Sunday, September 18, 2005

# Posted 7:15 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WaPo TURNS ON A DIME: In spite of Friday's deferential coverage of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, today's WaPo casts the Iranian president as an irascible enemy of the West.

Whereas Friday's coverage quoted Ahmadinejad extensively while ignoring his critics, today's includes mostly paraphrased remarks by the Iranian president, followed by commentary from Western diplomats that makes Ahmadinejad look either foolish or belligerent. For example:
In a defiant speech, peppered with anti-American rhetoric and veiled threats, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told world leaders at the United Nations on Saturday that his country will never give up its nuclear enrichment program...

U.S. and European diplomats greeted the speech and comments the president made at a news conference afterward with deep disappointment, saying they fell far short of expectations.
Why the new spin from the WaPo? First of all, today's dispatch was by Dafna Linzer, Friday's by Glenn Kessler. If a single correspondent had turned around like that overnight, it would be very surprising.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I don't think American journalists have clear standards for covering foreign leaders, especially from non-democratic nations. Sometimes their coverage is deferential for no apparent reason. At other times it is far more harsh and one-sided than the coverage to which an American politician would be subjected, presumably since foreign leaders have no constituency to speak up on their behalf.

The recent coverage of Ahmadinejad sort of reminds me of the coverage of Fidel Castro during the 1980s. Sometimes, Fidel would get quoted uncritically when talking about the importance of peace and of Reagan's threat to it. At other times, journalists would point out that Fidel ruled by force and habitually towed the Moscow party line.

To a certain extent, the treatment of foreign leaders serves as an implicit barometer of journalists' attitude toward American foreign policy. Since Ahmadinejad's remarks on Saturday were so belligerent that even the Europeans expressed considerable disappointment, it's not surprising that the WaPo's coverage of the Iranian president was less favorable.

Although the malleability of such coverage is frustrating, I think it is here to stay. Coverage of American politics is much more (but not fully) balanced because journalists have to persuade both liberal and conservative readers of their relative detachment. In contrast, audiences know less and care less about foreign leaders. Therefore, they aren't as demanding.

POSTSCRIPT: It is also worth comparing the NYT's coverage of Ahmadinejad from Friday as opposed to today. The contrast isn't as stark as in the WaPo, but you can clearly see a more critical turn after the Iranian president's confrontational speech to the UN.
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