(Author's note: Some things don't seem to change. Five years after I wrote
this column in the form of a news dispatch, it seems more relevant than ever.)
WASHINGTON There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the
United States is not the center of the world.
The White House had no immediate comment on the reports, which set
off a firestorm of controversy in the nation's capital.
Speaking on background, a high-ranking official at the State
Department discounted the possibility that the reports would turn out
to be true. "If that were the case," he said, "don't you think
would have known about it a long time ago?"
On Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties were quick to rebut the
assertion. "That certain news organizations would run with such a
poorly sourced and obviously slanted story tells us that the liberal
media are still up to their old tricks, despite the current crisis,"
a GOP lawmaker fumed. A prominent Democrat, also speaking on
condition of anonymity, said that classified briefings to
congressional intelligence panels had disproved such claims long ago.
Scholars at leading think tanks were more restrained, and some said
there was a certain amount of literal truth to the essence of the
reports. But they pointed out that while it included factual accuracy
in a narrow sense, the assertion was out of context and had the
potential to damage national unity at a time when the United States
could ill afford such a disruption.
The claim evidently originated with a piece by a Lebanese journalist
that appeared several days ago in a Beirut magazine. It was then
picked up by a pair of left-leaning daily newspapers in London. From
there, the story quickly made its way across the Atlantic via the
"It just goes to show how much we need seasoned, professional gatekeepers
to separate the journalistic wheat from the chaff before it gains wide attention,"
remarked the managing editor of one news program at a major U.S. television
network. "This is the kind of stuff you see on ideologically driven Web
sites, but that hardly means it belongs on the evening news." A news magazine
editor agreed, calling the reports "the worst kind of geographical correctness."
None of the major cable networks devoted much air time to reporting
the story. At one outlet, a news executive's memo told staffers that
any reference to the controversy should include mention of the fact
that the United States continues to lead the globe in scientific
discoveries. At a more conservative network, anchors and
correspondents reminded viewers that English is widely acknowledged
to be the international language and more people speak English in
the U.S. than in any other nation.
While government officials voiced acute skepticism about the notion
that the United States is not the center of the world, they declined
to speak for attribution. "If lightning strikes and it turns out this
report has real substance to it," explained one policymaker at the
State Department, "we could look very bad, at least in the short run.
Until it can be clearly refuted, no one wants to take the chance of
leading with their chin and ending up with a hefty serving of Egg
McMuffin on their face."
An informal survey of intellectuals with ties to influential magazines of
political opinion, running the gamut from The Weekly Standard to The
New Republic, indicated that the report was likely to gain little currency
in Washington's elite media forums.
"The problem with this kind of shoddy impersonation of reporting is
that it's hard to knock down because there are grains of truth," one
editor commented. "Sure, who doesn't know that our country includes
only small percentages of the planet's land mass and population? But
to draw an inference from those isolated facts that somehow the
United States of America is not central to the world and its future
well, that carries postmodernism to a nonsensical extreme."
Another well-known American journalist speculated that the
controversy will soon pass: "Moral relativism remains a pernicious
force in our society, but overall it holds less appeal than ever,
even on American campuses. It's not just that we're the only
superpower we happen to also be the light onto the nations and the
key to the world's fate. People who can't accept that reality are not
going to have much credibility."