Polls confirm what media executive's assertions that Americans don't have an appetite for foreign news. This justifies closing international bureaus in favor of "parachute reporting" during a crisis as well as and scaled back international coverage in favor of, for example, increased weather coverage. Measured by the remote, this may be true. But another measure is social media. A glance at my Twitter and Facebook this week and the uprising in the Ukraine and the student protests in Venezuela are dominating my feeds.
The power struggle there, and in countless other hotspots throughout the world, is fast-changing. It's messy making good/bad guys hard to differentiate. Government censorship reigns with reporting difficult if not outright impossible and dangerous. This is the context in which social media is filling a gaping void. Information in the form of pictures, video, and tweets is being communicated to organize the opposition, to raise awareness, and critically, influence public opinion, captured in one Venezuela hashtag: #SOSVenezuela.
However, social media can be manipulated. The excruciating pictures of police beating protestors to a pulp are reportedly from Egypt. Events and movements must not be romanticized. Rather, their agendas must be recognized. With public support of concerned citizens and powerful leaders at stake, a trained journalist with the capacity to edit information in real time is crucial to coverage, understanding, and ensuing international action.
These were the thoughts in my mind as I headed to MSNBC Live's Agenda Panel to discuss Vladimir Putin's success or failure during the Sotchi Olympics. With a virtual split screen on our mobile devices transmitting Russian repression of dissent in the form of LGBT rights, punk rock band Pussy Riot, and the uprising in the Ukraine, Putin's well-documented authoritarianism was on display for all to see, mainstreaming what foreign policy wonks have been decrying for years.
Putin's spotlight not only shines on him but on the President. Always ready ready to strike, conservatives criticize Barack Obama, describing his response weak to a question on the escalating violence in Ukraine. During last week's press conference at the North American Leaders Summit, the President said:
"...we continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity and move the country forward...And our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power."
Conservatives believe this is yet one more example of America "leading from behind." They also accuse the President of not sending a clear signal of our leadership and the universal human rights we stand for. Peggy Noonan writing in the Wall Street:
"The Higher Reticence is, I suppose, intended to show how sophisticated and peaceable we are. But it doesn't look peaceable, it looks weak. It is one thing to be militarily prudent, it is another to be, in expressing our sentiments, timorous and detached."
If you read the full statement, the President does not come off as timorous or detached. But he also does not strike the swashbuckling cowboy pose of the George W. "either with us or against us" Bush era. Rather, Mr. Obama is analytical, prudent, what we call in Spanish cabeza fría. This drives the DC media crazy, as does the fact that they don't receive real time read outs of the high stakes diplomacy phone calls to foreign leaders, intel gathering, and military strategy that is likely going on but a sotto voce.
Personally, I'm glad this President is cautious, a signal of his read of an American people and an economy that can't support a plunge into a foreign conflict where the country divisions and way out are blurry. There's also the messy nature of geopolitics: because of the horror in Syria which Russia is partially bankrolling and Iran's nuclear enrichment, it's essential to keep our friends close and our frenemies closer.
But where Noonan is correct is the need to send a clear message to the people who are fighting for universal human rights of self-determination:
While you stand up, we stand with you.
And nothing says this more powerfully than numbers. I hope President Obama is calling Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Dilma Rousseff, and Enrique Peña Nieto. The dynamic quickly changes from a repressive government versus the U.S. (which feeds autocrat's jingoistic rhetoric) to oppression versus a people and the coalition that backs them.
Click here to watch this February 21, 2014 appearance on MSNBC Live with Liberal Oasis Executive Editor Bill Scher and The Huffington Post's politics reporter Sabrina Siddiqui who recorded and provides this segment.
How do you judge our reaction to the crises in the Ukraine and Venezuela?