue. I had heard him in a radio interview attribute the intense negative media coverage of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (to remove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge) to the slavish adherence of the Western press to the political ends of its owners and masters. Chomsky compared this to the almost negligible coverage of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, which he suggested was equally worthy of coverage but was not accorded similar treatment because of ideological inconvenience and Western support for the Suharto regime.

I wrote to Chomsky to say that while I was not in principle unsympathetic to his analysis, I believed that some of his observations might be explained by the structure of media representation and the geographic location of foreign correspondents and stringers.  In the late seventies, I suggested, Bangkok and Hong Kong were still brimming with reporters desperate for stories in the wake of the Indochinese conflicts, and renewed Vietnamese activity on their doorstep gave them something to write about.

On the other hand, almost no international reporters were anywhere near the island of Timor, nor was there an easy or fast or easy way to get there. That might help to account for the paucity of coverage.

Professor Chomsky did not agree.

I checked my (quite possibly flawed) recollection of this exchange with Chomsky during the preparation of the Guerrilla Diplomacy manuscript. He e-mailed me back, on the same day, making clear that his views had not changed. His arguments, I think, are vintage, and although I decided in the end not to use the material as a sidebar in the book, the contents nonetheless bear repetition.

They will be coming to this screen presently.