East Asia Is Invisible

ABC13StudioDec09Americans don’t care about East Asia.

That’s a strong statement. So, let me make a few qualifications. First, Americans love Chinese, Japanese, and (increasingly) Korean food. They like to visit East Asia. They will, on occasion, watch a Hong Kong action film or the latest from Park Chan-Wook.

But when it comes to the pressing issues of the day, most Americans simply don’t follow what’s going on in East Asia. I’m not talking here about Asia experts, who are essentially paid to follow the news. I’m also not talking about diaspora communities interested in what’s going on in their home countries.

I’m talking about average Americans. And I’m talking about what they see on network news.

According to the latest Tyndall Report, which annually tracks coverage of the news by the three major television networks, East Asia is invisible to the American viewer. No stories from the region cracked the top 20 news items. When it comes to foreign policy, the network news focused in 2015 on the Islamic State, the wars in Syria and Iraq, the refugee crisis in Europe, the terrorism attacks in Paris, and the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The top stories did not include China, Japan, or Korea.

Foreign policy stories made up only 6.5 percent of the network news coverage overall. So, Americans are not paying much attention to foreign policy in general. But even within that narrow share of the news, East Asia rarely appears. When you look at an expanded list of stories from 2015, coverage of the region doesn’t even make it into the top 150 stories.

Let’s choose one of the less covered topics of 2015. Hurricane Patricia, which hit in October, was the most intense cyclone to hit the Western hemisphere. But because it hit rural areas in Mexico, it didn’t cause as much damage as anticipated and only led to a few deaths. It also barely touched the United States, only affecting the southern part of Texas.

In total, Hurricane Patricia received approximately 20 minutes of combined coverage from the three networks in 2015. That’s a pretty low bar. And yet, East Asia was unable to clear it. Hurricane Patricia received more coverage than U.S.-Chinese relations, what’s going in North Korea, or Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s overturning of the Peace Constitution.

So, the next time you wonder why Americans are not outraged at Japanese textbooks or worried about the Chinese economy or following the latest twist in relations between North and South Korea, it’s probably because they simply don’t know what’s going on.

True, Americans get their news in lots of different forms: the newspaper, on-line publications, and cable news, to name just three. But television is still the main source of news for the majority of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll. And the network news programs – on ABC, NBC, and CBS – continue to attract far more viewers than cable shows, by a factor of seven.

Of course, East Asia is of interest to various niche consumers of the news who get their information from Facebook or English-language versions of East Asian news outlets. But East Asia is invisible when it comes to the mass market. And that’s where public opinion is formed.

There is, of course, an up side to ignorance. A country most often appears on the network news when something horrible is happening there: an earthquake, a civil war, a famine. Or the networks feel obligated to pay attention to a part of the world that the Pentagon has targeted for destruction. At the moment, East Asia is not facing any catastrophes. And the Pentagon is sending neither bombers to combat a nuclear-armed North Korea nor aircraft carriers to confront China in the South China Sea. Invisibility has its rewards.

The lack of coverage continues despite the Obama administration’s efforts to execute its famous “Pacific pivot” to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. The administration has sold a lot of weapons to Asian countries and rearranged some of its deployments in the region. It has aggressively pursued the Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement.

But judging from the network news coverage, none of this is particularly newsworthy. When it comes to foreign policy, the focus remains on the Middle East.

In 2016, East Asia could make a dramatic return to the news. Something could go horribly wrong in the region. Or the Pentagon could decide it must show some muscle in Asia to scare China or North Korea. The U.S. presidential candidates will probably indulge in some ritual China-bashing. All of this could increase the visibility of the region to the average American.

It’s not likely, however, that the Obama administration will do anything to rock the boat in its final year in office. Military engagements are not in the works. But the administration is also not likely to invest any political capital in trying to achieve some kind of nuclear deal with North Korea. It probably won’t undertake any spectacular bilateral initiatives with China either.

So, expect more of the same invisibility for East Asia in 2016 when it comes to the network news and U.S. public opinion – for better and for worse.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.