Deepening Coverage of the Dalai Lama

by Elise Hennigan

This week, the Dalai Lama is touring the United States to speak to American audiences about spirituality, non-violence, climate change and interfaith dialogue.

In covering the Dalai Lama, the American news media usually goes one of two ways, both of which tend to flatten His Holiness into a one-dimensional caricature: Journalists either go political, casting the Dalai Lama as a political lightning rod or as a stand-in for the Tibetan minority that the behemoth of China is intent on squashing. Or, as in most of the press coverage during this round of visits, the media paints a portrait of a living saint, untouched by temptation—a character certainly worthy of admiration, but one that we could never seriously hope to emulate. 

Americans' attitudes toward the Dalai Lama represent both the complex relationship that we have with China and our often conflicted attempts to cultivate a culture of peace and benign spirituality here in the United States. When the Dalai Lama meets with political leaders—during last year's visit with President Obama, for example—the focus of the coverage is usually on the power that is not in the room: China.

Thus stories about potential damage to U.S.-Sino relations as a result of the Dalai Lama's July visit were at the top of the news (on CNN and in the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal, for example). In this context, journalists also often use the Dalai Lama as a way to gingerly approach the issue of China and human rights.

As China's official public relations team has figured out, any positive coverage of the Dalai Lama or Tibet in the American media negatively impacts Chinese interests. In some ways, the Dalai Lama has become a manifestation of American distrust of China. We have affection for the spiritual leader in proportion to our wariness of the rising global power.

We are also economically beholden to China—the single largest foreign holder of U.S. debt and our largest supplier of manufactured goods. Covering the Dalai Lama has arguably become a way for journalists to subtly critique the fact that the American economy is now inextricably linked to a regime that suppresses the values we claim to hold most dear.

On the flip side, the media often doles out admiration for the spiritual leader without probing deeply into the issues that he actually promotes. The praise that outlets lay on the Dalai Lama can verge on Orientalist—ascribing saintliness and life-changing power to this impish but mysterious “other.” The message that the Dalai Lama's virtues are so far out of reach is unfortunate, because the man has many practical things to say.

In a speech over the weekend at the University of California, San Diego, the Dalai Lama discussed the global impact of climate change with scientists and students. He has been speaking about climate change for a few years now, and about the importance of dialogue between science and religion for many more, blending his message of compassionate mutual concern with the need to save our planet.

Devoting ink and pixels to the spiritual leader's call to action brings him back down to earth. It shows the Dalai Lama not just a representative of an occupied country or as a pleasing spiritual cipher but as a living, breathing man who promotes practical goals and has reasonable ideas for how we might reach them.

Elise Hennigan is a multimedia journalist who covers art, culture and globalization. She is currently working toward a Master's degree at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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