Saturday, October 03, 2009

REVIEW: Correspondent's ugly truth

Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East
Joris Luyendijk
Scribe, 243pp, $29.95

The Pope had just delivered his Regensburg address. The entire Islamic world (whatever that means) was up in arms. Churches were ablaze, nuns shot, flags and effigies in flames. Or so we in the West were told.

One such article reached my attention. It was accompanied by a photo taking up a quarter of the tabloid page and showing angry men in Basra burning effigies of the Pope and former President Bush. The caption read: “Muslims in Basra hold massive protest against Pope’s recent lecture”. The headline was “Muslim fury against Pope”.

It wasn’t until the 9th paragraph that the article noted that some 300 people had gathered at the protest. Basra is a city of some 3 million. As Americans would say: “Do the math”. This was no massive protest.

My attempt at critiquing the work of the foreign correspondent reporting this story could be dismissed as the rant of a Crikey-reading (and in my case, writing) amateur. We know what good foreign correspondents do. As Joris Luyendijk notes, the occupants of editorial ivory towers want average punters like me to believe that

... [j]ournalists know what’s going on in the world … the news gives an overview of these events, and it is possible to keep that overview objective.

Journalists are the gatekeepers of truth and perspective on world events.

Luyendijk also shared this common person’s perspective when he was an Arabic-speaking anthropology graduate employed by a major Dutch newspaper and broadcaster to be their Middle Eastern correspondent in 1998. After 5 years, Luyendijk through in the towel just as American troops foolishly threw an American flag over the falling statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after temporarily winning the war in Iraq. You’d think that would be the worst time for Luyendijk to leave the fray, just as all the uncivilised action was starting in the cradle of civilisation.

Here’s how Luyendijk describes CNN’s version:

We saw the colossal statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Firdos (Paradise) Square in Baghdad . Jubiland Iraqis screamed into the camera lens and struck the icon with their shoes. ‘Thank you, Mister Bush!’ The presenter solemnly described it as an ‘historic moment’ – the war was over. They could put the nightmare of Saddam Hussein behind them. Baghdad was celebrating its liberation …

And what about al-Jazeera? Luyendijk writes:

They were showing Firdos Square, too, but their montage offered a different slant. In the same square, we saw American soldiers triumphantly throwing an American flag over the statue of Saddam. Then we were shown feverish discussions and the American soldiers rushing to remove the flag. Al-Jazeera went on to show the jubilant Iraqis from CNN, only they were shot from a longer range: you could see how few there were actually standing in the square, and that most of the people were watching from a safe distance.

Joris Luyendijk provides a highly accessible, irreverent and light-hearted account of the realities of life as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is more a book about than of journalism. He describes the secrets, shortcuts and tricks of the trade used by foreign correspondents for both print, radio and television audiences. This includes regurgitating the content of wire service reports in a manner that, if done in an academic context, would almost certainly be considered plagiarism. Luyendijk’s news agenda about events in Baghdad or Ramallah would not be set in Baghdad or Ramallah but rather by a foreign editor in Amsterdam who had probably never been to Baghdad or Ramallah.

Luyendijk soon learns that

... the basic task of being a correspondent is not that difficult. The editor … called when something happened, they faxed or emailed the press releases, and I’d retell them in my own words on the radio, or rework them into an article for the newspapers.

Occasionally the correspondent would make use of the list of “talking heads” – diplomats (always Western ones), academics, UN workers and human rights activists on the payroll of Western countries - for obtaining “on the ground” perspectives. Otherwise, the role of a correspondent was merely to be the person at the end of the news assembly line.

Foreign correspondents and editors who take themselves too seriously may not enjoy reading Luyendijk’s descriptions about the insensitivity they show when checking into five star hotels whilst on assignment in impoverished war zones, or of their responses to the commencement of American bombing in Iraq in 2003:

... a wave of suppressed relief swept over the correspondents … No bombing would have meant no work, after money had already been spent on coming to Amman.

Or how about this hilarious description of Western journalists in the office of the Iraqi Consul trying to secure a visa to Iraq on the eve of the invasion:

We jostled [the Consul] like children clustering around a dubious-looking man with candy … I saw grown men in tears by the embassy gates when they discovered they’d be reduced to peering through the fence.

Luyendijk discovered that as he travelled to different hotspots and spoke to ordinary people, there were so many stories far more interesting and enlightening to tell than just which agreements were reached between what leaders and what accusations they made against each other when the deals inevitably became unstuck.

As a correspondent, I could tell different stories about the same situation. The media could only choose one, and it was often the story that confirmed a commonly held notion …

So the impact of conventional media processes was to confirm pre-existing stereotypes. Luyendikj’s book cleverly dispels not just our (generally negative) stereotypes about Arabs, Israelis and Muslims but also our (both positive and negative) stereotypes about journalists. A highlight of the book is the regular sprinkling of Arab jokes about dictators and secret police and even Israeli jokes about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. People don’t just weep and burn flags in this part of the world.

This book was first published in Dutch as Het zijn net mensen (roughly “People Like Us”). A veteran correspondent who had seen his best friend had died in the Iraq-Iran war gave Luyendijk this piece of advice:

If you want to write a book about the Middle East, you’d better do it in your first week. The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.

After finishing this book, readers will be glad Luyendijk didn’t take this advice. This is an outstanding book on the limitations of reportage in the world’s perennial trouble spot. Or as Luyendijk repeatedly reminds us, in the Middle East

... good journalism is a contradiction in terms.

Irfan Yusuf is the author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist. An edited version of this review was first published in The Australian on 3 October 2009.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

Apologies for the corny retro music in this video!

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