Press bashing is in fashion this year. The "Amal press conference" during the TWA hostage affair caused more sputtering and finger-pointing (and from more directions) than is usual.
But there is one kind of bias the press has not yet been accused of that may explain a lot more than the ritual cries of "liberal!" or "anti-America!" It surfaced with perfect clarity on the "Today Show" Oct. 21. It's a preoccupation with ourselves -- America-centrism.
Nancy Reagan was preparing to meet with first ladies from around the world in conjunction with the celebration of the U.N.'s 40th anniversary. After establishing that the principal agenda topic would be drug abuse, interviewer Andrea Mitchell wondered aloud whether it wouldn't be uncomfortable for Mrs. Reagan to discuss this problem with representatives of countries that export the very drugs responsible for the damage. So far, so good. Mrs. Reagan responded that they weren't going to get into that -- that they'd be discussing this "woman to woman; mother to mother."
The interviewer's next question revealed the kind of distorted perspective that grows out of excessive attention to ourselves. Won't it be difficult, she needled, to deal with the wives of some world leaders? Such as the wife of Daniel Ortega, for example? After all, "your husband has said some really terrible things about him: 'the little dictator in fatigues' and so on . . ."
Mrs. Reagan was too polite to say so, but that question was on the order of, "Well, we understand that you're upset, Prince Hamlet, but do you think 'murder most foul' is any way to talk about Uncle Claudius?" It presumed that President Reagan's remark existed in some sort of vacuum. The American president had spoken and that was what the American press was going to focus on.
But look at what the America-centric bias causes us to miss. Here is a sampling of quotations from Daniel Ortega about Ronald Reagan:
May 12, 1985 -- "Reagan has killed 150 children and wants to convert Nicaragua into a concentration camp. To say that he is emulating what Hitler did is no exaggeration."
June 29, 1985 -- The enemy is "not the American people. It is Reagan and his advisers. They are the enemies of humanity."
July 10, 1985 -- "The truth is that the president of the United States is acting as a terrorist. He is violating all the international legal order. . . ."
Andrea Mitchell and her colleagues in the press are not marked by particular hostility to America or to American values. Instead, they seem to be blinkered by a new kind of chauvinism -- a chauvinism that supposes that American leaders alone provoke or soothe "international tensions" by what they say. What is said about them gets scant attention.
Once, several years ago, the president correctly labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Since that time, countless reporters have included sentences such as the following in their stories regarding East-West conflict: "Chances for any early agreement are thought to be slim however, because the Soviets are doubtful of whether they can trust the man who calls them the 'evil empire.'
Currently, in anticipation of the meeting in Geneva, the same new chauvinism is causing most press attention to focus on what sort of conciliatory moves Reagan should make toward the Soviets. If American reporters weren't so America-centric, they might notice what the Soviets are saying in anticipation of Geneva. The New Republic, in its Oct. 28 issue, reports the following excerpt from the government-controlled Moscow radio. The commentator is searching for the appropriate words to describe certain Americans: "Gangsters, pirates, vultures, people-eaters, are too weak if you remember and imagine how many hellish torments, sufferings, grief and human sacrifices there are behind every step of the American instigators of war." Is someone going to ask Raisa Gorbachev about that?
America's press corps, like those of almost all free countries, is to the left of its population. But the principal source of its bias is not politics, but a perverse kind of vanity. It's not that it sides with America's enemies but that it is often too narrowly focused to notice that we have them.