21 June 2009

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes

"Iran Leader's Warning Puts More Pressure on Obama."
—actual lead headline of the New York Times website last Friday afternoon

Obviously, if you're looking for breaking news from Iran, this is not the place to find it. But I do want to call attention to this insightful post from the New Yorker's George Packer, which does a good job capturing some of the more pathological aspects of the coverage of this week's momentous events in the American news media. Given the dearth of Western journalists in Iran and the regime's total media blackout, much of the discussion this week has rightly focused on the role of new new-media technologies like Twitter and YouTube in disseminating information about the ongoing protests.

One would think that the immediacy of the words and images coming out of Iran, not to mention the clear historic import of the events currently transpiring there, would be enough to keep even a news culture as narcissistic as ours focused on the outside world for a few days. But one would be wrong. Leave it to the press to keep the focus on the really important part of the story. Take a look at the New York Times headline at the top of this post and think about what it implies about the priorities of the American news media. The not-so-subtle message here is that the events in Iran represent, first and foremost, a domestic political issue in the United States. Any "pressure" being put on say, Iranian opposition leaders or the protesters being injured or killed, pales next to that on President Obama. American political reporters (at least up until yesterday) have been waiting with bated breath, not for any breaking news out of Iran, but to learn what Barack Obama would say about it. And what his political opponents would say about what he said about it. And what their opponents would say about them.

As a nation, we've apparently lost the ability to process a foreign news event, except through the filter of our own domestic politics. As Packer put it (back on Tuesday, incidentally):

And yet the crisis in Iran has flushed out all the pathologies of American foreign-policy thinking, or feeling, in the post-Bush era. It’s become weirdly difficult for commentators on both the right and the left to have anything close to a normal reaction to what the world is seeing. Instead, everything gets filtered through what you think about Bush, Iraq, Obama, Israel, and other subjects that have extremely tenuous connections to internal politics in Iran and the actions of the people and the state there.

This strikes me as right on. And I would echo Packer's conclusion as well: Trust the evidence of your eyes. The action right now is in Iran, not Washington. And I dare say we should all be on the same side this time.