Too often, you consumers of mainstream media are victims of a fraud. You think you can trust the articles you read - why wouldn't you? You think you can sift through the ideological bias and just get the facts. But you don't know the ingredients that go into the product you buy. It is important to understand how knowledge about current events in the Middle East is produced before relying on it. Even when there are no apparent ideological biases, such as those one often sees when it comes to reporting about Israel, there are fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level. These create distortions, falsehoods and justify the narrative of those with power.
In discussing the manners in which the Western intelligentsia and media depict the Middle East, the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat complained that two main types of intellectuals tasked with explaining the "other" to Westerners dominate. Firstly, there is what he and Bourdieu, another philosopher, describe as the "negative intellectual" who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state, and centres his perspective on serving the interests of power and gaining proximity to it. And secondly, there is what Burgat terms as "the facade intellectual", whose role in society is to confirm Western audiences with their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and racisms regarding the "other". Journalists writing for the mainstream media, as well as their local interlocutors, often fall into both categories.
A vast literature exists on the impossibility of journalism in its classic, liberal sense with all the familiar tropes on objectivity, neutrality, and "transmitting reality". However, and perhaps out of a lack of an alternative source of legitimation, major mainstream media outlets in the West continue to grasp to these notions with ever more insistence. The Middle East is an exceptionally suitable place for the Western media to learn about itself and its future, because it is the scene where all pretentions of objectivity, neutrality towards power, and critical engagement have faltered spectacularly.
Framing the 'other'
Journalists are the archetype of ideological tools who create culture and produce knowledge. Their function is to represent a class and perpetuate the dominant ideology instead of building a counter hegemonic and revolutionary ideology, or narrative, in this case. They are the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. Instead of being the voice of the people or the working class, journalists are too often the functional tools for a bourgeois ruling class. They produce and disseminate culture and meaning for the system and reproduce its values, allowing it to hegemonise the field of culture and since journalism today has a specific political economy, they are all products of the hegemonic discourse and the moneyed class.
The working class has no networks, that applies too to Hollywood and television entertainment and series; it is all the same intellectuals producing them. Even journalists with pretentions of being serious usually only serve elites and ignore social movements. Journalism tends to be state centric, focusing on elections, institutions, formal politics and overlooking politics of contention, informal politics, social movements.
Those with reputations as brave war reporters who hop around the world, parachuting into conflicts from Yemen to Afghanistan, typically only confirm Americans' views of the world. Journalism simplifies, which means it de-historicises. Journalism in the Middle East is too often a violent act of representation. Western journalists take reality and amputate it, contort it, and fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy.
The American media always want to fit events in the region into an American narrative. The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden was greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulder in the Middle East, where he had always been irrelevant, but for Americans and hence for the American media it was a historic and defining moment which changed everything. Too often contact with the West has defined events in the Middle East, but the so-called Arab Spring with its revolutions and upheavals evokes anxiety among white Americans. They are unsettled with the autogenetic liberation of brown people. However, the Arab Spring may represent a revolutionary transformation of the Arab world, a massive blow to Islamist politics and the renaissance of secular and leftist Arab nationalist politics.
But the American media has been obsessed with Islamists, looking for them behind every demonstration, and the uprisings have been often treated as if they were something threatening. And all too often, it just comes down to "what does this mean for Israel's security?" The aspirations of hundreds of millions of freedom-seeking Arabs are subordinated to the security concerns of five million Jews who colonised Palestine.
There is a strong element of chauvinism and racism behind the reporting. Like American soldiers, American journalists like to use the occasional local word to show they have unlocked the mysteries of the culture. 'Wasta' is one such word. One American bureau chief in Iraq told me that Muqtada al-Sadr had a lot of wasta now so he could prevent a long American presence. 'Inshallah' is another such word. And in Afghanistan it's 'pushtunwali', the secret to understanding Afghans. Islam is also treated like a code that can be unlocked, and then locals can be understood as if they are programmed only through Islam.
Arab culture and Islam are spoken of the way race was once spoken of in India and Africa, and it is difficult to portray Arabs and Muslims as the good guys unless they are "like us" as in Google executives and other elites who speak English, dress trendy and use Facebook. So they are made to represent the revolutions while the poor, the workers, the subalterns, the majority who don't even have internet access let alone twitter accounts, are ignored. And in order to make the revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt seem non-threatening, the nonviolent tactics are emphasised while the many acts of violent resistance to regime oppression are completely ignored. This is not just the journalists' fault. It is driven by American discourse which drives the editors back in New York and Washington.
Read the full article at Al-Jazeera.