Friday, July 25, 2008

NYT Flips for Obama

Friday’s New York Times features a short piece on Senator Barack Obama’s speech yesterday in Berlin. Billed as “News Analysis”—NYT code for “we like making assertions on the news pages without the annoying responsibility of providing sources or facts to back them up”—the article, written by Steven Erlanger, makes up for what it lacks in reportage with a healthy dose of all-out absurdity.

In a nutshell, the article analysis, headlined “Obama, Vague on Issues, Pleases Crowd in Europe,” criticizes the Democrat’s presumptive nominee for a) delivering too eloquent a speech, and b) not fixing America’s foreign policy problems before he is actually president.

For Senator Barack Obama, who came to Europe once in the last four years, making a stop in London on his way to Russia, the response of many Europeans to his potential presidency has been gratifying — emotional, responsive, replete with the sense of hope he seeks to engender about a more flexible, less ideological America.

European governments and politicians are not so sure.

On Thursday evening in a glittering Berlin, Mr. Obama delivered a tone poem to American and European ideals and shared history.

But he was vague on crucial issues of trade, defense and foreign policy that currently divide Washington from Europe and are likely to continue to do so even if he becomes president — issues ranging from Russia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to new refueling tankers and chlorinated chickens, the focus of an 11-year European ban on American poultry imports.

First, there is the snark, right up front: He’s only been to Europe once in the last four years—and a layover at that! As best I can count, Obama has been busy being a US Senator the last four years (and kind of extra busy the last year-and-a-half)—since when do Congressional junkets rate as good job performance?

Second: “European governments and politicians are not so sure.” Governments AND politicians??? Is Erlanger trying to draw a distinction between the permanent bureaucracy and the elected heads of state? Because, if he is, he sure doesn’t give us quotes from both those groups (from either of them, really). I mean, honestly, I thought that words like “politicians” usually stand as journalistic metonymy for things like “government,” and vice-versa. But I’m not based in Paris, maybe Erlanger knows more about this than I do. Maybe over there, “government” is not comprised of politicians, but of toast soldiers and highly evolved dolphins.

As for Mr. Erlanger’s literary criticism (or is it musical criticism?), I don’t instantly think of tone poems as bad, but I know what would be bad, and that would be a tone poem filled with wonky details about refueling tankers and chlorinated chicken. That would suck.

I dare say that Obama probably wasn’t looking to negotiate European trade deals with 200,000 curious Germans—it’s just a hunch. More likely, Obama was making a campaign appearance, aimed mostly at the folks who actually vote for American presidents (OK, I lied—he probably didn’t design this speech to appeal to the members of the electoral college), but also designed to signal to the folks that he might have to deal with if elected that he will be a very different kind of president from George W. Bush. . . or John W. McCain.

“Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world?” Mr. Obama asked in his speech, then added pointedly, “Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?” The huge crowd applauded and waved American flags.

Nice words, sure, but you know that the crowd was actually waving those flags to get Obama’s attention so that they might ask him about those befouled foul.

Oh, but wait, there’s more:

Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations said, “The Obama who spoke tonight did not put all his cards on the table.” Mr. Obama “tried to use all the symbolism of Berlin to indicate that as president he would reach out to Europe,” Mr. Sandschneider said. “But between the lines he said very clearly that Europe needs to do more,” especially on Afghanistan and Iraq.

. . . .

And, despite what appears to be his sensitivity to European concerns, they perceive Mr. Obama as largely uninterested in Europe, even though he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for the region. As the newspaper Le Monde pointed out on Thursday, Mr. Obama has never asked to meet the European Union’s ambassador in Washington.

OK, let me get his straight. . . Obama is reaching out to Europe, but also saying he wants Europe to do more, yet, he is apparently uninterested in Europe—wtf?

And, as for not meeting the EU’s ambassador, mon dieu! I’m not arguing that the Distinguished Gentleman from Illinois is the hardest working man in the Senate, but honestly, how much business would Obama have with the ambassador—especially in the era of the authoritarian executive? It’s not like the White House lets Democrats negotiate trade deals.

But wait, there’s more:

[Europe’s trade commissioner, Peter] Mandelson noted that Mr. Obama had pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and had opposed a new trade deal with Colombia. “A crisis of American confidence in globalization,” Mr. Mandelson said, “could knock it off course.”

Wait—an Obama presidency could knock globalization off course?!? Who in the electorate could possibly want to see that? Oh, yeah, all of those hard working Americans that Obama was supposedly not going to win over. Hmm. . . .

But all (OK, some) sarcasm aside, I really am at a loss as to what Erlanger and his toast soldiers wanted from a political speech. I expect Obama might have to wait till the end of January before he can do much about giving Europe the bird (I’m talking about the chickens again—damn!).

However, none of this is what I set out to write about. Not really. Rather, fix your attention on that picture up there (by Jae C. Hong of the AP). Looks kind of impressive, no? One man, alone, before a gigantic crowd of adoring Germans, one arm raised. . . .

But wait, uh, there’s more. Take a closer look:

Unless the German people have taken to writing in code, or Obama accidentally went through a worm hole and landed in some mirror universe, this picture has been flipped. But why? What is served by this?

Is it really as simple as Barack Obama stands far to the left—looking left—with most of the people standing to his right? Can it be that basic? Isn’t that just too on-the-nose?

Maybe I’m just talking crazy, but in the digital age, this is not simply a case of an accidentally flipped negative. This was intentional, and worthy of some news analysis of our own.

UPDATE: brendan1963 argues under the cross-post on dKos that the picture is not flipped, and provides this alternate photo as evidence. While that seriously messes up my title and my final burst of consternation, I stand by the rest of my, uh, tone poem.

(Over-arching hat tip to Michael Shaw and his Gilly Award winning blog BAG news Notes. Shaw uses his site to ask just these sorts of questions about the pictures that accompany our news; seeing his presentation at Netroots Nation in Austin inspired me to tap into a part of my brain and education that I hadn’t used in a while. Of course, having to dissect the words and the images just makes my job that much harder—thanks, Michael!)

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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