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To cover or not to cover

Rome Hartman | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The programme that I produce - World News America - has as its primary mission to bring smart and sophisticated BBC coverage of international issues and events to an American audience.

bbcwordnewsamerica140x100.jpgBut we also aspire to offer distinctive coverage of stories inside America, and in the ten months since we launched the program, that has mainly meant covering Presidential politics.

Of course there's no shortage of political reporting in the US at the moment; frankly, it's more like a glut. So our effort, as I've said before, is to focus on the quality of our coverage rather than the quantity.

Last week provides an interesting example. We made a deliberate decision to steer clear of the whole flap over the McCain campaign ad comparing Obama to Britney and Paris, and the subsequent back-and-forth about whether Obama had or had not "played the race card."

Barack ObamaIt all struck me as much ado about nothing...campaigns and candidates cynically trying to throw each other off-stride, nothing at all to do with the really important problems facing the country; precisely the kind of stuff that has made so many Americans so fed up with our current politics.

Of course it got a huge amount of play in other US media, and when I picked up the Washington Post on Saturday and saw that it had devoted its entire editorial page to the disputes, I have to confess to wondering whether I had made a bad call, and missed a big story.

Then I read every one of the essays in the Post. All written by extremely knowledgeable and able Washington insiders, they focused exclusively on questions of campaign tactics. Had McCain rattled Obama? Had Obama made an "unforced error?" Had McCain gone too negative too fast? Who had the better week?

Those pieces - and the story in general - were no doubt lapped up by campaign junkies. But there wasn't a single mention of an issue for almost an entire week, and precious little discussion of the actual qualities and characteristics the next American President ought to have.

I absolutely love the story of this election, and I'm proud of our coverage so far. And, despite a few moments of doubt over my Saturday coffee, I'm glad we ignored the nonsense of last week.


  • Comment number 1.

    Yes, it was the correct call.

    Some things to look at:

    What is the American identity?

    How does it change from region to region?

    Where. if anywhere, does it include an identity as a World citizen?


    What do they know of the history of American involvement in Iran?

    Do they know of the popularity of American culture in Iran?


  • Comment number 2.

    It's hard for this American to say what has been more boring, the campaign itself so far or the media coverage of it. As political campaigns go, this one has been a dud. About the only life in it was Hillary Clinton's demise from being heir apparent to also ran. As for BBC's coverage, far from being smart, it is strictly a case of me-too, a very small fish in this very big pond trying to compete with organizations whch may not be so richly endowed financially but which have infinitely more experience and knowlege of all of the subtleties af the American political system not to mention the issues and candidates themselves. For sheer entertainment and not to be taken particularly seriously, there are the American commercial networks, CNBC, CNN, FOX, CBS, ABC, and a few others. They perpetually have America's best pundits and insiders with blow by blow analysis from their own points of view. Then when you want more serious news, you watch PBS where the real experts pick the events, the strategies, the tactics apart for the best available media analysis. Where does BBC fit in all of this? Largely ignored by most Americans, perhaps it explains the whole thing to the degree that it understands it itself in a familiar accent to those British ex-pats and others of a British cultural bent who have a disdain for the American media. It is nonetheless amusing to watch its naivete'. As the old saying goes, for its real audience; in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thankyou for a better choice.

  • Comment number 4.

    Although it is more common among aged females, a syndrome of the failed and bitter elderly is the intense, often sadistic, criticism
    of others.

    If one is aware of the syndrome, one need not take it very seriously.

  • Comment number 5.

    Another aspect to cover is the changed role of the evangelicals in American politics.

    Their self-improvement, small scale capitalism approach has achieved great rates of conversion in Latin America.

    Reportedly, they are talking up the books of
    Rhonda Byrne and Joel Osteen, who push the same idea. These books are said to be selling well in Iran.

    America probably has many identities and these may change with the times.

    Such a focus would not be the trivia stampedes that characterize American advertising vehicles.

  • Comment number 6.

    "Although it is more common among aged females, a syndrome of the failed and bitter elderly is the intense, often sadistic, criticism
    of others. If one is aware of the syndrome, one need not take it very seriously."

    I presume this is some sort of attack on McCain? Quite how you consider him 'failed' beats me... the guy has a hell of a career behind him. Equally as 'Team Obama' has been just as spiteful in their comments Obama must be a prematurely aged 43 year old.

  • Comment number 7.


    The reference was to posters, not topoliticians.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hey Rome, is it not better to listen to Rumpole of the Bailey rather than a dead roman emperor.
    I'm a registered Democrat who's definitely going to vote for John. And, who daily seeks the BBC out first 'fore glancing at the spin of our major networks. However, what they are ignoring and you should not miss is: Race DOES matter; a pollster after vote will find that out as will the results. As does thumpin a high priced Muslim vs. a high priced white broad. Domestic oil matters too and I can't figure how BBC got spun today that Barack is saying so first when John's been preaching it for years. Being sly, slick and inexerienced matters too vs. honest, moderate and, but not least, a veteran.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well BBC hired Ted Copple. It's a start. Not much but better than trying to wing it alone and clueless as they usually do. Of course it's not like having Carl Rove, New Gingrich, Pat Buchannan and the rest of the usual suspects in the studio to call the play by play but it's better than nothing. Poor Justin Webb, Obama wouldn't even talk to him or any of the rest of the foreign press. Like everything else in the campaign, the trip to Israel and Europe wasn't about Israel or Europe, it was about Obama, the American press, and the American voters. Well at least he knew which side his bread is buttered on. No profit in interviewing with people who can't get you votes but where you could slip up. At least Katty Kay has a good time at these. And why not, by comparison European political conventions and campaigns are snoozers. She should have been at some of the really exciting ones in the past though like the Republican convention in 1964 when Barry Goldwater battled it out with Nelson Rockerfeller or the Democrats in Chicago in 1968 when mayor Daley and his cops fought with the demonstrators and protesters both in the streets and on the convention floor. Those were worth seeing. Today,it's all stage managed.

  • Comment number 10.


    Could you guys come and run the news here?

    Policies and issues not squabbles, brilliant.

    In England they actually ran the six o'clock news from Obama's Berlin publicity stunt - flying the main news anchor out there to present it live.

    Shame you couldn't have been at the editorial meeting which decided that.

  • Comment number 11.

    You did right. Frivolities in gamemanship is typical of American Presidential elections. There is no substance in the such offensive play and the come-back reponses are even more pathetic. I like my US political commentaries more thought provoking. Obama sound too much like a public welfare recipient of public adulation. McCain sounds too much like the old school Conservative in pre-Margaret Thatcher days. BBC approach is better than FOX TV's self-righteous screaming and CNN's leftist whinning.

  • Comment number 12.

    Your editorial judgement is as boring as your blog.
    Thank goodness it's only a tiny minority channel

  • Comment number 13.

    Please put World News America on the i-player for UK viewers. It's too easily missed at half past midnight.

  • Comment number 14.

    Please continue to ignore these pointless non-stories. If Americans want this sort of 'cotton candy journalism,' there are plenty of pseudo-news outlets we can tune in to. Most of us who watch BBC WNA do so because we want the real news we don't get elsewhere... at least not on the television.

  • Comment number 15.

    Paris for president, at least the election would be interesting then.

  • Comment number 16.

    #15 I'd vote for Paris too, if Elle Woods aka Rees Witherspoon won't stand. Maybe someone should start a write-in campaign?

  • Comment number 17.

    "It was important for us that there be a clear voice speaking out against the Chinese government's abuse of human rights," the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, told AP by telephone afterward.

    They erected a banner in front of communist strongman Mao Zedong's mausoleum that said "Christ is King" and knelt and prayed in Tiananmen Square.

    Obviously, they are not shot as they angrily predicted earlier.

  • Comment number 18.

    #15. Watching that ad makes me think I under-estimated Paris. I thought it was rather subtle (although the swimsuit wasn't!). Frankly Paris for president doesn't seem any nuttier than Perrot or Nader.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Another issue/subject:

    The parallels between the economic conditions of today and 1929

    and the implications for a presidential choice.

  • Comment number 21.

    Good journalists avoid cotton candy; it sticks to them and colors them forever. btw, the Rezko file is still open with the Illinois Attorney General's Office. Wouldn't it be interesting, to say the least, if Rome gets an exclusive the Barack was/is considered a co-conspirator. Then the cotton candy cartel would burst at the seams.

  • Comment number 22.

    The BBC need not give Amerikans more news coverage. The Amerikan news media, the alleged "free press," and especially right-$winging religious radio coverage, says that Barack "Hussein" Obama is (and I quote) a bi-sexual, commie Muslim atheist (and a devil worshipper) who wants to surrender to Osama bin Forgotten... and that he also hates children and Jeeezus. You think I'm exaggerating? Well... I am not! When you surf the radio dial here in Amerika... this is what you hear!

    The Amerikan people are nothing more than clueless consumers. Most of them haven't any idea what's going on outside of Wal Mart, Jeeezus and pro-$ports... and the corp-rat owned Amerikan media is the reason.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    ** Please take the following suggestions on board **

    Demonstrate your non association with neo-conservative motives and cover some of the great work that Ron Paul has been doing:

    First and foremost educate the American people about who owns the Federal Reserve and how central banking works.. Please interview Rob Paul and give him a fair amount of air time which he doesn't get on any of the US networks.

    Follow the great work that the brave congressman Kucinich is doing:

    And a possible impeachment of the US president. Also give him plenty of air time.

    In other words, *prove* your independence and impartiality and cover all the stories that matter which the mainstream media refuse to cover.

    These are all massive stories which the so called "free" American public deserve to know.

  • Comment number 26.

    you folks should have an easy time of it, if it's the issues you are interested in covering.

    in my experience (ex-pat), american politics is more concerned with the personalities than the issues. been that way as long as i can remember.

  • Comment number 27.

    You could also cover the alternative republican party convention:

    Comprehensive coverage of this convention will be something that the neo-con controlled media outlets will not be doing, so another very worthwhile piece of responsible and free journalism just there!

    Again this involves Ron Paul, and Jesse Ventura. Both great great men who love their country and understand freedom.

    Cover these important issues as serious stories and responsible pieces of journalism and you will be doing the American people a great favour indeed.

  • Comment number 28.

    Mark Penn is right.
    And, come election time, it will be more 'American' to vote McCain. What would be gutsy for Hillary to do at the convention, is to allude or admit this during her speech. Her delegates, including most in the Midwest, should at least "have our say."

  • Comment number 29.

    On the subject of opening American eyes to what is really happening in their political world. Here are some more places for further research, also not covered by the controlled mass media.

    There is an alternative to Obama and McCain .. They may well not be the only candidates to run for President. So why not cover a story on that? .. and the new American revolution which is brewing yet still not seen by vast quantities of American people under Murdoch's strict instructions not to report it. Does Murdoch "own" the BBC - if not prove it!

    "In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act".

    Give Ron Paul the air time he deserves - he is shut out from most mass media outlets, and the American public are getting wind of it.. which is why there is such a massive following on the internet. If there is any ounce of fairness left in this orwellian world, then stories on:
    - Ron Paul
    - Who owns the Federal Reserve and the fiat monetary system

    Are the stories that you simply *must* cover.

    PS - references for further research and recommended viewing for précis:

  • Comment number 30.

    Rome: I agree with others this was the right call. This is further proof that BBC usually makes the right, and maintains its historic objectivity and reliable new reporting.

    During the 1980s I served as an intelligence officer. I learned that the American media - owned and controlled by wealthy liberals - were less reliable and accurate about political stories than Soviet propaganda. Using the "shield" of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press, the liberal US media conducted propaganda campaigns which shamed Pravda. Yes, the Soviet citizens often received information about politically related topics that were more accurate than what American citizens would receive from their own Free Press! The elements of propaganda used by the 1980s era American press to "spin" news reporting included:

    - Suppressing facts which favor conservatives. (Editors often claim this is their prerogative)

    - Fabricating lies about key conservatives designed to discredit them (In the US, normal standards of libel and slander do NOT apply to the press, protected by First Amendment rights. If you dig and can't find dirt, just make it up).

    During this same period our intelligence analyis determined the BBC's reports were often the close to what was actually happening. Both the source reliablility, plausibility, later, verification of your reports was impeccable. My kudos to the BBC, your reporters and editorial staff!

    In my discussions with European colleagues, they all noticed the rather astonishing amounts of money spent in the 2006 US mid-term elections by (e.g. George Soros and to defeat conservatives - in both parties, particularly GOP. In this current election, the money being spent dwarfs the historic figures spent in 2006. The liberal US press and media, fueled by vast amounts of money, will be putting on an astonishing propaganda blitz the likes of which the world has not seen in its history. It will be a defining moment for propaganda. Thanks to Senator Obama backing away from his "public funds" pledge (and Senator McCain sticking with public funding limitations) it will be a most illuminating testament to the power of the press - and whether or not democratic elections can be bought by the very, very wealthy in a "David and Goliath" media campaign between conservatives and liberals in the 2008 campaign.

    I believe the BBC, today, is still and objective "honest broker" of global news. Your decison to NOT follow the "trivial pursuits" of the past week confirms that the BBC still has "the right stuff" in this head-spinning election.

  • Comment number 31.

    As a UK citizen, I find it peculiar that the BBC should produce a programme called 'World News America' and that every night the News 24 gives us the American equivalent.
    There are over 180 countries recognised by the UN, many of which are also members of the Commonwealth, but no coverage by the BBC.
    Currently, the Democratic Congress is being shown live on BBC Parliament. Whilst I do appreciate that our politicians are once again on a holiday which makes the school holidays look short (with Party Conference season approaching, the House will not sit properly for any meaningful debate until the middle of October), the Democrats are not even in power in the USA. There is no debate, just rhetoric, glitz and schmultz; our own conferences are no better, save old men being roughly removed under terrorist legislation for sober heckling, or the possibility that Jamie Oliver might turn up.
    Why are we not broadcasting the Australian parliament, the Canadians, or best of all China, they will be the dominant world power in 2020.
    Am I to presume from this obsession with the non-licence fee paying Americans, that things are now tickety-boo in Darfur, that the Dalai Lama has finally won a free and democratic election (thereby allowing him to speak on behalf of HIS people), world starvation is over, Pakistan is not heading towards civil war, Iraq is peaceful and Afghanistan free?
    Whilst I, personally, would prefer to see Barrack Obama as next President, rather than John McCain, I find the amount of time spent on Mr Obama to far outweigh the coverage of Mr McCain. Barrack was followed on his whistle-stop world tour by the BBC, yet during this time Mr McCain fought back in the American polls. How he did this, I do not know because the BBC failed to report anything he did or said.
    Again, the BBC has been shown to be unfair in its coverage. It seems that America is given presidence over the UK and the rest of the world by the BBC, and even its American coverage is slanted. This is bias upon bias. Just how askew will it become?

  • Comment number 32.

    Re: To cover or not to cover,

    Mr. Hartman:

    I side with the folks who feel better (less tense) watching your coverage of the election than when watching U.S. networks' coverage.
    The citizens whose comments you put on the air are, how shall I say , calmer. They're less strident regardless of their 'side'.
    Yesterday I sent Jon Kelly a note ( below) about a possible place on his bus route where college students and faculty are spending the semester thinking about various futures for this country. They are 'onto' some aspects which are just beginning to be discussed in the political news coverage: the envirommental challenges and secession. (But they do look at one issue- women as Presidents - that's getting lots of coverage.)
    This place, this group of young people and teachers in a big swing state, might be worth a visit by one of your reporters some time before the election.
    In any case, carry on with your policy of finding calmer, reflective citizens to interview and put on the air. I don't mind if what they say is not my opinion. I am still happy to be in the country with them. If I watched only the interviewees on the U.S. networks I would be packing to leave.

    (copy of blog not to Jon Kelly)

    6. At 03:39am on 11 Sep 2008, excellentalligator wrote:
    I sort of envy you traveling across the U.S. in your own digs. So, when you step out of your door you are in a real place rather than an airport or motor lodge.
    While you're in Ohio, I suggest you drive through New Concord and talk to some of the freshman class at Muskingum College. They are spending all the semester studying and writing about a novel, "Ecotopia" ( about U.S. west coast states seceeding - led there by a woman president. She does this on a pro-environment platform - greener than green. (The college has a woman president, too.) The author is a Berkeley U. friend of mine, Ernest Callenbach ([Personal details removed by Moderator]) and he's been invited to address the assembled students in New Concord on October 8.
    Enjoy your trip!

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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