It appears that the "world" is doing things once again. Here's an example from ABC News:

"With unprecedented news coverage worldwide, this year's presidential election had already captured the globe's attention. Now, it has delivered a winner who is capturing the world's imagination."

There's that world, being captured.

And from the AP:

"TOKYO - In city squares and living rooms, ballrooms and villages, the citizens of the world cheered the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, ratcheting up hopes that America’s first black commander in chief would herald a more balanced, less confrontational America."

The world cheers. The world laughs. And here is the sober, restrained, BBC:

"The United States has seen the biggest transformation in its standing in the world since the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in November 1960."

Really?

The world?

The whole world?

Questions: Were you polled?  Did anyone ask you?  Have you ever wondered how journalists know what "the world" is thinking, or doing?  What "world" are they talking about? 

What we have here is journalistic malpractice.  If journalism were a religion, and some of its disciples think it is, this use of "the world" would be labeled sin, and for good reason, for it devastates our understanding of events, and attributes to whole populations views those people may not have.  It is also based on a terrible misconception, the idea that there is something called "world opinion."

Hans Morgenthau, the great political scientist of the University of Chicago, used to inveigh regularly against the whole idea of "world opinion."  He argued that there are only individual national opinions.  And those are often shaped by a controlled press or by governments that are the sole source of information.  The "world" does not do anything, or think anything, except in the minds of headline writers and other journalists.  Even if it did, how would anyone know?  There isn't much polling done in rural Indonesia.

The notion of "world opinion" is simply an extension of the kind of journalistic glibness seen in the reporting of domestic politics.  We've all read sentences that start, "American women believe…" or "Catholics generally think…"  It is lazy writing and lazy thinking, but it can lead to serious distortions.  For example, we have been told for years that President Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of September, 2001, caused America's standing to decline in the eyes of the "world." (There's that world again.)  This is presented to us as the product of sound reporting and journalistic experience.  But, as Robert Kagan has noted:

"According to a Pew Research Center poll released in August 2001, 70 percent of western Europeans surveyed (85 percent in France) believed that the Bush administration made decisions 'based only on U.S. interests.'"

That poll, of course, was released a month before the attacks, and long before the Iraq war. The Bush administration had been in office only seven months, and had taken little action of importance in foreign affairs.  But already the anti-Americanism was apparent.  And why not? Anti-Americanism before 9-11, and going back decades, had been a fact of life.  It wasn't unusual at all.  Americans traveling to Europe as early as the late 1940s had been advised by the State Department's passport office to play down their nationality because anti-Americanism was so thick.  Vice President Richard M. Nixon was almost been killed when his car was surrounded by anti-American rioters in Venezuela in 1958.  President Reagan, in a Berlin speech, may have told the leader of the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall," but his visit had been protested by anti-American fanatics in Germany.  Reagan responded:

"I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming.  And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again."

Yet, we are informed that the "world" apparently turned its back on America solely as a result of President Bush - he did it all - and that our "once great reputation" has been sullied.  Nonsense.

The only way to deal with international public opinion is to examine it on a nation-by-nation basis, as Hans Morgenthau insisted, and with our eyes open.  We must start to reject the kind of journalism that tells us what the "world" is doing and pondering today.  When we do, we will improve journalism and our understanding of what is actually happening.

And the world - the whole world - will thank us!

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