Why Paris gets more attention than everywhere else

If you’ll permit me to put my head up my own hindparts for a second, I’d like to say something about the justifiable concern that the coverage of Friday’s attack in Paris has dwarfed any coverage of Thursday’s ISIS bombing in Beirut, or their bombing in Ankara in October, or their (probable?) involvement in the crash of that Russian airliner in Sinai, or the violence in Burundi, or Boko Haram’s continued slaughter of Nigerians, or al-Shabaab’s campaign of violence in Somalia and Kenya, or…well, you get the idea. Unless you are somehow directly affected by any of these tragedies in particular, then they’re really all equally worthy of your attention, and although the media can’t force you to pay attention to something, they can stop making it so much more difficult for Americans to pay attention to tragedies that happen in Lebanon, or Kenya, or Burundi, than it is to pay attention when the same kind of thing happens in France.

To be fair, it’s not like the American media has ignored these stories, but the kind of media covering them and the extent of the coverage matters. A couple of stories buried in the international section of The New York Times can’t hold a candle to front page coverage across every major paper and total saturation on our 24 hour news networks. You’d have to work right now to avoid hearing anything about Paris, but you could very easily have missed any coverage of Beirut, Ankara, and (apart from the alleged plane bombing) each of the others.

There are two reasons why Paris gets a lot of coverage and Beirut and the others don’t. One is obviously a racialized view of the world that either truly believes that European/American lives matter more than the lives of Others, or assumes that most Americans will feel that way. I can only speak for myself, but I try not to fall into that trap while acknowledging that I do anyway. I wrote about Beirut when the news of that bombing just started to break, I’ve written about Sinai, Burundi, Nigeria, and many other places. But before this morning I hadn’t written about Burundi in a couple of months. It’s been longer than that since I’ve written about Boko Haram. And I don’t think I’ve ever done a serious piece on al-Shabaab, which gives me a project to work on this week. Also, I acknowledge that there are parts of the world you’ll probably never see covered here; I’m not suddenly going to start writing about Latin America, for example, or be able to do anything more than dabble in East Asian matters.

But the American media as a whole has a real problem covering world news when it doesn’t directly affect Americans or people who closely resemble (physically but also in lifestyle, consumption habits, cultural values, etc.) Americans. That manifests in ways that really matter (major media coverage) and ways that may seem more trivial but are still symptomatic (those French flag overlays you see on people’s Facebook avatars, even though there’s no apparent option for a Lebanese flag overlay, or the fact that Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature just happened to get rolled out for this attack but not for Beirut). You’ll get no argument from me on this point.

That said, I’ve already written more about Friday night’s attack in Paris than I did about Thursday’s attack in Beirut, and I’m probably going to write more about Paris over the next couple of day, just to add to the discrepancy. That’s because of the second reason why I think Paris gets more coverage: because an attack there changes things in a way that an attack on Beirut doesn’t. That fact is in itself evidence that we live in a deeply unbalanced, fundamentally racist world, but it’s still a fact. Thursday’s bombing in Beirut was a tragedy, but it wasn’t going to change the calculus around the Syrian peace talks, or prompt a major escalation in the French air campaign against ISIS, or potentially cause a Western backlash that could play right into ISIS’s hands. Paris did all those things. I’m not saying that’s right, just that it’s the world in which we live. It’s also the reason why I’ll write more about Paris, and its aftermath, here over the next couple of days than I probably should.

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