October 16, 2000
Though elections abroad often garner little attention in the US, this year's American presidential election is a big story for foreign news organizations. Terence Smith reports.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: For foreign news organizations, the US elections are a big story.
MARTIN KETTLE, The Guardian: It is, in a sense, as though we have one foot in this election, as well as being our own independent country, just about.
TERENCE SMITH: Collectively, they devote far more time to the American election than the US press ever does to theirs. For example, more than 200 foreign journalists showed up here at this press filing center to hear Vice President Al Gore debate Governor George W. Bush.
MARTIN KETTLE: I think the main reason that why people in Britain and the rest of the world are interested in American elections is because America rules the world, and it affects our lives.
|The importance of US elections|
TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle is US Bureau Chief for the British newspaper, The Guardian. He says the US elections often foreshadow political events in England.
MARTIN KETTLE: You had the Reagan era, we had the Thatcher era. Then you had the George Bush Sr. Era; we had the John Major era. After that we got... you got Clinton, and we got Tony Blair. People in the Blair labor party are watching what is happening, watching how and whether Al Gore can reenergize that sort of progressive politics which was very attractive at one point, but seems to have gone slightly off the boil.
TERENCE SMITH: The United States' status as the world's only superpower means that the outcome of the presidential race can have a direct impact on foreign readers.
YOICHI KATO, Asahi Shimbun: It gets as much attention as election of governor of Tokyo, if not more.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporter: Political correspondent Yoichi Kato writes for the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.
YOICHI KATO: The United States is for us the only military ally and the biggest trade partner. Also, there is a strong and widely shared admiration for the American way of life.
|Interest in style as well as substance|
TERENCE SMITH: The interest abroad is not only in substance, but in style.
EUGEN FREUND, ORF: Anything that happens here will eventually come to Europe, whether it's political, or it's economics, or it's technology.
TERENCE SMITH: Eugen Freund, Washington bureau chief for ORF, Austrian Television, says Austrian politicians take notice.
EUGEN FREUND: They are on the campaign trail and watching very carefully. What are they handing out in terms of campaign gifts? How are the lobbies dealing with campaigns? How are the candidates presenting themselves on television? And how they are dressed? I mean, every single thing will be watched very carefully.
TERENCE SMITH: For nations less at home with democracy, there is a fascination with the process itself. Ana Baron is the US correspondent for "Clarin," Argentina's largest newspaper.
ANA BARON, Clarin: Argentina is a new democracy. We are very interested in how democracy works, you know. Democracy is not only going to vote, but it's also how it works daily, how people participate, or not, in the democratic process.
TERENCE SMITH: Like many foreign journalists, Baron finds the theatrics of American politics amusing.
ANA BARON: Everything is like a show. The convention, for example, it's incredible, it's like an opera. For me, it's amazing.
TERENCE SMITH: The circus atmosphere.
ANA BARON: The circus atmosphere, how everything is fabricated, how sometimes I am a little bit afraid; like, all of this is a product that you are trying to sell to people, and it's really, I don't know, it's scary sometimes.
TERENCE SMITH: The selling of a candidate?
ANA BARON: Yeah, like you are selling a soap.
MARTIN KETTLE: I think British viewers and British readers actually quite like being appalled by American political manners. There is what the Germans call schaudenfreude, a sort of joy at seeing things go quite as appallingly as they sometimes look as if they do.
TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle says his readers love what his colleagues call the exotica of American elections.
MARTIN KETTLE: For instance, the Al/Tipper kiss got every bit as much attention in the European media. I've had to write about politicians' kissing techniques, and I've had to write about where kisses have worked and where kisses haven't worked, and fortunately, that's far as I've had to go. Undoubtedly, everything that happens here is grist to the mill, that American politics is a very exotic jungle.
TERENCE SMITH: The domestic issues that have dominated the US campaign -- Social Security, prescription drugs, taxation -- have limited appeal overseas.
REPORTER: This was an incredibly detailed debate, with the two of them going through minutiae of policy.
TERENCE SMITH: But other issues, like the death penalty and intrigue, puzzle Europeans.
EUGEN FREUND: Almost every day, we get a call from our office in Vienna telling us, you know, "there is another execution in Texas. Can you do a story?" We don't even know about it because it is not covered in the American papers, which we have as our source.
CLAUS KLEBER, ARD: Germans are fascinated with the American culture of putting people to death, especially in Texas.
TERENCE SMITH: Claus Kleber is Washington bureau chief for ARD, a German television network. His office broadcasts 4,000 minutes a year of US news.
CLAUS KLEBER: George Bush, who has this tremendous record of executions, especially in this election year in Texas, somehow is the symbol for this American attitude and it is not much liked by Germans.
TERENCE SMITH: Most of all, the foreign reader is curious about the candidates themselves. Yoichi Kato says of the 300 stories he has done on the US elections, the candidate biographies were among the best received.
YOICHI KATO: Bush, being the black sheep of the Bush family and trying to live up to the expectation of the father, and Gore also being elite and sort of obliged from birth to be the president -- that kind of human interest gets a lot of attention in Japan. I think it shows how little known both of them are in Japan.
TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle says American defense policy is a paramount concern.
MARTIN KETTLE: There is this big surge of opinion, which is quite apprehensive about what a Bush presidency might mean in Europe, particularly on the national missile defense issue about which there are very intense feelings in Europe which are completely out of step with everything that Governor Bush is proposing to do.
TERENCE SMITH: And about which there is very little discussion in the campaign itself.
MARTIN KETTLE: About which there is absolutely no discussion at all.
TERENCE SMITH: Foreign issues did not get much attention in the campaign until the developments in Yugoslavia and the recent clashes in the Middle East.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: The first priority has to be on ending the violence.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, during this difficult period, we ought to be speaking with one voice.
|The lack of foreign focus|
TERENCE SMITH: More often, overseas audiences find themselves frustrated by the little attention given to international affairs. The Japanese, for example, want to know how a new president will deal with countries like Korea and China.
YOICHI KATO: Vice President Gore is very well-experienced in foreign affairs, but he is not too much involved in Asian affairs. He does not have too many well-known advisors around him in terms of Asian policy. So we are afraid that he may be more Euro-centric than paying more attention to Asia.
TERENCE SMITH: Patrice de Beer, of the French newspaper Le Monde, is not surprised by the lack of foreign focus.
PATRICE DE BEER, Le Monde: In the states, as in any other country, it is obvious that you don't win elections on foreign issues. You are not going to raise expectations of voters talking about Kosovo, for example, or talking about Colombia.
TERENCE SMITH: But Claus Kleber believes that this is in part the result of reduced coverage of the rest of the world by American television.
CLAUS KLEBER: I think the American audience over the last 20, 30 years, especially over the last ten years, has been deprived by the large commercial networks from foreign news. If you ask me how dangerous that is for the country, because the American electorate, probably the most important electorate on the globe, should know much more about world affairs than even people in Germany, and they don't -- and less and less.
TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle:
MARTIN KETTLE: The slightly worrying thing for the rest of the world is that America, because it is so powerful, doesn't actually seem to be discussing how best to deploy and use its power and influence internationally.
TERENCE SMITH: Nonetheless, on November 7, the foreign media will cover the US vote like an important local story -- live continuously and through the night.
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