April 22, 2007

Media stereotypes other cultures

Why ignoring our northern neighbor mattersHere's an example. Some years ago--the late '80s, early '90s--the U.S. media became utterly smitten with Japan. The genius of Japanese industry, the gold-plated work ethic of Japanese workers, the sky-high savings rate of Japanese consumers--all were subjects of innumerable newspaper reports, magazine articles, books and learned publications, many of them fawning, nearly all of them deeply impressed. Japan's customs, institutions and social norms were themselves newsworthy. Japan was a bristling economic rival and, consequently, it was a country that the United States needed to learn from.

And learn what exactly? Lessons of hard work, sacrifice, obedience, the virtues of putting up with less, the blessings of a less clamorous, less individualistic and more compliant society. Japan was admired for its scarcity of lawyers, abundance of patriotism and sturdy deference to authority. (That these blessings came with fewer civic rights, a sham democracy, a denial of war guilt and an emperor-worship most of us would consider pagan wasn't a key part of the message.)

The Japan example suggests that under certain circumstances U.S. media can take an interest in foreign societies, even when they aren't churning out what we would normally consider news. But the ideological tilt was unmistakable.

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