“BENTLEY [a journalist, based on the American journalist Lowell Thomas]: “Your Highness, we Americans were once a colonial people and we naturally feel sympathetic to any people, anywhere, who are struggling for their freedom.
“FEISAL [later king of Iraq]: Very gratifying.
“BENTLEY: Also, my interests are the same as yours. You want your story told: I badly want a story to tell….It’s very simple, sir. I’m looking for a hero.”
–“Lawrence of Arabia”
By Barry Rubin
A reader asks me: But why is media reporting so bad (obviously with many honorable exceptions). I first wrote on this topic back in 1974. Then, however, the problems were traditional ones: the need to write and publish quickly (of course, a process sped up by new technologies), lack of familiarity with other countries and cultures, and so on.
But in the last decade or so, there has been a whole new layer of problems that can be summed up as follows:
A. Ignorance, partly due to the decline of the American educational system.
B. Stupidity, naivete, and laziness, the latter being a far more important factor than people suspect. How many journalists, for example, have done even a few hours real research on the Muslim Brotherhood in the last three months. Or as a New York Times journalist explained, it is a conspiracy theory to say that the Muslim Brotherhood was deeply involved in Egypt’s revolution because everyone who he interviewed in Tahrir Square told him they weren’t members of the Brotherhood.
C. Disinterest in anything not said in English. Extremist forces call for murdering Americans in Arabic, then preach peace and love in English to a reporter. Guess which of these statements does and doesn’t get published in the Western media.
D. Ideological misconception. Mistaken ideas that mislead people, a problem that has grown sharply in our time.
E. A post-liberal philosophy that says journalists and editors can use the media to promote their personal and political views, turning reporting into propagandizing. The New York Times could change its motto to “All the news we want to print (in order to further the ideas and movements we support).” Journalists of the past would be scandalized to see how far this process has gone.
F. A political partisanship that has exceeded all previous bounds–or at least since the early nineteenth century press–in which “friends” must be made into heroes and enemies must be made into “villains.” When I read many articles I’m astonished at the overkill, in which the journalist throws in all sorts of adjectives and nuances to the point where the pieces read like satire.
G. A post-liberal philosophy that replaces the public’s need to know with the public’s need to be manipulated for its “own good.” For example, their argument runs: If we told them the truth the masses might become anti-Muslim bigots and racists so we better not mention that a lot of terrorists tend to be Muslims whose ideology is based on their interpretation of Islam.
This is applied to many other issues. It is often called Political Correctness, but I think that’s misleading, it goes far beyond avoiding offending anyone and has become trying to shape the political scene. That is not the job of reporters. Their job is to be Factually Correct. And these two philosophies are quite contradictory.
H. The fact that editors have joined in with this process, passing articles (or even making them worse) that would have gotten a reporter fired for ridiculously extreme bias years ago.
I. The broad nature of this process, the abandonment of professional ethics by so many (including the near-death of real diversity in academia), and the “discrediting” of anyone with a different point of view makes journalists know that they won’t be criticized or their careers jeopardized by misbehavior. This situation is the exact opposite of what it was in the past.
What is astonishing to me is that perhaps half of the American people have not noticed many or most of these changes. But agreeing with the media’s politics is no excuse to see the current situation as acceptable. I still believe that liberal values require fairness and balance, not just cheering on one’s own side.
While some bias is inevitable, the system’s duty is to work hard to limit it to the greatest possible extent and provide–dare I say it?–diversity not based on religion, gender, race, or national origin BUT diversity based on people having different viewpoints. Otherwise what exists is NOT multiculturalism but uniculturalism.
Having a quota for each “category” of human being when virtually everyone among them has the same political stance is NOT diversity but merely superficial variety. Having a situation in which if people differ they lose their jobs (see Juan Williams and NPR) or have no career to begin with is not something to be celebrated.
After all, this destroys the ability of democracy to function in three ways.
First, the free marketplace of ideas is supposed to benefit a society by developing new ideas and having the best ones win out. It would be amusing if not horrifying that the main program of the current elite seems to be to close down Fox and break up talk radio. In other words, not to strive for true openness and diversity but to eliminate those few remaining (albeit popular with the public) sectors that interfere with the existence of a monopoly.
Second, the “objectivity” of the media is supposed to letsthe public make a choice about what to believe based on accurate information rather than being an effort to indoctrinate the people.
Third, the willingness to criticize the shortcomings of all views helps a society correct its mistakes.
These three factors are vital in making democracy superior to dictatorships that make dumb policy and ideological mistakes and end up in the dustbin of history. That might be a hint as to where the current system is heading if things don’t improve.
PS: Starting roughly a quarter-century ago, there began to be a significant issue of media bias against Israel. We saw it, correctly at the start, as an isolated problem. What’s happened since then, however, is that this treatment has spread to dozens of other issues. Israel was the canary in the coal mine whose warning was ignored. Since then the mine has collapsed, trapping us all.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.