On Monday, the United Nation’s Department of Public Information unveiled its annual list of the world’s “10 most under-reported stories.” The list covers an admirably wide range of stories, including “development challenges” facing Liberia as it tries to recover from years of civil war; the plight of asylum seekers being held in political limbo; the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s upcoming elections, which are taking place under a cloud of humanitarian concerns; the ongoing violence in Somalia; and the plights of the millions of people stranded in refugee camps worldwide.
While the conflict in Somalia between Islamic groups and secular warlords has received some ink in American newspapers over the past few weeks, we’re inclined to agree that these are all stories worthy of more press attention.
But why aren’t these stories covered in more depth domestically? There are several reasons, we suspect. One is that given the continuing war in Iraq, the escalating drumbeat over Iran’s nuclear program, the recent spike in oil prices and the stories swirling over alleged NSA wiretaps and border security, there is plenty of news to keep reporters clacking away at their keyboards — and that pushes some of these other, more complicated stories off the front pages.
But there’s another, deeper reason: American news editors know their audience. And, all too often, their audience has generally shown little interest in international news that doesn’t directly affect American “interests.”
Consider January 2005, when president Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address that, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation … it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” A noble sentiment to be sure, but despite widespread praise for the speech throughout the conservative commentariat, in a Gallup poll taken just after the inauguration, only 31 percent of Americans agreed with the president about spreading democracy. Underscoring this, a poll taken in September 2005 showed that only 27 percent of Americans said they were “strongly committed to promoting democracy.” As a matter of fact, despite the constant democratic drumbeat from the White House, when Americans were given a list of 19 potential foreign policy problems that should get priority in 2004, they ranked promoting democracy abroad eighteenth.
These numbers cited above are culled from a series of polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, under the direction of Andrew Kohut, which were recently collected in a book America Against the World, written with Bruce Stokes. The book, which came out in early May, is the result of the Pew Research Center’s global survey of over 91,000 people in 50 countries, conducted to understand where the United States stands in the world’s esteem. As such it isn’t a real page-turner (given that it’s essentially a large, bound public opinion poll with narrative explanation), but on matters such as this, it’s extremely useful.
Part of this indifference toward democracy promotion, Kohut and Stokes found, can be tied to the indifference Americans often show toward the people and nations that lay beyond its shores. In fact, Pew’s Global Attitudes Project shows that, as Kohut and Stokes put it, “the American brand of chauvinism leads to indifference toward the world rather than a messianic desire to change it by spreading American ideas and culture.” And this leads to the embarrassing stuff: “Americans are likely to be wrong on the facts about current foreign events, and the views they then express on international matters are, at best, difficult to interpret.” According to Pew surveys, most Americans do not know that the Kyoto treaty deals with environmental issues, while a September 2004 poll discovered that two out of three Bush voters thought that the president supported the International Criminal Court. A month later, after the president came out against American participation in the Court during the presidential debates, half of Republican voters still thought he supported it.