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In Europe, Obama Dominates Intense Coverage of U.S. Election

By Cristina Fernandez-Pereda
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 22, 2008 2:01 PM

Western European news organizations are providing unprecedented coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign, and as Election Day nears, correspondents are making a new effort to balance their coverage between Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Polls show Europeans increasingly see their countries' future linked to the outcome of the battle between McCain and Obama. The media is responding to the interest by devoting more resources than ever before to covering the U.S. election. CNN's Spanish Edition is preparing special coverage for the political conventions in Denver and Saint Paul. For the first time, the station's staff will be at both conventions, and in Denver, correspondent Carlos de Vega will have a private set where he will do live reporting all week for the different news shows.

Until recently, news organizations in Western European countries were intensely focused on the democrat's candidacy as Obama mania swept the continent, and reported little about McCain's.

Foreign correspondents assert they are not obliged to be perfectly balanced in their reporting of U.S. politics. For some, they are reflecting what the American media are covering; for others, they cover what is relevant to their countries.

"We couldn't just cover, 'He said this, she said that,'" said Jack Iccard, BBC correspondent in Washington. "I think Americans get carried away by that, but it doesn't work with European audiences. We try to explain the consequences, trying to be constructive."

Europeans are far more intrigued by the first black man to claim a major political party's presidential nomination than the presumptive Republican nominee, as the huge crowds that greeted Obama in London and Berlin in July indicated. The often unbalanced coverage in Europe is a function of the audiences' curiosity, their interest and their questions about a candidate they didn't think could be the president of the United States.

"Even if you look at things without racism, history has told you that whenever a white man and a black man meet, it's the white man that has more power," said CNN's de Vega. "Now you see Barack Obama meeting with European authorities, and he could become the most powerful man in the world. In the United States it might not be so shocking, but in Europe it's revolutionary."

Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that American journalists are under far greater pressure to provide balance in their coverage, in the face of criticism that Obama is receiving more newspaper and TV coverage than McCain.

"Here journalists are like interviewers on behalf of voters," Rosentiel said. "Consequently, they have an added responsibility to make sure that both candidates are playing on a level field."

With Election Day drawing closer, however, correspondents are beginning to worry that if McCain wins, they may have done a disservice to their audience by focusing so intently on Obama.

"We have covered more about Obama. I know it's a mistake and I try to be more fair," French television TF1's Pierre Grange admitted.

When asked what the French know and think about McCain, for example, Grange said that they think the Republican candidate is "old" and cannot determine whether he agrees with Republican President Bush or not.

Coverage is also complicated by the fact that political identifiers such as left and right, or Democrat and Republican, don't always mean the same thing to Europeans as they do in the United States.

For instance, after Obama declared back in June that he supported the death penalty for child rapists, French television TF1 correspondents felt compelled to do an in-depth explanatory piece about the candidate's policy positions.

"For the French, it's difficult to see that a Democratic candidate supports that position, because definitions of right and left are very different in France," Grange said.

"The angle on our stories depends on candidates: from immigration to the Iraq war, international issues or health care, even if Germany is not that interested," said Klaus-Peter Siegloch, correspondent for ZDF German Television. "But we cannot go so deep into U.S. policies because it's hard for Germans, for example, to understand the American healthcare system. We have to cover the candidates' personalities, talking about their plans and without going too much into detail."

According to a Gallup poll released on July 23, 80 percent of the British, 71 percent of the French and 62 percent of the Germans think that the outcome of the presidential election will impact their own country.

The BBC's Iccard cites two major issues the British audiences are following: "First, they are concerned about the Iraq war. British troops are still deployed in the country and a decision [by the U.S.] to withdraw would affect them too. Second, the British economy is tightly linked to the American and also struggling because of the economic problems here."

The stressed U.S. economy and its influence in Europe is also a concern to Spanish citizens. Some even believe that a victory by Obama would not only improve the U.S. economy but also the Spanish one.

"There's some excitement for things to change in Spain if Obama becomes president. There's this feeling that things can change here and it can affect Spain," de Vega said.

For the French, their media coverage and interest in Obama have both social and historical components. For French minorities, especially after the tensions with the government and the riots in some neighborhoods where some immigrants live, Barack Obama's message of change appeals to them too.

"It's already done. The fact that he could win it's already a message of hope," TF1's Pierre Grange said.

This means a major transformation for the French population, particularly in those neighborhoods, where anti-Americanism had been growing in the last few years. As François Durpaire and Jean-Claude Tchicaya explained last March in the French newspaper Libération, going "from Bush to Obama would constitute a complete change of image for America, to the point of renewing the famous 'American dream.'"

"There's a difficult relation between Americans and French. Americans think that we don't like them, but we live the American dream," Grange explained. "We love the American dream, but we hate imperialism. With Obama, we would have the America we love, but with Bush it's difficult to say that we love America."

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