Media coverage of President Obama's recent trip to China tended to
focus on short-term political goals such as currency policy and whether
China would join in sanctions against Iran. The trip was mainly
covered not by China experts, after all, but by the White House press
corps, which has long been criticized for inordinately focusing on short-sighted Beltway politics.
That criticism hit new heights when The Atlantic's own James Fallows, who lived in and reported about China for a number of years, wrote a five-part take-down of media
coverage of the China trip. Fallows's posts compelled a response from Chuck Todd, one
of the highest profile members of the White House press corps.
- 'Instant Scorekeeping' Former New York Times China correspondent Howard French describes the problem to the Columbia Journalism Review. "I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most
subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of
Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon
that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to
serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term
political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff."
- 'Manufactured Failure' James Fallows laments "the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the
narrative of the DC-based 'horse race.' As you can tell, this really
bothers me." He writes, "the traveling press covered Obama's meetings with Asian officials as if
this were a bunch of stops in a presidential campaign tour, and as a
result missed or misrepresented what was going on."
The 'Long Game' An anonymous administration official
who worked on the trip told Fallows, "the things we were trying to
accomplish were all basically long term
things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories." The
official said, "So we saw this as a way of developing relationships
that would be
helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road. [...]
None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say
Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game."
of folks have passed on comments about coverage of the Asia trip; It's
caused the blogosphere/twitterverse to do the usual, which
is focus on facts that support their own thesis; the generalization
that goes on with judgments against the WH press corps are hypocritical
in that folks backseat driving the coverage are doing to the press what
they themselves are accusing the press of doing.
reality is this when it comes to the president's Asia trip: we won't
know if this trip was a success or failure for some time.
Short term, we'll get a sense of how this trip went when the U.S. presses for tougher sanctions against Iran.
term, especially in terms of relations with China, this trip will be
placed in proper context. But let's not just do the easy thing...
folks don't like how things are doing which is to do what sports fans
do, blame the refs, rather than the players on the field.
my favorite part of all this backseat driving is how 1 or 2 pieces of
reporting gets collectively used to attack entire press corps.
funnier already, how folks are so blind to their own rage, they are
accusing me of whining. Apologies for trying to introduce nuance!
With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What
(we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as
soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What
happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often
can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint
about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip.
For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value
of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the
way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign
"pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any
effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the
issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an
announcement is a "failure."
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
mfisher at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.