American journalism reckons with its colonialist tendencies

“American journalism operates in the U.S. similar to how settler newspapers in British East Africa and British West Africa did.”

I met a friend, David Cheruiyot, this fall on a conference trip in Denmark. During a walk across Aarhus, David remarked that the self-contained nature of American journalism often struck him as odd but funny. We mused how this quality in American journalism led it to assume that every American crisis is the world’s crisis. American journalism has tended to frame the problems of the metropole as everyone’s problems and successes as something to be lauded and copied by everyone else. On my flight home, it struck me that this quality in American journalism is also one steeped in the politics of empire and epitomizes the cunning of imperialist reason.

For someone interested in how the politics of empire shape journalism professions, this year has been both intellectually fascinating and personally distressing to watch unfold — from the way Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was framed by the likes of CBS and ITV and the total silencing of Black and brown victims of the invasion, to how American and British media handled the death of the British monarch and tried (and failed) to come to terms with the violent and racist history of empire. Very few journalists could reckon with the feelings of those whose families experienced genocidal violence. Those that sought to remind the metropole of the brutality of the British empire were discursively punished and bullied. In these two examples, we saw journalists embrace America’s imperialistic unconscious (to paraphrase Julian Go) both in their focus on those victims that looked like those in the metropole (as was the case in Ukraine) and in ignoring the violently racist history of colonization. This is journalism’s engagement in the politics of empire at its finest.

But this should not be surprising because American journalism seems unable, or unwilling, to truthfully reckon with its colonial tendencies or its continued status as a settler-colony-institution par excellence. This land upon which we move around freely and for whose people journalism claims to be working is one in which a colonizing force landed and never really left. American journalism operates in the U.S. similar to how settler newspapers in British East Africa and British West Africa did. It covers the news to raise the concerns and issues important to settlers rather than those important to the native population. For example, before the ABC series Alaska Daily, when was the last time you heard about the continuing massive problem of missing indigenous women? Compare this loud silence to the wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen’s death or the pages and pages devoted to the “ex-royals” living in California.

With all of this in mind, my hope for journalism next year is that it takes its liberatory potential to heart — that it covers indigenous issues not because they are indigenous issues but because we are, at best, guests in a foreign land. We are guests who may often be unwanted and unwelcome but who now control, or benefit from, the colony and all its attendant powers and institutions. Instead of chastising Uju Anya or giving a platform to her bullies, maybe journalists can ask themselves what they can learn from the experiences of her family, or millions of others in the Global South.

Imperialism and its politics need to form the foundation of coverage next year. It needs to act as a connective tissue across columns and broadcasts when the disappearance of indigenous women even makes it to the news. If journalists ignore empire, then all they will continue to see are the shiny toys meant to distract while ignoring the plight of our unwilling hosts.

j. Siguru Wahutu is an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU.

I met a friend, David Cheruiyot, this fall on a conference trip in Denmark. During a walk across Aarhus, David remarked that the self-contained nature of American journalism often struck him as odd but funny. We mused how this quality in American journalism led it to assume that every American crisis is the world’s crisis. American journalism has tended to frame the problems of the metropole as everyone’s problems and successes as something to be lauded and copied by everyone else. On my flight home, it struck me that this quality in American journalism is also one steeped in the politics of empire and epitomizes the cunning of imperialist reason.

For someone interested in how the politics of empire shape journalism professions, this year has been both intellectually fascinating and personally distressing to watch unfold — from the way Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was framed by the likes of CBS and ITV and the total silencing of Black and brown victims of the invasion, to how American and British media handled the death of the British monarch and tried (and failed) to come to terms with the violent and racist history of empire. Very few journalists could reckon with the feelings of those whose families experienced genocidal violence. Those that sought to remind the metropole of the brutality of the British empire were discursively punished and bullied. In these two examples, we saw journalists embrace America’s imperialistic unconscious (to paraphrase Julian Go) both in their focus on those victims that looked like those in the metropole (as was the case in Ukraine) and in ignoring the violently racist history of colonization. This is journalism’s engagement in the politics of empire at its finest.

But this should not be surprising because American journalism seems unable, or unwilling, to truthfully reckon with its colonial tendencies or its continued status as a settler-colony-institution par excellence. This land upon which we move around freely and for whose people journalism claims to be working is one in which a colonizing force landed and never really left. American journalism operates in the U.S. similar to how settler newspapers in British East Africa and British West Africa did. It covers the news to raise the concerns and issues important to settlers rather than those important to the native population. For example, before the ABC series Alaska Daily, when was the last time you heard about the continuing massive problem of missing indigenous women? Compare this loud silence to the wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen’s death or the pages and pages devoted to the “ex-royals” living in California.

With all of this in mind, my hope for journalism next year is that it takes its liberatory potential to heart — that it covers indigenous issues not because they are indigenous issues but because we are, at best, guests in a foreign land. We are guests who may often be unwanted and unwelcome but who now control, or benefit from, the colony and all its attendant powers and institutions. Instead of chastising Uju Anya or giving a platform to her bullies, maybe journalists can ask themselves what they can learn from the experiences of her family, or millions of others in the Global South.

Imperialism and its politics need to form the foundation of coverage next year. It needs to act as a connective tissue across columns and broadcasts when the disappearance of indigenous women even makes it to the news. If journalists ignore empire, then all they will continue to see are the shiny toys meant to distract while ignoring the plight of our unwilling hosts.

j. Siguru Wahutu is an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU.

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