Commentary | The Thomas Friedman paradigm

Flaw and failure in current Middle East coverage

“But, you know what I think about that mess?” The mess my friend referred to is, of course, the Middle East: that “exotic, Oriental” place where nothing can go the right way.

I label such an attitude “the Thomas Friedman paradigm,” or Westerners’ tendency to formulate a general political discourse regarding the affairs of the Middle East, one that is subjective and unqualified.

Friedman has compared the war in Afghanistan to adopting “a special needs baby” countless times, including on CNN and Hardball in December, and in a September column in the New York Times. Not only is it despicable to use mental disability as a pejorative, but this is also an inaccurate generalization about the thousands killed and displaced by this ill thought-out war.

Friedman’s gross assumptions are destructive. Glenn Greenwald noted in the online magazine Salon, “Friedman single-handedly did more than anyone else to convince liberals and Democrats to support the invasion in Iraq.”

Friedman is a model by which the majority of North American correspondents and pundits conduct their affairs on the Middle East. General public discourse regarding the Middle East is shaped by a generally overlapping set of fallacies and non-sequiturs, prompted by those who have never been to the Middle East, let alone learned its languages and cultures. The fallacy that one can do quality journalism based entirely off of second-hand sources, hearsay, and political pronouncements is a standard that reputable newspapers and other media sources would not dare apply to covering China, India, or Russia. Why then must it be the case for the Middle East?
While the Spanish paper El País can find a way to station a Tehran bureau chief in Iran’s repressive journalistic scene, the New York Times’s Nazila Fathi has relocated to Toronto to cover Iran.

European papers in general have a much larger body of correspondents stationed full time in the Middle East. Both Le Monde and Der Spiegel have a dedicated team of reporters and researchers, who have a presence on the ground in most Middle Eastern nations. Le Monde’s reporters Alain Gresh and Eric Rouleau both have a command of the Arabic language and conduct an intelligent debate.

Perhaps the most notable, respectable journalist to North American audiences is Robert Fisk, who I spoke with in Lebanon this January. Speaking directly on the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Fisk stated that previously, reporters had direct contact with warfare. The distance that has been created between the visceral horror of open fire, scattered limbs, of children left bleeding, and the view of the embedded journalist deadens any attempt to understand the pain and humiliation of a people under occupation.

Contemporary journalism, according to Fisk, is too concerned with readership figures and decorum while “asking why” is portrayed as “anti-American, pro-terrorist, and anti-Semitic” – perhaps due to the close relationship modern journalists often have to the institutions and powers they cover. Fisk echoed Malcolm X, stating that coverage of the Middle East must be more than just 50/50: “We should be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer.”

Yet, despite the admirable efforts of these European journalists, the Friedman paradigm still dominates North American discourse. Not once have I read Friedman mention the Lebanese dailies of Al-Akhbar, As-Safir, and An-Nahar as sources. I have yet to see CNN, NBC, or CBS interview one figure from Al-Jazeera, Al Arabiya, or other visual media sources covering the Middle East, despite the wealth of knowledge and insight these sources can provide.

The solution to the problem is utilizing the translation services that are offered for Middle Eastern media sources. Mideastwire is an Internet-based, fee-driven translation service based out of Lebanon. Independent blogs can provide similar access.

Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, offers choice academic and journalistic documents interspersed with analysis readily translated on his home page, the Informed Comment blog. On his blog The Angry Arab, UC Stanislaus professor As’ad AbuKhalil explores Arab sentiments and critiques Western media follies.

Robert Bell is a U1 Middle Eastern Studies student. Write him at robert.bell2@mail.mcgill.ca.


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