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Absorbing Foreign Media Coverage Vital for Syria Context

By Ben L. Kaufman · September 19th, 2013 · On Second Thought
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Even if you embrace what Obama says is our moral duty to bomb Syria’s president into civilized behavior, perspectives from outside the White House are vital; context counts.

Even as diplomats explore the Kerry/Putin suggestion that Assad let outsiders take and destroy his chemical weapons, Obama continues to threaten Syria. 

He isn’t wrong in the sense that you defeat the enemy and dictate terms or keep up the pressure to negotiate. It may be the ultimate “no pain, no gain.”

I’m following this largely on foreign news sites. Their reporting and commentaries are a 21st century version of 1960s bar talk among correspondents at Rome’s Stampa Estera, the Foreign Press Club where I also learned the peril of running a tab. 

For a news junkie, the Internet helps me understand the Middle East where someone always seems ready to make life miserable for someone else. 

My daily virtual Fertile Crescent tour begins with Qatari-owned english.aljazeera.net and the Saudi alarabiya.net/english. Hardly dispassionate and objective observers, they sometimes are players. We saw that during the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and revolution in Egypt. These sites take sides without apology or subtlety. 

Other online sites that I check regularly include those maintained by dailies: Jerusalem Post, Hurriyet from Turkey, Lebanese Daily Star, Egyptian Daily News, and Saudi Gazette

My choices are somewhat random. When I run across a site that seems useful, I bookmark it. My list is hardly exhaustive. And I understand that I’m a prisoner of my inability to read Arabic or Turkish. I have no idea what these media are telling their home readers. However, context includes what these publications want me to know. This complements traditional and online American news media that tell us whatever the White House wants us to know.  

Most of the time, English-language websites concentrate on their domestic affairs, sports, fashion, etc. Some days, their reporting and commentaries about regional politics break from the predictable. 

When Russia’s Putin ran with Kerry’s remark about sequestering Assad’s chemical arsenal, these online sites couldn’t agree whether that suggestion was newsworthy, desirable or possible. 

At least one said more massacres were likely regardless of whether Assad gave up his chemical weapons and a Saudi site didn’t even mention the Kerry/Putin idea.

 

Chief among those bylines I read for good sense is Rami Khouri in Beirut’s Daily Star. For instance, one recent twice-weekly column described impotence and resentment felt by Arabs on the receiving end of U.S. missiles. 

Khouri noted how the latest White House rationalizations recalled those that accompanied earlier attacks on Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, etc.  These justifications, he added, reflect centuries of European and more recently American interventions in Arab affairs and Muslim Afghanistan. 

When he wrote that, Khouri had every reason to anticipate a U.S. attack on Syria where Damascus is a taxi ride from Beirut.

Khouri didn’t have to invoke Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) or the secret (1916) Sykes-Picot treaty in which Britain and France divided up the crumbling, impotent Ottoman Empire during World War I. Those and fresher humiliations are living history.  

Websites from the region also reflect resentment over “international norms” and “civilization” as demeaning lessons Western nations must teach Arabs rulers and peoples. It’s not that great a reach from today’s “norms” to Kipling’s memorable phrase, “white man’s burden,” in 1899. 

That said, by the time I go to the Internet, I’ve read the Enquirer and New York Times over my mug of black Ceylon tea laced with sugar and milk and I’ve probably listened to BBC’s overnight World Service and NPR’s Morning Edition on WVXU-FM. 

TV is not a vital contribution to context. Bean-counting networks retreated long ago from any pretense of authoritative coverage of the Middle East. 

Worse, TV’s need for vivid images makes it vulnerable to manipulation by partisans and co-opted local stringers who provide video. The inability to verify what we’re shown and/or to understand what is being said adds to this risk. 

Still, images count. Our hesitant march toward war on Syria has been fueled by partisans’ Internet images of chemical attack victims. After all, no one suggested bombing Assad when victims of earlier chemical attacks weren’t on YouTube.  

On that point, Jerry Springer once told my journalism ethics class, “TV images are true but not accurate, and accurate but not true.” An example involved one American network clip of  a gunman in the middle of a Beirut street firing his Kalashnikov. However, another American network showed the same action but its videographer zoomed back to show shoppers at endless stalls and men washing their cars along the curb. 

In addition to Israeli, Arab and Turkish reporting and commentary, the Internet gives me the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and major British dailies: conservative Times and Telegraph, liberal Guardian and Independent and the populist Daily Mail.  

They merrily grind their axes and offer different sources: military, human rights groups, exporters, etc. Unlike American papers and networks, these papers (and BBC) often have veteran resident correspondents in the area like the Independent’s Robert Fisk. 

And given Paris’ long involvement in Syria after World War I, France24.com provides further insights.

Given the alternative of depending on American news media for reporting and context, time spent on these Internet sites is a good investment.



CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



 
 
 
 

 

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