Tuesday, February 25, 2014

American Media and the Protests of the World

Foreign policy priorities and powerful interests oftentimes play out in the media (1). Broadly speaking, from the selection of news stories to the particular angles they may take, the U.S. media’s account of foreign events can give readers an interesting glimpse into the interests of America’s powerful. It is no coincidence that media attention focuses much more on matters that relate directly to U.S. national and corporate interests even though similar events around the world go underreported. Four case studies—the protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, the West Bank, and Thailand—help demonstrate this relationship.


By a wide margin, the mass anti- and pro-government protests and accompanying political crisis in Ukraine have received a majority of the news coverage. Dozens have been killed and pictures of fires and violence from the protests have gone viral. While many may know of Ukraine only for its Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the former Soviet satellite has vast geostrategic importance to the United States. The U.S. has given over $3 billion to Ukraine since its independence in 1991, mostly for pro-market reforms and strengthening civil and political institutions. The billions of dollars in aid are intended to help orient Ukraine away from Russian influence through economic and political alignment with the West. Since 1995, Ukraine has also been in consultation with NATO to explore the possibility of membership. These developments have in part helped shape the current media portrayal of anti-government demonstrations there as a kind of post-Cold War tug-a-war between Western and Russian influences, since the now-disposed prime minister made an eleventh-hour rejection of talks with the European Union over Ukraine’s possible membership, a decision that became the very spark of current unrest. Indeed there are decades of economic, political and military interests at play between the West, Ukraine and Russia, and the media’s reporting has certainly reflected this.


Venezuelan protests, too, have found their way onto the media’s main stage—or at least its orchestra section. Mass demonstrations erupted two weeks ago with grievances including rampant crime, high inflation, food shortages and general economic stagnation over the past 15 years. The country’s oil wealth and proximity to the United States add to the media’s interest in Venezuelan protests, however the two countries have a bitter history. Under Hugo Chavez’s presidency, the Venezuelan leader was not shy about his disdain for the United States and particularly its leaders. He and current President Nicolas Maduro have both blamed the U.S. for demonstrations against their leaderships, most recently when President Maduro accused the C.I.A. of attempting a coup. The story is only now beginning to reach a mass audience.


Obtaining moderate news coverage is the
steady flow of demonstrators since protests first gripped Thailand back in November 2013. As I’ve written before, the mostly-peaceful protests have occasionally turned violent by unknown assailants. Just this past weekend, a bomb killed four people—three of them children—during an anti-government protest in Bangkok. On Sunday, 34 people were wounded and one girl killed by gunmen who open fired on demonstrators. Political leaders on all sides have signaled to their constituents to eliminate violence while those in power see their legitimacy evaporating in the eyes of thousands of demonstrators. Despite the fact that Thailand is party to the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO)—a security pact signed by Thailand, the United States and six other nations—bilateral relations with the U.S. are generally poor. One of the biggest points of contention are the food subsidies given to American farmers by the federal government, which are seen as giving growers an unfair price advantage, especially in the rice market. While not a perfect comparison, Thailand's current political crisis is not too different from Ukraine’s, the only crucial difference being Ukraine’s higher geostrategic value to the West.

West Bank

While Israeli-Palestinians peace talks are at the heart of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy, scant media coverage has been attributed to a demonstration of a different flavor that embodies one obstacle to peace: “thousands” (2) of Israeli youth joined protesters gathered in the West Bank city of Ma’ale to protest the freeze on construction of new settlements in the contested E-1 region. On the surface, the gathering was a one-day affair. Scores assembled in the city to show solidarity with and support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank during peace talks that would—if ever ‘successfully’ concluded—probably require the transfer of some settler lands to Palestinian ownership. What makes the gathering significant is the fact that members of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own Cabinet attended the rally and that the international community roundly condemns Israel’s settlement expansion and points to it as the number one impediment to peace. The crowd’s zeal to promote the settler movement coupled with high-profile government supporters in attendance throws doubt on how acceptable a peace deal would be to the Israeli public and political spheres. Highlighting these bits in the U.S. media wouldn’t be good for the dimming hope surrounding the talks.


(1) Edward Herman, and Noam Chomsky, Manufactured Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

(2) Israel’s Haaretz news publication. Note that the youth gathering in the West Bank was almost entirely ignored by the American media.

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