I have been shocked by the shallow way the Western media has covered the political situation in Cairo since the coup against former President Mursi.
One would never know from reading The New York Times editorials and a good deal of its coverage – along with that of other leading news organizations – that the Egyptian armed forces had moved against a political movement attempting to impose an authoritarian regime on the country.
One would never know that, aside from coached demonstrators, the exultation stirring the crowd at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp was for martyrdom and not really for democracy.
One would never know, until pollsters finally released data on the subject, that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians were opposed to Muslim Brotherhood (MB) sit-ins and marches. These disrupted both the traffic and a more general recovery in tourism, investment, job creation, law and order – leading to calls for the sit-ins to end, one way or another.
One would never know, given the absence of any real political parties with grassroots support aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, that the Egyptian army – with its massive number of conscripts and status as a symbol of Egyptian independence – is the most significant popular institution in this country, along with al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic institution.
One would never know any of this, because it was a military intervention which deposed Mursi – and not a bloody civil war between a couple of million MB and allied Salafi supporters, and the many, many more opposed to the drift to an Islamist dictatorship. And that – a civil war – is something media can focus on.
From much of the Western coverage, few would recall how press freedom was undermined during Mursi’s one-year rule. This was overshadowed in reports of how the army closed down MB media outlets after Mursi’s ouster. However, tomorrow that period will be surveyed, along with the present situation, in a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report called “On the divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt”.
Uncomfortable with the military
The skewed media coverage of Egypt is partly due to something intrinsic in journalism, which makes so many of its practitioners uncomfortable or hostile to a professional army. Some Western journalists –Americans in particular – make psychological associations between military forces and the U.S. Army’s role in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many aspects of the media and military are at polar opposites. Skepticism is a necessary journalistic virtue, versus honor and respect for one’s superior officers in the military. ‘Nothing is sacred’ is a plausible perspective for journalists, in the impromptu atmosphere of the newsroom. Compare this with the sacred duty, or ritual-like ceremonies of the military: the raising and lowering of the flag, and the solemn honor guards escorting army parades.
Journalists react with great speed to an event: the need to scoop the competition is a journalistic virtue. But armies need cautious deliberation in actions that can mean death and destruction.
Military principles seem distant to the media in America and Europe, where conscription ended years ago and nearly all journalists are too young to identify with the critical role played by U.S. armed forces in defeating the Nazis during World War II.
So in coverage of Egypt, the journalists face something unknowable and incongruous to them – the military.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”