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Playing the Shadow Game

People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East

By Joris Luyendijk
Soft Skull Press, 2009

“Wherever I went or whatever job I did, I observed that many otherwise well-informed people seemed to know very little about the news business and its values and motivations.”

That’s how Lou Cannon, journalist for the Washington Post, begins Reporting: An Inside View, a dissection of his profession for the general reader. He wrote it hoping to “promote continuing examination and criticism about the nature and quality of the news business.” That was thirty years ago.

 

It’s a discussion we still need to have. Thirty years later the press is in crisis, but its self-examinations often miss the point. Cable news merely aggrandizes itself, and whenever the rest of the press looks inward it’s usually about the future of journalism in the “internet age.” But that’s only half the issue. The nature of the beast – the “values and motivations,” the standards and shortcomings of actual reporting – is the other half. And before journalism further adapts to the forces of markets and technology, it’s worth examining the weaknesses of its traditional practitioner – the reporter.

An Inside View, despite being one of the most thorough and honest books on the subject, was like the rest in that had a short shelf-life (it’s been out of print since 1977). I found it on a bargain cart at the Strand. Cannon didn’t like a lot of what he saw around him, but he went on to become one of the most respected reporters of his generation (his work on Ronald Reagan is mandatory for any student of the man’s presidency). Joris Luyendijk was a journalist for five years and then he gave it up, in despair of his chosen profession.

A Dutchman who wrote a book (not available in English) about his year studying at Cairo University, he was contacted by the Volkskrant newspaper, the third largest daily in the Netherlands, and offered a job. As he relates in People Like Us, Luyendijk (pronounced LION-dike) had only a few days’ experience behind a desk before he was sent to Cairo as a correspondent:

I regarded journalism like the average reader, viewer or listener did. Journalists know what’s going on in the world, I thought; the news gives an overview of these events, and it is possible to keep that overview objective.

Very few of these ideas survived intact in the years that followed….I learned that good journalism is a contradiction in terms in the Arab world, and this means that you can’t know what is happening there. You can’t know as a journalist, and you really can’t know as a viewer, reader, or listener.

So he quit not long after the US invasion of Iraq. The book that came out of that experience was intended to show “how image and reality diverged” and how difficult it is for a reporter “to say anything meaningful on such a major issue as the Middle East.” In that it largely succeeds. People Like Us has plenty to tell us about how the Middle East is covered, but it also speaks to what is wrong, and what is decrepit and dangerous, about the how the media covers anything.

Luyendijk’s doubts started creeping in during his first assignment. Within a week of arriving in Cairo he was sent to Sudan to record the aftermath of US air strikes on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory (this was 1998). But a few days later, he decided to do a story on the famine ravaging the south of the country. He arrived at a Medicins Sans Frontieres camp full starving refugees and dutifully went about recording facts and taking pictures: hostile militia nearby… eighty deaths a day… bloated stomachs… emaciated babies. We think of Africa and often as not a setting like this comes to mind. Even the casual consumer of news knows the pictures, remembers the narrative.

Reality is more complicated. Luyendijk was visiting huts requisitioned from local villagers to house the refugees. All he’d seen so far was the human tragedy he expected; he was preparing to write that story we know so well – so well it becomes like a dull pain we learn to ignore. A chance accident shifted Luyendijk’s perceptions:

We’d arrived. In the first two huts, I’d assumed a serious expression and had made a small kind of bow to conceal my awkwardness and hold back the tears, but here I spontaneously raised my hand, forced my face into a smile, and called out, “Hello, everybody!”

And then it happened. All of a sudden their faces lit up. Girls giggled, an old man shifted in his seat, and children nudged their mothers. “Look, Mummy!” A little toddler of around two wriggled free from his sister, grabbed my knee with both mitts, and tumbled over. Mothers of emaciated infants burst out laughing and used their free hands to wave.

He snapped a picture. There was still more in the camp to confound his expectations. Refugees stole supplies from relief workers and other refugees, “fought vendettas, and sabotaged the food handouts unless they received preferential treatment.” The aid organizations paid bribes to the corrupt Sudanese government to bring in food, lest their reputations – and thus their future prospects – suffer along with their charges. In short, geopolitics, scarcity and sectarian strife forced these people to live the extremes of human experience and everything in between. Reporters are supposed to make sense of this for us.

“As a correspondent,” Luyendijk recalls, “I could tell different stories about the same situation. The media could only choose one…often the story that confirmed a commonly held notion.” He managed to get the surprise reaction into his article, but the picture his paper ran was the standard tearjerker, and his editors snipped a dramatic sentence from a long interview with a doctor – “According to medical textbooks, these people are long dead” – for the headline.

Incongruity is the enemy of journalistic narrative, and journalists and their editors are in the business of telling stories. They deal in events, in happenings, and context is shorn to meet certain limitations: print space, air time, objectivity. The last seems counter-intuitive. After all, wouldn’t an objective report contain the relevant facts? Wouldn’t those facts provide context?

The answer is yes and no. The notion of professional objectivity is an American invention, and it has a peculiar history. It came of age during the tense years leading up to the Civil War with the advent of the telegraph. The telegraph revolutionized journalism, but it only allowed for the bare-boned transmission of facts, so concision was valued more than style. Local reporters and editors would take those facts and add color and narrative suited to the presumptions they held of their respective audiences. And since these dispatches were going out to a myriad of different papers, the language was kept neutral, to make the raw material better for molding. The wire reports of the Associated Press and Reuters are their modern descendants.

The conventions of “the wires,” as reporters still call them today, bled out into the rest of the industry. Lou Cannon dryly remarks that “As often happens in the newspaper business, a technique became a value.” And Americans are reared from childhood to value the objectivity of the modern reporter, the rumpled gumshoe-integrity glorified in our movies. We’re told that impartiality is consonant with democracy; bias is to be scrupulously avoided.

This is a farce. The straightest of reporting is drenched in bias – commercial, editorial, institutional – not the least of which is a preference for ‘just the facts.’ Cannon is quite right to say that the modern notion of journalistic objectivity is itself “a bias that the truth can be ascertained from the observable facts and the balancing of opposing viewpoints.”

Objective Reporting discriminates against analysis in favor of narrative, against insight in favor of exposition and against truth in favor of the facts. It is a method which perpetuates the most damaging bias of American journalism – namely, that bias can be excluded from news accounts written by human beings.

The exposition and analysis necessary to flesh out a story are bound to offend somebody, who will promptly accuse the offender of bias.

The traditional media will do almost anything to avoid this, and luckily enough, their professional code has a ready made formula. Suppose two politicians are arguing over a bill. The reporter will lead with the juiciest quote, follow with the opposing view, do a brief run-down of the bill’s features, but they can’t say that one person is speaking the truth, or that both are lying. That’s taking sides. So they quote some organization, lobbyist or study favoring politician A and another for politician B. End with the bill’s prospects for passing; perhaps another dramatic quote. It resembles a television show; hook, plot, and cliffhanger – the demands that stories make of their writers. Journalists become so used to the formula, and to the ubiquity and sameness of this sort of conflict, that they write on autopilot. The politicians know this will happen and they tailor their message accordingly. It’s a kabuki show that most involved will ignore.

Too much is left unsaid. Both politicians are feeding the reporter poll-tested, focus group platitudes. How do they couch their appeals and for whom are they designed? Both take money from special interests. Which ones, and what are their goals? They have obligations to their party. What are those? They have reelections to consider. What are their prospects, their constituents’ views and voting history? And what about the bill? Is it designed to redress a problem? What’s its history, its evolution and its causes? The writer (or television correspondent) has limited space to answer these questions, and a very specific way to answer the ones he can get to. He must choose his facts. His colleagues will do the same, as their predecessors did.

The contours of this scenario fit foreign journalism snugly. In 2000, Luyendijk was in Israel covering the second intifada. He arrived a few weeks in. A Palestinian crowd in Ramallah had just lynched two Israeli reservists, and Israel responded by bombing Palestine for the first time in more than thirty years. Both, however, were ready for Luyendijk and his colleagues:

Wide-eyed, I walked around the astonishingly quickly erected, yet superbly equipped press center in the five-star Isrotel in the Jewish part of Jerusalem…. As I hesitated over free coffee, tea in eight different flavors, three types of fruit juice, and piles of bread-roll sandwiches, young Israeli men and women walked round in olive-green army uniforms handing out sheets of great quotes.

It was so professional: Pictures of the lynching, route descriptions to the cemetery where the reservists were buried…. The world’s media were given everything they needed with practiced skill, and more: Rights-free archive material of Israeli soldiers giving first aid to the Palestinians; the phone numbers of spokesmen who could explain the government’s perspective in any major language and in the required number of words….

I came across countless journalists who seemed to find this totally normal as they paced up and down across the rugs, discussing the finer details of what they would produce for their newsroom back home….

The Palestinians were less adept, but they played the same game. Victims of Israeli bombardment were produced for any journalist who ventured into Gaza or the West Bank. Many were so used to these interviews that they could cry and rage on cue. The flood of appeal and information was unceasing on all sides.

The intifadah escalated, I shuttled between Lebanon [where he was based] and the Holy Land, and with every trip my astonishment grew. A complete alphabet of “optimistic stories” had been cooked up for the correspondents: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic children together in one school; olive branches from Israelis and Palestinians; joint musical performances. You only had to telephone the Palestinian or Israeli organizers of these hopeful projects…and the great quotes, checkable information, and striking visual details would be served to you on a plate.

Parties to most conflicts – personal, political, international – make the same moves, and journalists – with their habits, rules and constraints – usually play into their hands.

There’s a sad irony in all of this. Journalists have a lot of power to effect change, but perhaps the biggest affect they have is on the subjects themselves. By their very presence, reporters change the stories they cover. The people they talk to study the medium, and they know how to manipulate it. The upshot is stupefyingly predictable. Early in his brief career, Luyendijk managed to get an interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. The group’s public relations department, in one of those incongruities usually strained from the final product, was located above a lingerie shop. The interview itself was anything but surprising:

I asked about Hezbollah’s policies, and Nasrallah gave his set replies. I could just have easily have got everything from Nabulsi [a PR officer] or from their website…. He effortlessly deflected any critical questions, and I could forget about getting any unexpected answers…. [It] was entirely logical, and for a while I thought about throwing in the towel – all that trouble calling and faxing, all that effort, to get to this stage play with its predictable dialogue.

That the same is true on the domestic front is confirmed by the near-worthlessness of almost every political interview ever conducted, interviews that speak to the shadow game of PR but rarely to substance. Still, “interviews like this meant ‘scoring’ on the home front” (journalists aren’t bereft of bias, and they’re not free of self-interest either) A good quote can drive a news cycle.

Scoring means readers, and readers can be sold to advertisers. It’s difficult to overestimate the extent to which the commercial nature of modern journalism reinforces its worst tendencies. Newspapers obviously can’t function without profit (the network newscasts are traditional status symbols for their parent companies and often operate in the red), and to draw in readers in they cast the widest net possible, run the flashiest stories most prominently. The former means large swathes of space given over to sports, lifestyle, entertainment and celebrity news. The latter, in the most basic sense, means drama.

John Bogart, former editor of the New York Sun, famously said that “When a dog bites a man, that’s not news because it happens so often. But if a man bites dog, that is news.” This definition of news stresses the unusual, but it bears faint resemblance to practice. The “unusual” events that news covers – war, disaster, diplomacy, political fighting – are depressingly commonplace. A better definition, as we’ve seen above, would be that news is the coverage of (usually) relevant, recent, overt and dramatic events. “The fact was,” Luyendijk writes, “that I was only covering summit meetings, attacks, bombings, or diplomatic stratagems.” The positive or complex experiences he had in the Arab world rarely found their way into the pages of his newspaper.

This bias towards the overt can be deadly: reporters cover issues of the highest gravity. But before they do, something – a bomb or a slip of the tongue – must happen first. Yet the important stories – healthcare, debt, war, poverty – smolder before they catch fire. The levees of New Orleans were inadequate before Katrina hit. The resentments of Palestinians and Israelis were festering for decades before the first intifiada broke out in 1987. Al-Qaeda was preparing attacks for ten years before 9/11. Lou Cannon noted bitterly that

the circumstances which led to the Watts riots, the war in Vietnam, the development of a system of medical care for the aged or the energy crisis could not be covered until ‘something happened’ in the form of an overt event. News became as [Walter] Lippmann called it, a signalizer of events rather than an analysis of a situation or an explanation of a human condition.

Even an ongoing story will fade if the narrative doesn’t develop obviously enough. Take Iraq. Violence against US forces has dropped dramatically, and the political situation is frozen. Coverage has slowed to a trickle. But elections are scheduled for March, and since the Sunnis and certain Shiite groups are largely being excluded, the voting may spark sectarian conflict to rival the worst we’ve seen. The typical consumer of news will probably be caught by surprise. Perhaps it’s an innately human tendency to deal with problems only when they’ve metastasized. But Canon and Luyendijk earnestly believe that journalists would do well to cover not simply what is happening, but, to the best of their ability, what is relevant or potentially relevant to their readers, whether or not the political and chattering classes, or the guns and airstrips of nations, are quiet for the moment.

____

Luyendijk had already made up his mind to quit when the invasion of Iraq began. He saw the build-up up close, and the fall of Baghdad from a distance. The US set up its press center, superbly equipped, in Kuwait, and later in the Green Zone. Saddam’s atrocities – some committed 15 years before, when he was the beneficiary of US and French aid, as well as the silence of the press – were paraded before viewers and readers. Reporters were embedded but could relay little more than the grind of infantry duty, the violence of war, and the movement of divisions. The US media, already cowed by the nationalism sweeping the country, took up even more rigidly the role of stenographer in the rush to war. The arguments and the “facts” of the White House drowned all opposition. A tiny minority of reporters produced some very good investigative work about the veracity of WMD claims, about the deliberate rush to war, but the bureaucracy of the newsroom and the formulas of objective journalism barred them from a hearing.

Luyendijk turned in his credentials and went home to write his book not long after Saddam’s statue came down. The small size of the crowd surrounding it was concealed by tight camera angles, not for propaganda’s sake, but simply because it made for a better story.


Cannon and Luyendijk

Changing all of this with any degree of intention or forethought may be impossible. Both Cannon and Luyendijk have ideas: less reliance on official sources, more background information, admitting ignorance when necessary. All are unlikely to happen. In the first half of the century reporting was a haphazard and amateur undertaking, but the ossifying forces of professionalization have chiseled the tenets of journalism in stone. The bureaucracy inherent in any large organization inheres to newsrooms like any other, and will bog down the most wide-eyed idealist. These are the institutional barriers. The influence of the market is something that can only be derailed by the most concerted political action, and regulation has no place in journalism. We tend to think of the news, according to the fashion of the moment, as either a business or a public service, but the paradox is that it is both, and the tug-of-war between those twin imperatives will be with us for some time yet. Canon and Luyendijk want news to be a good, not a product. But in America at least, publicly-funded news will not become a serious option until the commercial press has collapsed.

The Internet will be the biggest driver of change in the future, but its path is unknowable. It’s breaking down the monopolies of newspapers and television, and putting up next to the remnants the voices of bloggers, and the 160-character bursts of Twitter users. The potential of the web is vast. Six months ago, amidst government censorship, spying and violence, Twitter – thus far a vehicle for vapid naval-gazing and celebrity worship – allowed vast tracts of the Iranian population to communicate, organize, and nearly topple their government. Astute bloggers regularly correct the omissions and mistakes of the traditional press, and occasionally break stories too. More people than ever are reading the news, and, in some form or another, are having their say.

We can hope – really, that is all we can do – that the destruction wrought by the internet is more creative than that of the market. To lay claim to anything more than an educated guess is foolish: the doomsday scenarios of the internet – a decline in the quality of information, a dearth of resources for investigative journalism, the further Balkanization of readership – seem as likely as the sunniest. If we’re lucky, when the situation stabilizes itself, the system we have will value context over narrative, and truth instead of facts.

____
Greg Waldmann, an Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.

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