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CHOGM Is A Puzzle In The American Mind

| by Shelton A. Gunaratne*

(November 6, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The insular American press has ignored the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka from Nov. 15-17. It comprises 53 independent countries (with a total population of 2.25 billion occupying almost one-third of the world’s land area) that were once British colonies.

I wrote this column to point out that this omission reflects a serious flaw in the news judgment of the American media establishment and the hired journalists who filter the news that’s “fit to print.”

Before I substantiate this thesis, let me introduce some basic facts about CHOGM to allow the reader to assess the magnitude of the flaw.

The origin of CHOGM was in The First Colonial Conference of 1887. The subsequent periodic meetings were identified as Imperial Conferences from 1907 onwards. With the de jure end of colonialism, the countries realized the need to adopt new terminology that reflected the changed international political structure. Thus, the 17 top-level meetings held from 1944 to 1969 were called British Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conferences.
This nomenclature was inadequate to describe the new phase of the Commonwealth in which Britain relinquished its leadership role to be a coequal with other member nations, which assumed diverse political structures headed by presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and military chiefs. The term CHOGM (wherein HOG stands for head of government) solved the problem.

Although the biennial CHOGM has gathered 22 times since 1971, hardly a small fraction of Americans knows anything about it because the elite press of the country (e.g., New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today), as well as the non-elite press (e.g., The Forum of Fargo, N.D; the Grand Forks, N.D., Herald) has failed to report on any of the CHOGM meetings. If you think I am exaggerating, do a Google search.

Now, I shall give the reasons for adducing my thesis:

First, the exclusion of CHOGM as a process or event ignores all the news values journalists learn in American textbooks and journalism schools (i.e., impact/ importance, timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, currency and necessity).

The American media establishment seems to believe that these news values apply only to the reporting of the Western and the affluent world. They appear to think that reporting about the conflict over human rights in Sri Lanka, the Canadian prime minister’s decision to boycott the conference over this issue and the immense pressure of Tamil Nadu on the Indian prime minister also not to attend would not benefit but merely bore the American media consumer.
Second, the American media establishment conscientiously underestimates the impact of international organizations dominated by developing nations without the guiding presence of the United States, which they believe to be the primus inter pares (first among equals) of the world. The inclusion of Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand does not make much of a difference.

Third, the American media establishment does not see any resemblance between its colonial experiences under British hegemony and those of the developing countries under the same hegemonists. They think that Britain was instrumental in “civilizing” the barbarians of Asia, Africa and the Americas whereas the Europeans who immigrated to America were superior to the imperial British. Therefore, the reporting of CHOGM and the grievances of the participating “natives” would not benefit the American media consumer.

Fourth, the American media establishment is very good at preaching media ethics, freedom and responsibility while breaching these principles unabashedly in every day practice. Its biases in reporting the Middle East conflicts, its failure to give voice to all points of view, its reversal to sensationalism at the expense of social responsibility, its allegiance to capitalism and vastly unequal wealth distribution, and its refusal to view the poor countries as the victims of exploitation by the manipulative financial capitalists are some of the many reasons for the omission of reporting CHOGM-related processes and events.

Finally, the American press seems to have placed the responsibility of unfolding foreign news to the American public on the World Wide Web and the Internet. Yet, it has to ask itself how the American media consumer could sort out what to read from the plethora of news output spewed out by their smart phones and desktops without the initial orientation to news selection by their local or national rags.

*The writer is a professor of mass communication emeritus and the author of a recent autobiographical trilogy titled From Village Boy to Global Citizen. He lives in Moorhead, MN.
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