The view from outside: reading international newspapers

It is natural for people to consume media products from the country they live in. For example, living in the United States, we often draw the bulk of our news about global affairs from sources such as CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and so on. Google News, a popular and powerful news aggregator, by default will present top results for the “World” section from only a collection of the most popular news outlets from the nation of the detected IP address (as an exercise, visit to Google News, click on “World” in the left panel, and explore for yourself).

It is hardly surprising that US news outlets present world events (not just analysis, but also reporting) from a largely American perspective (a term which happens to have a name: Americentrism). But in the age of the internet, there is little excuse to exclusively consume world news from a restricted set of US-based media houses. It is unfortunate that reading, let alone being able to name, English newspapers from around the world is quite uncommon. The outcome is a blind-spot to the perspectives and sentiments of cultures and communities we read and make judgments about.

Reading a news piece from an international newspaper often evokes one of the two responses for me:

  • An appreciation of the neutrality of the presentation of world events. As an example, US reporting on foreign nations regularly contains assessments about which regimes are democratic and friendly, versus autocratic and antagonistic. Furthrmore, most international news will tie the event to US foreign policy. Both these patterns are less pronounced at non-US news desks, especially those which are not global players, and therefore have less relation to a particular foreign event.

  • A surprise by how propagandist their depiction of world events can appear. (A common signal is observing how, and in reference to which groups, a news sources will use the word “terrorist” versus “rebel”). We are accustomed to reading about world events from a fixed perspective, that foreign ones often come across strangely worded and manipulative. It takes effort to recognize that the issue goes both ways, and US media is likely subject to the same pitfalls when evaluated from outside.

Below are a collection of some English, international media sources which I enjoy reading during the early morning rounds, and have helped me appreciate the variety of interpretations which are not apparent from reading one set of news sources alone:

There are obviously thousands of news sources (and the above list misses African or Latin American spheres, parts of the world I remain woefully uniformed about), but even a small sample from outside our bubble can broaden one-dimensional views of the greater world outside.

Why is America experiencing a frenzy of Russophobia?

Note: While writing this post I came across Cathy Young’s op-ed at Red Scare: Trump and Democrats Alike Fan Paranoia Regarding Russia. I suggest reading Young’s thoughts on the issue for an alternative analysis. I will weigh in below with my own perspective on the Russia affair.

There has been an upward trend of anti-Russian sentiment among the American public, growing at an unstoppable pace since news first broke last June of Russia hacking the DNC. Morning shows, newspaper front-pages, hashtags on social networks: the propaganda machine is at full-steam driving the renewed national phobia of the great threat and evil known as Russia. There are at least three largely overlapping but distinct interest-groups which are central to the anti-Russia info-wars.

Democrats are seething after being obliterated on all fronts in last November’s election, losing the House, the Senate, the presidency, and several state governorships. They are therefore engaging in an all-out campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Trump administration. Democrats are also upset at being hacked, with emails revealing the level of corruption at the core of the DNC and their shameful treatment of Senator Bernie Sanders. Quite paradoxical is the bitterness that Democrat supports reserve toward Russia, and the complete silence regarding the fraudulent actions of their party leaders at the DNC. This pattern of turning a blind eye one oneself and spewing virulence toward political opponents is consistent with the la-la land doctrine of “good guys” versus “bad guys” that dominates partisan America.

Antagonizing Russia to undermine Trump is an unsurprising and understandable political strategy. It is also neither new nor likely to be particularly fruitful. The Tea Party and similar elements adopted an identical strategy when challenging Obama’s legitimacy via the birther movement circa 2010. Conspiracies about his Kenyan/Islamic/Martian origins, led in no small part by Trump himself, were endless. Birtherism became a national amusement. Republican media, spearheaded by Fox & Friends, thrived by fostering a culture of mean-spirited and destructive accusations toward Obama. I cannot count many democracies where undermining the legitimacy of political opponents is common and accepted practice.

The foreign policy establishment. (Aside: I believe that what meager information we read in the media and press about the inner working of current government is <1% accurate and representative of actual events, so the following is pure speculation.) The Trump administration has surprised Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which for decades has been led by neoconservative politicians and lobby groups, by significantly marginalizing the State Department. Neoconservatives, who count both prominent Democrats (e.g. Victora Nuland, Obama’s great choreographer of the Ukrainian theatre) and Republicans (Sen. John McCain has been leading the fear-mongering recently) among their ranks, are playing second fiddle to Trump’s military generals at the Pentagon. My sense is that they are fabricating a foreign policy crisis with Russia in an attempt to revitalize their own political relevance.

In the meantime, the Americans, Russians, and Turks are engaging in security coordination against ISIS and Syria’s civil war. While coverage of the deployment of 400 Marines into Manbij, Syria has been scant in US media, it is a significant military and diplomatic breakthrough signalling a change in US attitudes toward a solution in Syria.

The national news media. People enjoy hating on Russia. It serves as an external enemy to vent against, and to confirm the exceptionalism of our democratic principles and moral character. Under the Orwellian slogan of “War is Peace”, this tactic is unsurprising. Particularly relevant is that, under the capitalist system, media houses are for-profit corporations acting under severe pressure of financial survival and political agendas. If stories about Russia continue to sell pageviews and drive up viewership, then they are guaranteed non-stop coverage. The longevity of the Russia connection is tied only to how long the media can keep up interest. The saga will be drawn out with series of unexpected twists and turns. But interest will soon wane, and then our attention will be moved to worry about the next earth-ending crisis.

I am not an expert on Russian culture, principles, or ways-of-life. As a non-citizen of Russia, and having no connection to the country or daily experiences of its regular people. I do not believe we are empowered to make value judgments about their political system and values. It is tempting to label other regimes as dictatorial and antagonistic, but I believe this judgement is only for people to make about themselves.

Trump knew it, Hillary blew it — the failures of polling

Election season has come and gone. Donald Trump pulled off what has been repeatedly characterized as a “stunning upset” over bitter rival Hillary Clinton. The web has gone rampant with postmortem analysis about the failures of election polling. But was it really that stunning?

Several polls conducted in the lead up to the election reported on the virtually deadlocked race, all well-within any reasonable margin of error:

Quinnipiac University reported on the situation in key battleground states (Nov 2)

Democrat Hillary Clinton’s October momentum comes to a halt as she clings to a small lead in Pennsylvania, while Republican Donald Trump moves ahead in Ohio, leaving Florida and North Carolina too close to call.

Probability forecast models on the other hand were remarkably off-mark and predicted Clinton well-ahead just the night before the election:

  • New York Times Upshot: Clinton 84%, Trump 16%
  • FiveThirtyEight: Clinton 66.9%, Trump 33%
  • PredictWise: Clinton 89%, Trump 11%

I was watching the blitz of last-ditch rallies held by Trump and Clinton the night before election day, to learn about the sentiments they were expressing about their chances. Here is a revealing segment from Trump’s penultimate war cry in New Hampshire (8pm on Nov 7):

We are going right after this to Michigan, because Michigan is in play… The polls just came out: we are leading in Michigan; we are leading in New Hampshire; we are leading in Ohio; we are leading in Iowa; leading in North Carolina; I think we are doing really, really well in Pennsylvania; and I do believe we are leading in Florida.

In the meantime, according to the New York Times:

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was so confident in her victory that her aides popped open Champagne on the campaign plane early Tuesday.

Either way, each candidate and their popular base was clearly happy to live in their own reality right up to the wire. Some personal take-aways from this whole affair:

  • Polling and forecasting is a messy, complex, empirical problem which next-to-nobody understands. I doubt it is statistical.

  • Well-informed voters do not derive the bulk of their information from cursory reading of social or national news media. They are vigilant about critiquing every aspect of information they consume. Otherwise, they are very, very sad.