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 State Department official doubted the reports would turn out to be true. "If that were the case," he said, "don’t you think we 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 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 reports. But they pointed out that while the claim might be accurate in a narrow sense, it was taken out of context and could damage national unity at a time when the United States could ill afford such a disruption.
The claim evidently originated in a piece by a Lebanese journalist in a Beirut magazine. It was 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 Internet.
"It shows 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 a major U.S. television network news program. "This is the kind of stuff you see on ideologically driven Web sites, but that hardly means it belongs on the evening news." A newsmagazine editor agreed, calling the reports "the worst kind of geographical correctness."
None of the major cable networks devoted much air time to 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 United States 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 comment on the record. Meanwhile, 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 unlikely to gain much currency among Washington’s media elite.
"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 a small percentage of the planet’s land mass and population?"
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 college campuses. It’s not just that we’re the only superpower—we happen also to be the light unto the nations and the key to the world’s fate. People who can’t accept that reality are not going to have much credibility."
Norman Solomon weekly syndicated column, archived at www.fair.org/media-beat/ focuses on media and politics. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media (Common Courage).