Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt's Stillborn Revolution, and the American Media

Pan-Arab news outlet al-Jazeera alleges American coverage of the events in Egypt to have been both “pessimistic and superficial.” “Superficial” because the US media lacked a deep understanding of the Middle East, and “pessimistic” because they stultified the possibility of the Egyptian upheavals resulting in regime change. This, according to al-Jazeera, stunted the Egyptian Revolution’s momentum, and “killed it in its cradle.” This culture of piling onto others the blame for one’s own misfortunes and shortcomings is perhaps not surprising coming from al-Jazeera. A news outlet that thrives on conspiracy theories, and which takes kindly to claims of Zionist tentacles dominating the world, is hardly out of character suggesting an imperialistic American cabal behind Egypt’s “stillborn revolution.” The Middle East’s steady red-meat diet of misinformation—the kind that has many Muslims and Arabophones persuaded that the 9/11 attacks, for instance, were the result of a plot hatched up by the CIA and Mossad—is due in no small part to al-Jazeera’s brand of journalism.

But to its credit, al-Jazeera’s allegations against the American media’s “superficiality” are spot on and well deserved. However, this coverage is far from “pessimistic,” let alone is it biased against Egyptian demonstrators. If anything, American journalists have displayed Pollyannaish credulity in their optimism and in the invigorating approbation they lent the “Egyptian street.” Although inappropriate, this was perhaps not unwarranted. One has to be made from stone to remain unmoved by the inspiring tenacity and energy exuding Tahrir Square. Indeed, eschewing all pretense of journalistic impartiality, seasoned reporters from Christiane Amanpour to Anderson Cooper barely contained their glee at the sight of young idealistic Egyptians braving all barriers of fear, staring their oppressors down, demanding an end to their servitude. At one point during the unrest in Cairo, as pro-Mubarak bands took to engaging demonstrators in open physical confrontations, most American news outlets covering the events, with both conservative and liberal bents, began referring to the pro-government groups as “agitators,” “thugs,” and “goon squads,” whereas the anti-government crowds remained anodyne starry-eyed “demonstrators.”

But what is the reporter’s craft anyway? Should reporters be judged by the level of optimism or pessimism emanating from their news coverage (as the venerable al-Jazeera seemed to advocate,) or by the objective quality of the coverage itself? Indeed, it can be argued that reporters have a responsibility to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but to be rather skeptical. A reporter’s job is to “relay,” “present,” and—wait for it—“report” information to the public, not weigh in on peoples and events, or pass value judgment and conjecture on “revolutions,” their trajectories, or their aftermath. Conjecture is for analysts, not news reporters, and not the news media. Dragnet’s “just the facts ma’am, just the facts” is as much an American journalistic aphorism as are the famous five W’s. In the Arabophone media, however, things might be slightly more complicated. The very word “correspondent” or “reporter” in Arabic is rendered “muraasil”; an active participle related to the noun “rassuul” or “apostle”, with the semantic connotation of a person who arguably not only “reports the news,” but who also “proselytizes” and “advocates.”

For all their shortcomings and biases, the American media remain a varied and richly textured lot, shorn from the same cloth as the American public itself. Whether in the mainstream print and audio-visual media, or in alternative outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and other web-based news sources, the US media are a laissez-faire, open and free marketplace of information and ideas, answerable to no government and no one political tendency. And contrary to their counterparts in the Arab-defined Middle East, the American media are not a government mouthpiece, nor a government-sponsored propaganda machine spewing scripted party lines, flattering obscurantist police states, and placating subdued masses.

For the rest, the Egyptian demonstrations, prematurely billed a revolution, were perhaps doomed to failure from the outset. They hardly needed an American media cabal—or calculated American pessimism—to sap their momentum and bring them down. To a great extent, revolutions succeed when the repressive regimes they seek to dismantle begin opening up and liberalizing, long before any sort of rebellions begin taking shape. This was perhaps the case with Tunisia! This was certainly the case with the French Revolution of 1789, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and certainly the 1989 Eastern Bloc Revolutions that dismantled the Soviet order—the upheavals to which today’s Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings are being wrongly compared.

Studying Latin for four years might give one access to a Virgil or a Livy, not to the streets of modern Naples or Milan. Similarly, studying Arabic for four years might give access to al-Jazeera but hardly to the streets of Damascus or Cairo. It is depressingly frustrating to watch (well-meaning) US correspondents attempt to translate, by way of their stilted textual Arabic, the raw emotions of young Egyptians shouting years of pent up frustrations in primal vernacular languages. In that sense, al-Jazeera is justified in complaining of America’s “superficial” coverage and understanding of the Middle East. But to complain of some American cabal, or a journalistic “pessimism” meant to snuff out Egypt’s democracy flame not only misses the whole point, and the very role of journalism; it distorts the reality of American reporting, which, albeit imperfect, has been remarkably sympathetic to Egypt’s travails, and to the Egyptians' freedom march.

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