Where Old News is the Only News

On Friday, a good friend asked me to look at a news story about Apple legal sending an unwelcome letter to an eight year-old girl. The letter basically told her to get lost. Apparently, the third grader had sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs suggesting a new feature for iPods: Lyrics viewing. She got her response, not from Steve but an Apple lawyer, about three months later. Turns out that Apple has a policy against taking unsolicited ideas, which the letter clearly stated.

The news story focused on the little girl’s hurt feelings and Apple’s slap-in-the-face response. Earth to Apple: Lawyers=bad PR. Always. But the response was lame for another reason: The feature already is available on iPods. It’s just not well publicized. 

But, all this explanation about the news story is preparation for this post’s real topic: Who the hell cares? This kind of news story exemplifies what’s wrong with the American news media. Most stories focus on local events or stories that are one notch below gossip—and not far below. There are kids dying in Africa. Where’s the story about the eight year-old girl’s entire African village wiped out by AIDS?

America is supposed to be a melting pot, a cosmopolitan nation. Instead, Americans are fairly ignorant about the world outside their villages. I contend the news media contributes to the problem. Rather than inform about global affairs, stories like the one from this CBS affiliate turn people’s attention to the mundane—and in the process make something big out of a trifle. An ant looks big and threatening under a magnifying glass.

Same friend who sent me the link to the CBS story, provided another to a story in today’s Telegraph online: “Speak softly, don’t argue and slow down” (Wall Street Journal had a story last Tuesday, but requires a paid subscription to read). The story explains how the US government is trying to soften stereotypes about the “Ugly American” abroad. The US State Department and Business for Diplomatic Action have collaborated on a behavior guide for Americans traveling overseas. Little pointers, like speaking slower, listening to others or discussing topics of interest to local folks.

It’s sound advice, for, uh, small-minded Americans.

The Telegraph quoted BDA’s Keith Reinhard as saying, “Surveys consistently show that Americans are viewed as arrogant, insensitive, over-materialistic and ignorant about local values. That, in short, is the image of the Ugly American abroad and we want to change it”.

I contend that Americans’ lack of understanding, or interest, in other countries and cultures is partly the root of the problem. About a decade ago, I listened to a multi-part BBC newscast about Cuba, where one of the correspondents reported on living there. During one of the latter segments, the BBC correspondent commented on Americans visiting Cuban resorts and how they complained there was no place to shop. Remember, Americans can’t legally travel to Cuba. So those Americans going there make extra effort. To what, shop at the Gap? (OK, I could have said Banana Republic).

The news media has a responsibility to educate people, to make their world views bigger. But the American news media has miserably failed its responsibility. That’s OK for America, as long as cute Katie Couric anchors the CBS Evening News. Katie knows what about leading a global news organization? The answer sums up the whole point of this post.

Photo Credit: Daisuke Matsumura

Editor’s Note, March 19, 2017: Most of the story links were removed for being dead (e.g., 404).