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Why It's Important To Watch Middle Eastern News Coverage With a Critical Eye

09/11/2014 05:35 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST

"Put simply, American journalists are interested in only two topics in the Middle East: Israel and the United States." - Daniel Pipes, 1984.

The most recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the rise of the Islamic State, the Civil War in Syria, the Arab Spring and its ensuing upheaval, not forgetting the decade-long Iraq war, have steadily kept the Middle East in the news in recent years. While we grow increasingly critical of our respective national media landscapes, we ought to ask: are Daniel Pipes' comments about mainstream media and American journalists' coverage of the Middle East in 1984 still accurate today? Written during the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War and after the Beirut barracks bombings, as many American journalists and major news outlets were on the ground, Daniel Pipes 'The Media and the Middle East' article published in Commentary Magazine in 1984 highlighted the myopia and some form of narcissism by the American mainstream media.

Pipes went further: "Whatever takes place that is related to these countries (Israel and the United States) is amplified and broadcast to the world; whatever does not is virtually ignored", speaking to the power of the American media over other media outlets around the world. In the age of online media, independent journalism and citizen journalism, it would seem that such dominance by the mainstream media, if it can still be felt, has given away some of its influence, even if it was forced to by new technologies and an evolving industry shifting the focus away from major outlets. Despite the serious risks involved, freelance and citizen journalists in Syria and the wider Middle East, all the way into the Maghreb, covering the Arab Spring has given the American public and the rest of the world a diversified and wider coverage of the events than the American-centric media was providing in 1984.

The Freelancer: Stealing the Show?

New problems arise, however, as major media outlets, with all their inherent biases, have deserted war zones such as Syria leaving the field to independent freelancers who themselves become the story. Now that foreign journalists are targets in war zones, their own personal journey makes the headlines almost as often as the topic they cover. In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review entitled "Woman's work", Francesca Borri described how her editor asked her to "tweet" her captivity when he thought she'd been kidnapped (she wasn't), effectively making her the topic of the story. A 25-year-old community-support officer in London, U.K. at the beginning of the current conflict in Syria, Sunil Patel's article title; "I Went to Syria to Learn How to Be a Journalist And Failed Miserably at It While Almost Dying a Bunch of Times", is exactly what it sounds like: an increased focus on the journalist himself and his adventures in a war zone.

The death of the epitome of the war journalist, the pirate eye-patch wearing journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik that made the headlines in February 2012, if unavoidable and understandable, demonstrate how much of the focus can be redirected from the topic to be covered, to the journalists covering the story. This is not a judgment of such a phenomena, but perhaps freelance war journalists are now more than ever part of the story, therefore part of the war they cover, as they set foot in such territory. Inevitably and most likely inadvertently, such patterns of emphasizing the man or the woman behind the camera or the keyboard takes the focus away from the complex nature of the wars they cover as it is often much easier for readers and editor to identify and sell such stories of maverick, 'fearless' freelancers.

If we have improved moved away, at least slightly, from American-centric media image of the world and the Middle East, it seems we still have problems getting all the necessary coverage. Paradoxically, the advent of the freelancer gave us new innovative, homegrown, ways to access new insights into events such as the Arab Spring, the Syrian War and the Gaza War while the adventurer, risk-taker, courageous, if naïve, persona of the freelancer often became the story, distorting and obstructing the deeper story.

Arab news networks and satellite television: an alternative to U.S. MSM?

At the time of Daniel Pipes' article, in 1984, cable television was just beginning its expansion and the internet was far from being the alternative to mainstream media that it is today. The options for the average American viewer were few beyond the big three of NBC, ABC, and CBS. Today, one can access a variety of networks from abroad, Al Jazeera being the first one that comes to most people's minds when it comes to the Middle East as it's also one of the first to burst into the English speaking media realm giving it access to a large audience outside the Middle East. Such foreign satellite networks, often based in the Middle East, offer an alternative to American mainstream media, but their objectivity and journalistic standards may fall below what we would hope for.

The already mentioned Al Jazeera satellite network, just a few days ago, faced a wall of complaints and hostility after it published, than pulled an article, "mocking" and doubting the veracity of the beheading videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff as a "Hollywood" production to justify American intervention in Syria and Irak. If the theory that the executions were faked by Hollywood (and that the journalists were alive) seem far-fetched, it illustrates the ideological line of the network as the influence of Qatar's royalty, the founders of the TV station, can be felt as they may not view an American intervention against the Islamic State favorably.

In a talk given for the Foreign Policy Research Institute on September 26, 2006, Abdallah Schleifer, veteran journalist in the region and university professor at the American University in Cairo summed up Al Jazeera's "dual nature" as striving for "BBC, CNN"-like journalistic ethics while being "shaped by the twin ideological currents of Arab nationalism and Islamism" which hardly results in neutral, objective and insightful reporting. Such ideological media coverage has concrete political social consequences. Schleifer states how certain stories that would seem sympathetic to "jews" or Israel is "not convenient to Arab media, which embraces and at times incites the street's take on Palestine". Such instrumentalization of the conflict by the media in the region is made possible by maintaining a narrow and ideological view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrating how the dangerous mixture of politics, media and ideology is not the solely present in Western media. If Pipes is right about America's media narrow focus on itself, Schleifer is even more critical of the "disregard for truth and accuracy" of Arab media as "aggravating numerous political and religious pathologies".

All is not lost however as the rise of satellite TV gave new means to the multiple voices in the region to avoid state control from the various oppressive regimes, although sometimes who finances such satellite networks push an agenda of their own. PBS TV producer Jamal Dajani has a positive outlook on the booming Arab satellite television as it "provides a window on what close to 300 million people in the Middle East see on a daily basis", something that was impossible not long ago. Arab satellite TV, as it does in the U.S., is likely to evolved into offering more and more outlets of various kind, themselves offering various degrees of journalism, from high to low standards.

Therefore, in the Middle East just like in the West, the only remedy to the media's biases is a critical viewership that will hopefully shape what the different networks offer in order to cater to their audience's demands and needs. As the Islamic State is occupying every TV or computer screen through YouTube in the U.S. and around the world by their gruesome display of murders that they hope will further their objectives, a balanced and contextual approach by the media would help tremendously forging a counter-narrative to the IS. Then perhaps we'll be in a better position to judge the quality of the coverage we get from the Middle East.

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