- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

The world gets to gossip about Americans tonight, at least for 90 minutes.

“What the World Thinks of America” is a live BBC broadcast that will be available through the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Web site (www.bbc.co.uk), billed as a “debate about America’s place in the modern world” and “a multinational verdict on the United States.”

Participants — among many others — include former Reagan administration officials Pat Buchanan and Caspar Weinberger, former British Cabinet minister Claire Short, authors Joe Klein and Jonathan Franzen, Bianca Jagger, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and an anonymous man on the streets of Baghdad.

“America is alive,” the Iraqi man says on camera. “We love the life of America.”

The world seems hard-pressed to separate American mythology from reality, however. There is much talk about “American cultural imperialism” via fast food, cowboys, Hollywood, comics, big cars, skyscrapers, soap operas, blue jeans and oil.

“The British sometimes seem more like strayed Americans, islanders who speak American, watch American, eat American, and increasingly think American too,” notes BBC’s political editor Andrew Marr in an essay.

“For the British it is impossible not to be American, and intolerable to be only American,” he added.

Conservative member of Parliament Michael Portillo pointed out that Americans remind Britons of their “finest hour” of World War II days, and that his countrymen pine for the American dream rather than a “European” version.

The program also features a poll of about 11,000 people in 10 countries, revealing what has become typical fare these days: More than half say they are piqued by U.S. military actions yet the same number still admire Americans themselves.

The BBC itself reflected its own attitude about the United States by its coverage of the war in Iraq, which exaggerated the number of allied casualties and painted the rescue of U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch as a faked event created for news cameras.

In April, BBC Director Greg Dyke said he was “shocked” by “gung-ho patriotic” war coverage by American news media, saying it undermined those organizations’ credibility, particularly citing the Fox News Channel.

Indeed, the crew members of the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal saw the BBC’s war coverage as so biased that they yanked it from the ship’s TV system.

“The BBC always takes the Iraqis’ side. It reports what they say as gospel, but when it comes to us, it questions and doubts everything the British and Americans are reporting. A lot of people on board are very unhappy,” one senior officer told reporters at the time.

Meanwhile, a BBC viewer quiz about the United States asks an odd assortment of questions, including, “Why is a hamburger called a hamburger when it contains no ham?” and “When was slavery abolished?”

The 10 choices for a quirky poll to determine the “greatest American” include Bob Dylan, former President Bill Clinton, cartoon character Homer Simpson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King and TV strongman “Mr. T.”

The program — plus video diaries, endless analyses, message boards and more — can be seen online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/wtwta/default.stm.

In essays and interviews made available before the broadcast, Americans are often cast by various academics and newscasters as heavy-handed bullies with irresistible style and charisma.

The style is causing “continuing anxiety” around the globe, notes George McKay, a University of Lancashire culture studies professor who believes the United States is regularly accused of dumbing down and homogenizing local cultures in a “coca-colonization, McDonaldization or Disneyfication of society.”

British writer Will Hutton calls globalization “a cloak for the export of the American business model” while French news anchor Alain de Chalvron comments, “the first word linked to the U.S. in France is ‘power’ rather than ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy.’”

A Brazilian broadcaster says his country’s “feelings towards the U.S. have turned bitter,” though he adds that “the cult of American values such as freedom and cultural glamour persist.”

The broadcast will include TV satellite link-ups with 10 countries, instant feedback from viewers and “global conversation” message boards.

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