The Media Today

How foreign correspondents have covered the protests and the election

October 30, 2020

In early June, Seven News, a TV channel in Australia, patched in Amelia Brace, its correspondent in Washington, DC, and her cameraman, Tim Myers, for an update on protests outside the White House. Brace had just begun to describe the scene when a line of police officers charged toward her; one of them punched Myers’s camera, knocking it out of focus. Brace retreated, then came back on air. “You heard us yelling there that we were media, but they don’t care,” she said, breathlessly. “They’re being indiscriminate.” Then officers charged again. Brace screamed. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “We’re getting hit by rubber bullets.” Police fired tear gas, too. Brace and Myers eventually got out of harm’s way. A few weeks later, Brace testified before a US Congressional committee. “I’ve been shocked,” she said, “to see how many journalists have been attacked, beaten and detained, just for doing their jobs.”

Brace had been among those cleared from Lafayette Square, outside the White House, so that President Trump could do a photo op with a Bible. The same week—as protests rose up across America, in response to Minneapolis police killing George Floyd—officers all over the country assaulted reporters, including foreign correspondents. In Minneapolis, police tear-gassed and fired projectiles at Nina Svanberg, a journalist with the Swedish newspaper Expressen; a rubber bullet hit Mikko Marttinen, of the Finnish outlet Ilta-Sanomat, in the eye (his glasses protected him); and officers fired projectiles at Stefan Simons, a journalist filming a report for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, then threatened to arrest him. Later in the summer, Svanberg was covering protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after local police shot Jacob Blake; officers stopped her car, walked toward her with guns in their hands, and detained her for several minutes. She told the Committee to Protect Journalists that she’s discussing security with her editors more now than ever before.

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With the election approaching, America is a prime global news story, and foreign correspondents are playing a crucial role translating the febrile atmosphere for readers and viewers back home. (Donald Trump has fans abroad, of course, but most international observers seem to want him gone: only around fifteen percent of respondents to a recent poll covering seven European countries hope that he’s reelected.) This week, the New Yorker released a documentary about how foreign correspondents view the United States. Larry Madowo, a Kenyan journalist who works for the BBC, said that he’s been stunned to see that “the same things that America has been lecturing Africa on appear to be happening right here at home.” Alan Cassidy, who reports for the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, described America in 2020 as “a car-crash situation: you don’t really want to watch, but you have to because it’s so outlandish and crazy and insane.” Jesper Steinmetz, of Denmark’s TV2, said that “it’s great working in this country, because it is fun to keep being baffled by what happens.” Arjen van der Horst, of the Dutch broadcaster NOS, argued that, contrary to many Americans’ view of themselves, “in so many ways, you’re the opposite of exceptional.” Well, he added, “you’re exceptionally shit.”

Svanberg and some of the journalists interviewed by the New Yorker feel that not being from the US is an advantage in their reporting, and affords them a measure of protection: they are, after all, not part of the “fake” domestic news media that Trump has encouraged many Americans to hate. But rubber bullets don’t discriminate—and American immigration officials do. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security outlined proposals for reforming the visa that foreign correspondents typically use to work in the US. As of now, the visa is valid for five years, but officials want to cut that period to two-hundred-and-forty days, with a maximum extension of the same length of time. (DHS is similarly proposing to tighten the conditions of certain student and exchange visas.) The change would, ostensibly, “reduce fraud and ensure national security,” but it’s more likely a pretext to crack down on journalism. Recently, news organizations including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation pushed back on the proposal in a joint statement. The current visa validity period, they argue, allows foreign correspondents “to better understand the country and therefore better report on it to the rest of the world.” Cutting it down “carries a substantial risk to how the US is represented globally.”

That is undoubtedly true—in recent months, journalists including Brace, Myers, and Svanberg have put their bodies on the line to understand America better, and show its ugly realities back to the rest of the world. Foreign correspondents in the US don’t just have to contend with the same anti-press violence and restrictions as their American peers, but with the vicissitudes of the US immigration system, too. Their readers and viewers may be scattered around the world, but foreign correspondents have an urgent, immediate stake in the election.

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Below, more on the election and the world:

  • The importance of diversity: Sharing the New Yorker documentary on Twitter, Madowo, of the BBC, noted that he’s the only Black journalist featured. “There are very few people who look like me who cover America in the Western media,” he wrote, “and many outlets in the Global South don’t have budgets for foreign correspondents. I hope both change.”
  • The view from abroad: In August, GZERO asked journalists and commentators in twenty-four countries—from Brazil to Ethiopia to Iraq—how the US election is playing where they live. “The US was the paradigm for democracy. And now it’s not that way anymore,” Camila Zuluaga, a journalist with Caracol TV and Blu Radio in Colombia, said. “What do we see from the outside? It’s like it’s an empire that is going down.”
  • The global society: Last summer, CJR published the Global Issue, on shared experiences of journalists around the world—in Turkey, Israel, Ghana, the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere—and this summer, in the Election Issue, Madeleine Schwartz argued that “Voters around the world are struggling with big, existential questions about the future of democracy and republican systems.” She added, “American media would best serve its citizens if, for once, we looked out rather than in. It’s a skill the rest of the world has already learned.”
  • ‘Censorship’: Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald, who knows all too well how severe state threats to journalism can be—in the US, where he’s from, and Brazil, where he lives—resigned from The Intercept, the site that he co-founded in 2014, because, he said, his editors there were “censoring” him. He subsequently published correspondence that showed editors raising concerns about a column in which Greenwald argued that mainstream journalists have given Joe Biden a pass in light of (highly-dubious) claims that Biden was involved in his son Hunter’s foreign business deals. In a statement, editors at The Intercept rebutted Greenwald’s censorship charge as “preposterous”—his facts were wrong—and called him “a grown person throwing a tantrum.” The statement added, “We have the greatest respect for the journalist Glenn Greenwald used to be.”
  • Fox News news: On his show Wednesday, Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, said that he couldn’t share supposedly damning documents about the Bidens, as he had promised, because they’d been lost in the mail—a claim that, predictably, invited ridicule. Yesterday, UPS confirmed that it had located the missing package; on his show, Carlson speculated about dark motives on the company’s part, but then said that he was still assessing the documents, and didn’t want to “pile on” Hunter Biden any further. Elsewhere, Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr report, for the Washington Post, that despite on-air outrage about the Bidens at Fox, behind the scenes, “a strange calm prevails.” Rupert Murdoch, the network’s owner, expects Biden to win “and frankly isn’t too bothered by that”—in part because a Democratic presidency may return to Fox “the central role in the Republican Party that it occupied before Trump co-opted the party.”
  • The conclusion of Year of Fear: Greg Glassner, Charles Richardson, Sandra Sanchez, and Jason Togyer—who have spent 2020 reporting for CJR’s Year of Fear series from places around the country that don’t have a sizable local news presence—reflect on where they find themselves as the election approaches. You can read their final instalment here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a terrorist killed three people at a church in Nice, France. The attack came two weeks after the beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher in the Paris suburbs who showed his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were published by Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. (In 2015, terrorists killed eleven Charlie staffers.) In a eulogy for Paty, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, defended free expression; recently, he also said that Islam “is in crisis all over the world today.” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, called Macron’s remarks Islamophobic; Charlie Hebdo then published a cartoon mocking Erdoğan. Turkish prosecutors now say they’re “investigating” the magazine, as Franco-Turkish relations rapidly deteriorate.
  • For CJR, Mark Oppenheimer profiles Steve Doocy, a cohost of Fox & Friends, and asks what “Doociness” can tell us about America. “To many, Doocy is a faux simpleton at the head of the vast right-wing machinery,” Oppenheimer writes. “But this past summer, as I spent many COVID-quarantine mornings with Doocy and his cohosts on their famous ‘curvy couch,’ I realized he is no puppet master. Nor is he a simpleton. He is something else… In a Doocy world, pop-culture levity rises above the news, is above the news.”
  • The LA Times is launching “The Latinx Files,” a free weekly newsletter—written by Fidel Martinez, an audience engagement editor—that will feature original reporting and bring together coverage relevant to the Latinx experience, both in LA and nationally. The LA Times “hasn’t historically covered Latino communities well (when it has covered them at all),” Angel Rodriguez, an editor at the paper, writes, but “today there are close to 100 Latino journalists working at the Times to tell their stories, in English and in Spanish.”
  • For CJR, Feven Merid sat in on MediaWise for Seniors, a fact-checking course (held over Zoom) for elderly people—the fastest-growing group on Facebook. “Senior citizens are the most at risk for coronavirus; they’re the most at risk for sharing misinformation,” Katy Byron, the program manager for MediaWise, said. Plus: “They’re the most likely to vote.” 
  • Aminda Marqués González is stepping down as the top editor at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald to take a new job as vice president and executive editor at Simon & Schuster. Dana Canedy—a former journalist who stepped down as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes this year to become Simon & Schuster’s publisher—said that Marqués will help the company expand into “diverse and underrepresented markets.”
  • For The Nation, Gwen Florio—who recently resigned as editor of The Missoulian, in Montana, after the paper endorsed a hard-right candidate for state office and lost subscribers as a result—describes her front-row view of the decline of local news. Florio, who didn’t contribute to the endorsement, writes that it likely resulted not from malice, but from staff being “so overworked” that they didn’t properly vet the candidate.
  • In the UK, the BBC laid out new rules governing staffers’ speech: journalists must now refrain from attending protests, publicly criticizing their colleagues, and virtue signaling (defined here as “retweets, likes, or joining online campaigns to indicate a personal view”) on social media. They must also avoid using emojis that may be seen as biased. (In January, I wrote for CJR about the tyranny of newsroom social-media policies.)
  • This week, lawmakers in Nicaragua passed a bill criminalizing the publication of “fake news,” “unauthorized” information, and stories that threaten “national security.” News organizations have accused Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president, of working to silence scrutiny and dissent. Ismael Lopez has more details for Reuters.
  • And Slate announced that the sixth season of Slow Burn, its history podcast, will revisit the acquittal of four LA police officers in the Rodney King case, in 1992, and the media’s coverage of the unrest that followed. Joel Anderson will host. Slow Burn’s fourth season, on David Duke, came out this summer; its fifth, on the Iraq war, is slated for spring 2021.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.