World turns eyes to U.S. 2008 election

Think Americans are the only ones fascinated with the Sarah Palin drama?

Hardly.

“Japanese men and women are very interested in her,” said Hiroki Sugita, a reporter with Kyodo News Service, who has been covering the U.S. presidential campaign, including both conventions.

“Her picture was on the front pages of many Latin American newspapers today,” said Mauricio Rabuffetti, Agence France Presse’s correspondent who covers American politics for the news service’s South American clients. He referred to Thursday morning papers, which covered Palin’s much anticipated speech on Wednesday night.

But it’s not just the controversy that Palin’s selection as John McCain’s veep that has foreign audiences and readers intrigued with the 2008 contest.

“There’s unprecedented global interest in this election,” said Rome Hartman, former exec producer of CBS “Evening News” and now head of BBC World News America, which operates closely with BBC World News UK. The Blighty broadcasting giant will release a survey next week of 22 countries showing that “people everywhere are really paying attention to this,” Hartman said.

“They’re interested in the candidates, the parties, ‘change,’ everything.”

For good reason. As the leader of the free world – not to mention the lone superpower – the U.S. has more than a small effect on other nations.

Some have their own particular areas of interest.

Middle East broadcaster Al Jazeera has many viewers following Palin’s story, “but we emphasize for our audience her talk about oil drilling. That is the subject our viewers are most interested in about her,” said Arar A. AlSharie, news producer for AJ.

The Arabic-language net serves two auds, AlSharie, said – Arab viewers in the Middle East, who are extremely interested in the foreign policy positions of candidates and parties (particularly on Iraq), and Arab-American viewers in the U.S., who “want to know about domestic issues like any other American – taxes, health care, those things,” he said.

For Latin Americans, while Palin has captured some attention with her story, topic number one is “the deep economic relationship between the U.S. and Latin America,” Rabuffetti said. “They are particularly concerned about candidates’ views on Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. In Denver, we heard a lot more talk about foreign relations and immigration than we have here, but we’re hoping to hear about it tonight from McCain.”

Conversely, for the Japanese, Palin is the big story, and before Palin came along, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“There was very big interest in the primary between Hillary and Barack Obama,” Sugita said. The hook was the breaking of barriers that the contest represented: Americans were going to nominate either the first African American or the first woman to the head of a major party ticket.

But it was Hillary who generated the most attention.

“When she was running, it provoked a very big debate in Japan about how far a woman can go, and it exposed a lot of hidden thoughts both in how men think of women and how women think of themselves,” Sugita said.

When Hillary dropped out, Japanese readers continued to follow Obama but were not much interested in McCain until he named Palin as his running mate, Sugita continued.

“She has a strong character and she is also very beautiful,” he said. “She is kind of a role model for Japanese women who pursue a career path and are also a mother and wife.”

Palin’s speech Wednesday night was “very much viewed” in Japan. Big issues in the election – the economy, the two wars, the healthcare system – “aren’t really understood or interesting to Japanese,” Sugita said. “But character issues are big interest because everyone can join in the debate.”

The Beeb serves audiences around the world, often in their own language, and some topics interest all auds, Hartman said.

“American standing in the world has gone down, so there are a lot of people everywhere who want to know what Obama or McCain would do about repairing that and what their approach would be,” he said.

When Clinton conceded the Dem nomination to Obama, BBC correspondents in Nairobi and Kansas – home of Obama’s father and mother, respectively – got reactions from locals. The Beeb has large penetration in Kenya, a former UK colony.

Al Jazeera English has about 200 million viewers worldwide, according to Paul Werdel, deputy news editor. The English-language version of the Middle East net asked viewers what they would most want in the next president of the U.S.

“They said they want a president who sees the world as equals,” Werdel said.

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