Late last week Tony Blair made a speech in Washington. Afterward various British journals of record summed up their prime minister’s performance. The Daily Mirror found “something quite nauseating” about the speech, in which Blair once again “backed America in what many now view as a war based on lies.” The Daily Mail sneered at “Blair the brilliant contortionist, trying to have it both ways.” The Guardian, meanwhile, declared that the speech represented a “significant softening” of the prime minister’s position on Iraqi weapons, and described the event this way: Blair “stood before hundreds of members of Congress to admit that he may eventually be proved wrong.”
Is that what he was doing? Funny, but if you’d been reading the American press, you’d have had quite a different impression. “Bush, Blair Defend Motives Behind War,” read the headline in The Post, which failed to detect any “significant softening” in the prime minister’s words. The New York Post — the closest thing Americans have to the Daily Mail — failed to see anything remotely “contortionist” in the speech either, writing that “Blair’s address clearly reflected a nuanced appreciation of America’s role in the world.” Far from sounding “nauseating,” Blair “heralded the role the United States has played in fighting the broader war on terrorism,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. Not since Mikhail Gorbachev simultaneously became an international superstar and the most hated politician in Russia has a political leader enjoyed such disparate reputations at home and abroad.
In part these remarkably different descriptions of the same speech reflect the vagaries of domestic politics. The issues that actually make Blair unpopular in Britain, such as the travails of the National Health Service, are not issues here at all, and some of what we see as his better attributes are considered failings in Britain. Here he’s thought eloquent; there he’s thought slippery. Here he’s thought statesmanlike; there he’s thought to be too interested in foreign countries, and not enough interested in his own.
But they also reflect a larger phenomenon that is not much better understood. America and Britain — along with America and France, America and Russia, America and Botswana, America and anywhere, really — live in parallel informational universes. By that I mean that the media produced in different cultures don’t merely reflect different opinions about the news, they actually recount alternative versions of reality.
Different countries have always had different perspective on the news, of course. But in the world of globalized information, where just about any newspaper or television program in any language is available at the click of a mouse, this isn’t supposed to happen anymore. Nowadays we’re all supposed to know what everybody else is thinking, to have access to the same images and information, and some of us do. Peasants in rural India gather around village television sets to watch reruns of “Dallas.” In different time zones, Japanese and German bankers watch the same images on their Reuters screens. It is often said now that events are monitored around the world in “real time,” or that we all live in a “global informational village,” as if such a thing had already come to pass.
During the Iraq war, a few Americans and Europeans, at least, began to notice how tiny that village actually is. It wasn’t hard to see that the war as broadcast by the BBC or Deutsche Welle was quite different from the war as broadcast by NBC or CNN. Fewer understood that this is not only a Euro-American problem: A German friend visited Poland during the war and was surprised by how much less blood seemed to appear on the Polish evening news. And the differences run much deeper than a disagreement over Iraq, or portrayals of a single event. It isn’t just that Europeans have different opinions from Americans about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, they actually learn different facts and read about different events, and therefore they reach different conclusions. When George Tenet fell on his sword earlier this month over that now infamous piece of British intelligence that made it into the president’s State of the Union speech, the story played here as “White House Dumps on CIA.” In Britain, it played as “White House Dumps on Britain.”
Strangest of all, the availability of alternative points of view doesn’t appear to have mellowed anyone’s prejudices — quite the contrary. Nowadays, we all live under the illusion that we are receiving many different types of information, but that we select only the most plausible. In fact, as information multiplies, it grows ever easier to choose to read (or watch) whatever best matches your particular bias, whether national or ideological. If you hate network television’s right-wing bias, you can click onto, say, www.globalexchange.org or www.moveon.org. If you hate network television’s left-wing bias, you can always watch Fox. Having done so, you’ll labor under the illusion that you’ve picked the most truthful version of events — but how would you know? Have you actually compared and contrasted the arguments of both sides and come to a judicious conclusion?
What is true here is even more true internationally. If British newspaper readers learned anything of Blair’s rapturous reception here last week, they learned it from British articles denouncing the slavish U.S. media. If French television viewers learned anything about American perceptions of the war in Iraq, they learned it from French news items on the jingoistic U.S. media. The prophets of globalization once spoke of a seamless, borderless world, in which national differences would magically disappear. They were wrong.