In Europe we’re still haggling over the future of the Euro zone and the entire European Union. The American media are clear about that. The EU is “down and out,” exhausted from its current problems, and in its present form has no chance of survival. Many of these arguments sound like stereotypes.
These are the general maladies of media work; on the U.S.-Europe line it is of course all the more interesting that the two sides don’t cultivate mutual resentment or distrust, which are the usual sources for distorted perspectives. In other words, when Europe and America, who stand on a common cultural and civil bedrock, look at each other, it is different from Western journalists’ views of, say, China, an unknown and misunderstood entity towards which most of them automatically harbor distrust.
The end of Europe in sight
Among American mainstream media, the strictest meter for the EU is that of the Wall Street Journal, which has more or less made the sign of the cross over Europe in the past weeks.
For example, the paper recently printed an article by the famous historian and political scientist Walter R. Mead, according to whom the European Union has not only perished, but the entire concept of multinational institutions as formed after the Second World War has as well. Europe, according to Mead, now has two options: It can either transform itself into a federation like the U.S., or it can dissociate, along with the disintegration of the Euro zone. Not surprisingly, the American historian predicts the latter possibility.
That is the same opinion of the Wall Street Journal’s regular authors and columnists. In their interpretation, Europe is a hopeless case of social handout states whose expensive welfare systems don’t work, as the paper’s columnist Bret Stephens wrote last week. His article is simultaneously a precise example of the aforementioned stereotyping and presupposition, and astonishingly selected and “analyzed” numbers.
When numbers lie
According to Stephens, British citizens don’t get essential health care; a quarter-million wait 18 months for necessary treatment. For a description of the European problem with crime, the American journalist then offers a 15 percent increase in crime in France between 2002 and 2008. And for an illustration of social troubles he throws in a 37 percent European illegitimacy rate. The Wall Street Journal columnist certainly made sure the data hit home. The targeted use of these statistics is the same as if Europeans were to repeatedly emphasize that 30 million Americans lack health insurance, while purposely neglecting to add that a good portion of them do so of their own free will, not because they can’t afford it.
And crime? It follows from the statistics that a much higher percentage of the population is incarcerated in America than in other developed Western nations. Without bothering to explain the particulars of the American judicial system and other specifics, we could easily conclude — manipulatively, à la Stephens — that America is not a free country. Similarly, one could use statistics showing that the proportion of illegitimate births among African Americans is a few hefty percentage points above Stephens’ European average.
So what does all this demonstrate? How easy it is to manipulate data and statistics, whether out of ignorance, bias or malicious intent. To be sure, journalists frequently get away with it. The media in Europe and the U.S. have a more difficult time of it, however, given the two societies’ spirit of reciprocal criticism and familiarity. Fortunately, trans-Atlantic spin and media distortion are not so easy to pull off.