What the Germans knew


I started listening to as much media from Europe as I could a few years ago. And doing so crystallized what I found so frustrating about American press coverage of Europe.

To my ears, it seemed as if the top reporters in Washington, New York, London, and Berlin exist within the same class — that is, they generally shared the same prejudices and dispositions, and they generally subscribed to the post–Cold War orthodoxies about politics. Governments were here to facilitate the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people. Society was to become ever more secular. And ever more “cosmopolitain,” in a shallow way: cultivating an interest in foreign cultures sufficient only to fill up a drawer of take-out menus.

But the national cultures still mattered in that reporters tended to restrain their biases about the direction of history when reporting on their own country, where they had a deeper sense of social realities and of the shortcomings of their native liberal politicians. That realism would cease to operate when people went abroad. When Europeans reported on American politics, they often seemed to replicate and amplify the biases of American media for their European audience. So, too, American reporters in Europe. Stateside, many were surprised by Donald Trump’s election. But most of my European friends and family were staggered by the result. Their newspapers and radio stations had not prepared them at all.

Anyway, if you pay fanatical attention to bylines, datelines, and the character of foreign dispatches, you can can begin convincing yourself that you have a sense of whether that reporter is fluent in the local language or just hanging out with ex-pats and Anglophone members of the native establishment. The bias effect is worst where the languages are most difficult to learn. I could get mad about this, but I know people are often doing their best. And if they had the kind of language skills, sense of history, and judgment I wish they had, they probably wouldn’t be reporters but working at the top of a diplomatic service or in a more lucrative corporate gig.

So I’ve always thought contrarianism is a good starting point. A recent example: When mainstreams were saying Xi Jinnping was a liberal reformer, I thought he was probably just the opposite.

But you have to do the work.

One of my recent intentions has been to read much more German and Polish history. I’ve come to think that the conflict between these nations is profoundly important in shaping the future of Europe. And mainstream media biases on these countries are almost beyond caricature. I’ve joked that we’re now at the point where any Polish resistance to the will of the German chancellor, presumed master of Europe, is characterized as Nazism on the part of the Poles. Even the most careful contrarian can’t calibrate against that.

To read the article in full, visit National Review.