I have been in Berlin, Germany for the last two weeks of the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign. This has made it possible to get a different perspective on the U.S. election than is obvious in the U.S. In general, for the Europeans I have spoken with, it appears that the election has been framed so it appears that the two candidates of the major parties represent the majority of Americans. This is not the reality. In general, many Americans see themselves as independents, not represented by either the Republican or Democratic Party. Yet there is little in the media coverage to help Europeans recognize this reality.
In the English language media coverage of the election I have observed, mainly BBC or CNN, the reporters have focused on those who support either the Republican candidate John McCain or the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. The large number of Americans who are frustrated with the positions of both candidates have not received any attention from the English language media. Similarly these two candidates dominate the German news headlines. The headline that is missing is that many Americans are not happy to have only two similar parties to determine the candidates and the policies these candidates are supporting.
The result of this inaccurate reflection of the sentiment among many in the U.S. is that many Europeans explain that the only choice in the election campaign to be voting for Obama. They are concerned with what would happen if Obama were not elected. The sentiment was expressed that for example, there is much frustration internationally with the Bush administration and it requires a change of administration in the U.S. for Europeans to feel that there can be any change in U.S. policy.
Inevitably in conversations with friends and acquaintances in Germany, the question has been raised about how I felt about the election. Many of the Europeans I spoke with were surprised to learn that the lack of multiple parties in the U.S. leads to a feeling of frustration with the narrow alternatives offered by the U.S. two party system. Once this discussion has been started, however, it becomes evident that there is a similar discontent in Germany with the narrow range of alternatives offered to people by the political system, even though there are a few additional parties for people to consider.
Also, the discussion has inevitably turned to the quality of the media in the U.S. There is a general recognition that the mainstream U.S. media is very poor. One person described how he was visiting in the U.S. and was very surprised at the content he saw when the people he was staying with turned on the television to watch either CNN or Fox News. He felt that these were very poor when compared with German television offerings.
The issue of what kind of media is needed in the U.S. has been an interesting topic of conversation. There is a widespread feeling of the poor quality of the U.S. media. Many of those I spoke with have turned to the Daily Show or other entertainment forms for the little first hand knowledge they are able to get about American politics. They realize, however, that this is not adequate and I have often been asked if there are some better media sources I could recommend.
The conversations I have had while in Europe have helped to clarify that the press is an important component of a functional political system. There is a need for a press that accurately presents the problems of the society and provides the basis for a broad ranging debate on these problems. The failure of the American media to fulfill this function not only contributes in a significant way to the serious political and economic problems facing American society, but similarly leads others around the world to develop a false view of America and of the American people. Instead of U.S. institutions providing an inspiration or a helpful model, they are an example of the abuse that unchecked power can lead to. The lesson from the many conversations with Europeans about the U.S. presidential campaign I had these past two weeks is that there is a serious need for an alternative to the U.S. mainstream media if there is to be any significant change in U.S. government policy toward the rest of the world and for there to be elections in the U.S. that have any chance of expressing the needs and choices of the American people. Relying on any of the candidates to bring the needed policy changes is not adequate.