Has journalism failed to reflect our harrowing, blood-soaked reality?

Ramzy Baroud

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Media coverage of any subject is as good as the people behind it. When those people are propagandists, sectarian and deliberately skew or drum up their own facts, then the outcome, predictably, becomes a gross mispresenting of reality.

This becomes more urgent when the media coverage pertains to the Middle East, a region that is undergoing a massive upheaval, where violence has grown dramatically in degree and dimension, and where the parties – enemies and allies – are in constant flux.

Indeed, the conflicts inspiring this unprecedented violence are compound, and at times confusing even for those who are familiar with the region and its history. Those with scant knowledge of the Middle East, its old and new wars, must therefore feel lost, despite their efforts to digest the rapidly-moving events.

Mainstream Western media is constantly linking acts of violence in Western countries to the Middle East, to Islamic groups and even to Islam itself. However, it refuses to exercise a minimum degree of integrity regarding how the story is told. Almost always absent from news contexts is the Iraq war, Western military interventions and the backing of corrupt leaders, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the massive shipments of Western weapons constantly dumped in a warring region.

Meanwhile, journalists in the Middle East are blindly following government diktats, praising friends and demonizing enemies, as instructed.

The space for free, independent thinking and bold reading of events is shrinking daily. Those wishing to follow even the minimal standards of journalistic integrity while reporting on the Middle East often find themselves outcast, demonized or marginalized.

But the stakes are too high for good journalism to fail.

Typical newsroom

To begin with, the typical newsroom set-up, where journalists chase after news headlines dictated by some centralized news gathering agency - often based in some Western capital – no longer suffices.

In the Middle East, the news narrative has been prescribed to Arab journalists and audiences for far too long. This hardly worked in the past but, in the last a few years, has become even more outdated and costly.

There are millions of victims throughout the Middle East region, numerous bereaved families, constant streams of refugees and a human toll that cannot be understood or expressed through typical media narration: a typical headline, limited quotations and a paragraph or two by way of providing context.

The price is too high for this kind of lazy journalism. Journalism needs to be fundamentally redefined by those who are experiencing war, who understand the pulse of the region, fathom the culture and speak the language of the people.

I insist, however, that journalism has not failed. We did! We are the ones still unable to appreciate the gravity of what has befallen our region and, by extension, the world at large. We are the ones still singing the praises of the elites and defending the interests of the few.

Dr. Ramzy Baroud

The Arab people have indeed spoken and, for years, their words were filled with anger and hope. The haunting cries of Syrians and other Arab nations will forever define the memories of this generation and the next.

But clearly, journalism today does not reflect this harrowing, blood-soaked reality.

American author and journalist, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Guise of objectivity

But modern journalism - at least, the way it is communicated in the Middle East at the moment - hardly bleeds. Under the guise of objectivity, it remains detached, removed from its immediate reality and rarely expresses the seriousness of this difficult transition of our history.

I insist, however, that journalism has not failed. We did! We are the ones still unable to appreciate the gravity of what has befallen our region and, by extension, the world at large. We are the ones still singing the praises of the elites and defending the interests of the few.

As for the people, if we do not neglect them altogether, then we turn their misery into fodder in our political feuds, while paying little attention to history and assuming that our version thereof is most significant and relevant.

It is no secret that Orientalist history still defines the way that history is written in and about the Middle East. This needs to be rejected, not only as a matter of principle, but also because it is both impractical and false.

This Orientalist depiction has afflicted journalism, as well. Why do we allow others to define who we are when we are in the most urgent need of defining ourselves?

Palestine coverage

Writing on Palestine for nearly 25 years, I have experienced this strange and persistent dichotomy in both journalism and academia. Palestine is reported as a recurring, seemingly never-ending ‘conflict’. Media coverage of the ‘Palestinian-Israeli conflict’ always adheres to the same rules, language and stereotypes.

An urgent issue that requires immediate resolution, least because of its regional and global impact, is disregarded as a redundant, uninteresting story.

Many people tend to have short-term memories when the rights of the Palestinians are in question. This feeds quite well into the Israeli narrative, which has aimed to displace Palestinian history altogether, and replace it with something entirely different - a falsified history.

And this rewriting of history is ongoing and has tainted the present as well.

How can journalists then unearth the seemingly complex truth, without understanding history – not the version conveniently fashioned by Israel, but the history of pain, suffering and the ongoing struggle of the Palestinians?

This kind of reporting without fully fathoming the historical roots of the tragic story, is to merely be content with providing a superficial account of the conflict, one which often favors the Israeli side and demonizes the Palestinians.

Journalism is still failing to break the stronghold of the old paradigm that relegates the people and focuses, instead, on the rulers, politicians, governments and business elites.

This is the media version of what is known in academia as the ‘Great Man Theory’ - a defunct discipline that is sadly used abundantly in the Arab press.

But without the people there is no history, there is no story to be written and no change to be expected.

Indian author and commentator Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying, “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

The Arab people already have a voice, and an articulate one. But that voice has been deliberately muted through a massive campaign of misinformation, distortion and misrepresentation.

For example, when Israel and its allies say ‘Palestinians are not a people’, they are essentially saying that Palestinians have no identity, no legitimate demands, thus deserve no voice.

When the media silences the voice of the Arab people, they relegate their rights, demands for freedom, change and democracy.
Our answer should not be speaking on behalf of the people, but actually listening to them; empowering their voices so that they articulate their own aspirations and rightful demands, and express their own identity.

Journalism should not be a purely technical profession, a skill to be honed without compassion and a deep understanding of the past and the present.

For journalists to be relevant, they need to understand that a narrative is lacking if it does not begin and end with the people whose story should never be a soundbite, but one rooted in a complex reality, in which history should take center-stage.

When entire nations are bleeding, it then becomes necessary for journalists to heed Hemingway’s advice: “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and his latest “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net and he tweets @RamzyBaroud.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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