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Putting Our Best Face Forward

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“People can come up with statistics to prove anything,” Homer Simpson once said. “Forty percent of all people know that.” Cue the ombudsman at The Washington Post.

To review whether the paper’s coverage of the Democratic and Republic national conventions had been fair, “We counted every story, column, editorial, graphic and photo in all editions of the paper,” Patrick Pexton wrote on Sept. 16. “And at this newspaper, which conservative readers tell me every day is ‘in the tank’ for Barack Obama, guess who won? The Democrats by a nose, but in only one category.”

The statistic is meaningless, of course, because it measures only the number of stories, not the content of the stories. If the paper runs a story headlined “Romney is an idiot,” and one headlined “Obama is a saint,” they’d each count as one in Pexton’s survey.

What matters is the overall tone of the coverage. That’s more difficult to quantify, of course, which may explain why Pexton prefers to simply count the number of stories instead of exploring what they actually said.

Here, for example, is the way the paper covered Mitt Romney’s July speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The presumptive GOP nominee has spoken little about foreign policy recently, but on Tuesday he did so sharply on an issue generally considered a strength of President Obama’s,” reporters Nia-Malika Henderson and Scott Wilson wrote.

Wait: who considers foreign policy “a strength” for this administration? The reporters toss that in as if it’s a fact, but recent events show it’s open to question. In fact, that “generally” doesn’t even extend across the Post’s newsroom. In a January column titled “Obama’s foreign initiatives have been failures,” the paper’s deputy editorial page editor cites the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, global nuclear arms control, and Obama’s “determination to ‘engage’ with U.S. adversaries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela” as foreign policy failures.

Still, the newspaper seems to want to treat foreign policy as a distraction. “Both candidates were pushed off message in the wake of the Middle East turmoil that roiled the campaign last week,” Philip Rucker and David Nakamura wrote on Sept. 17. “Obama was forced to defend his administration’s handling of the crisis as Romney sharply criticized it.”

It’s odd to think that discussing foreign policy could put the campaigns “off message.” A president is, after all, supposed to be in charge of foreign policy. It seems reasonable to expect the applicants for president to talk about it. We’ve recently seen just how important this can be.

Diplomats abroad represent the government of the United States. They must, therefore, speak with tact, but also with honesty. After all, most of the people they’re speaking to have no first-hand experience with the U.S. Our diplomats are teaching foreigners about America. In fact, the “primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad.” The president sets the tone with the people he appoints to run the State Department.

So consider the message our government sent with this statement that the American Embassy in Egypt put out on Sept. 11: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

It was speaking out against a low-budget film that has apparently been screened only once, to an audience of about a dozen people. The embassy seems to have been attempting to reduce tensions in the region. That obviously didn’t work, as a mob soon stormed the embassy compound anyway. Another mob killed four Americans in Libya.

Sadly, we’re not doing a very good job defending the idea of free speech. Not only have federal officials gone out of their way to condemn the controversial movie, but sheriff’s deputies showed up at the filmmaker’s home at midnight on a Saturday to bring him in for questioning.

That’s sending exactly the wrong message to the “Arab street.” Egypt’s government may well have the power to take legal action against filmmakers, and Egyptians may assume the American government does as well. But there are no “legal measures” to take here. Our government doesn’t control American film makers. Yet, looking at the picture of a filmmaker being loaded into a police car, some confusion is in the Islamic world is understandable.

Our diplomats need to remind publics overseas that our government’s authority over filmmakers (and writers, and orators) is rightly limited. That will be difficult to do, but we need to make the effort.

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