The American Media's Refugee Myopia

These are indeed interesting times to be an American living abroad. International CNN, in some kind of ratings battle to steal world BBC viewers, puts more effort into coverage of Yugoslavian soccer scores than reporting the latest news from inside Washington. Meanwhile, British and French newspapers fill the news-from-home vacuum with information Americans in the United States aren't getting at all.

To get an idea of how Europeans are forming their opinions of America right now, consider a few examples from the last 10 days' news. Last week, AFP reported from Tehran that the United Nations is acquiring mass quantities of tents, cooking supplies and other survival equipment for an estimated 150,000 Iraqi refugees expected in the event of an American attack. Italy meanwhile, declared a national state of emergency to deal with boatloads of thousands of Iraqis who've threatened to throw their children into the water if the government doesn't let them dock.

Meanwhile in Australia, protestors outside prison walls helped free hundreds from a refugee detention camp filled with Muslim refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. The refugees had travelled long and far because they view Australia as a democratic paradise -- but found themselves locked up before their feet touched ground so they wouldn't be subject to automatic asylum.

Stories about these massive flows of Muslim humanity around the globe, most of whom are running from the effects of the American war on terror, just don't make the American press. Maybe it's because they're not landing on our shores and threatening our way of life -- which is how many Europeans, ungenerously, tend to see things. Or maybe it's because our media cares more about the spit-shined strategy of our war on terror than its effects.

In that case, it's also interesting to note a front page article in the London paper The Guardian, from March 27. Under the headline "US Paves Way for War on Iraq," the paper reported that the U.S. Air Force has requested multi-million dollar bids from various Saudi contractors to move computers and electronics from a hi-tech base in Saudi Arabia over the border into a different base in friendlier Qatar. The paper also quoted an unnamed American contractor who had prepared a bid to install telephone switchboards at the Qatar base.

Did this story cause any American reporters to ask whether -- in direct contrast to what Dick Cheney said in Saudi Arabia during his grand tour of Araby last month -- the United States is lowering its profile in Saudi because of lack of support for our war on terror? Besides Tom Gjelten at NPR, you can swing a cat in the blank air and column space on this one at home.

When I listen to Europeans sneer about how Americans are too simplistic when it comes to world affairs, I instinctively go on the defensive. It's easy to shut them up with a quick reminder about how, 50 years ago, the simplistic boys of America made their continent safe for future smiling generations to munch on croissants and espresso.

But then the freest press in the world willfully ignores stories about vast migrations of terrified people running for their lives from American bombs and threats. And it refuses to ask hard questions about American war strategy even after Europeans break the news for them. European sanctimony stings the more when they've got it right.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and New York magazine. As a reporter for TIME, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.

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