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Politics & Policy

The truth is out there

Post 11th September scenario ó what should be the role of media?

From Maliha R. Ilias
Washington DC
Oct 22 - 28, 2001

All of us now know, after Sept. 11th, what it is to thirst for news. What it is to wait for the morning paper and read everything in every magazine or internet site or email so that we can get more informed. What it is to have the crackle of the radio in the background as news pieces pour in. What it is to forget about all the TV dramas and movie shows and music programs and skip right to the news networks. And in all this, two news agencies have figured in as the gods of information, reeling in viewers from every cranny of the globe. CNN and BBC have gone from being watched by the educated, influential business exec types to being the ultimate source of information for every type, shape and form of person in the world.

This is not to say that the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Cable News Network were not well watched before Sept. 11th. Especially CNN gained a lot of audience during the Gulf War. But Sept. 11th has brought these two news giants into everyoneís lives as never before. Everyone switches to these two channels, visits their web sites and depends on their news anchors, reporters and staff to learn about the rapidly changing face of the world. Every morning means something new has happened and CNN and BBC are the first to tell you the whats, the whos, the wheres, the hows and the whys. We, as citizens of the world and less as consumers of the news, have grown dependent on these two news channels to show us the world. We now open CNN and BBC as we once used to open the curtains of our bedrooms in the morning.

News personnel from these two stations have taken over celebrity status during the last few weeks. Everyone knows Paula Zahn, Tim Mintier, Nic Robertson, Christian Amanpour and many others, as we once knew sportsmen, musicians and actors. Although the attention both CNN and BBC have received recently is heady, it brings with it enormous responsibility. When the world hangs on everything you say, you have to be careful what you say and how you say it. The stories that they cover and how they cover them have the power to literally shape world opinion. One controversial footage or one controversial story can cause disruption or ease it in the lives of many people. The questionable footage of Palestinians celebrating in the streets coupled with the word "Islamic terrorists" used by every reporter within hours of the attacks in New York and Washington had dire outcomes for people all over the world. A huge backlash erupted against Muslims and prejudice against Islam and Muslims crept into the hearts of many a liberated nation. Then, tactfully done stories and programs on Islamic beliefs that condemn violence rather than condone it brought relief to many Muslims in the world. People began to study Islam and befriend Muslims around them to dampen the backlash and encourage understanding and friendship. At the same time, investigative reports like the widely watched "Beneath the Veil" caused uproar among Muslims and Non-Muslims alike. People gaped in horror and disbelief. Non-Muslims didnít know what to make of the Taliban and the religion that was their main motivation. Muslims, on the other hand, tried desperately to tell the world that Islam as a religion was very different to the culture practiced by many Muslim countries. Within days, news channels had opened a Pandora box of feelings and attitudes experienced by the whole world. As people watched, horror, anger, resentment, openness, understanding, disgust, shame, confusion and many other emotions flitted to the surface and sat brooding on the shoulders of the world. Thatís the kind of control the media has on us today.

Then the war began. The one-sided war as an angry nation took revenge on an easy target. A strange war as the attacked watched and didnít know what was going to land on them, bombs or relief packages of food. America bombed the Taliban and simultaneously endeavored to feed the Afghanis. As targeted cruise missiles hit the places the American government thought needed to be hit, boxes of food landed in certain areas of the country containing a dayís supply of non-meat food products and leaflets proclaiming "This food is a gift from the United States of America."

In America, the average American woke up on Sunday to see the words "America strikes back" highlighted under CNN reporters. Besides these three words, nothing appeared on the screen or out of the news anchorís mouth to tell people exactly what had been hit, who had been killed and how did they know if they were bombing the right places. All that average Americans got from the news media and then eventually from the Presidentís address to the nation was that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were being sought out and targeted, the Talibanís "air defense system" was being crippled, their "key defenses" were being shut down and all military operations were being carried out by the U.S. with military help from the British and a lot of support from the international coalition. While the details of the actual events and operations were not delved into and the President even refused to share information with Congress, the news channels were more interested in covering the relief effort. Americans knew more about what kind of food was in the relief packages than they knew about the number of civilians who were at risk in Afghanistan. Americans were called on to pray for the Afghani civilians, especially women and children and just recently the President has called on the children of America to establish an American Fund for the Afghan Children.

Although the war on foreign ground is not being openly discussed with the general public in America, they have however been given another war to deal with. The war on the home front, which translates to more terrorist attacks on Americans in the future and which has left the already horrified nation panic-stricken. Headlines in major newspapers say things like "Red Alert" (New York Post 10/12/01) and "Terrorist Attacks Imminent" (Washington Post 10/12/01). As if the threat of biochemical terrorism was not enough to make Americans hysterical, the new threat of more terrorist attacks like the ones on Sept. 11th have left many paranoid and shaken. "People are scared to go to their mailboxes," says Oprah Winfrey, a prominent American talk show host, in the wake of the many cases of anthrax infection erupting across America. Gas masks are flying off the shelves and fire fighters are bringing home their protective gear for their families. Furthermore, new and more complicated threats are also surfacing for example the threat of computer terrorism where officials fear that computer viruses might be used by terrorists to disrupt life in America.

On top of all this, in President Bushís first press conference since the beginning of the American military operation in Afghanistan, Bush urged Americans that if they "see something suspicious, abnormal, something that looks threatening" to "report it to local law enforcement." Thank goodness he also remembered to "urge" "Americans not to use this is an excuse to pick on somebody that doesnít look like you or doesnít share your religion." Otherwise, the way that the media has managed to exacerbate mass paranoia among people of this country, I wouldnít be surprised if the FBI were called in because someone had seen a bearded man brush his teeth on his porch.

Now lets change gears and backtrack to Sunday Oct. 7th, when the military operation against Afghanistan began. Out of the blue came this new TV station which aired a tape of Osama bin Laden urging the Muslim world to react, respond and retaliate. Most people watched this tape on CNN on the day America began its attacks and wondered what on earth was the Arabic writing all over the screen. Enter Al-Jazeera, the new player in this game of information mongering. Suddenly, "The West tunes in to Al-Jazeera"(Dobbs. Washington Post. 10/9/01). Everyone was interested in this new 24-hour satellite news station that was more well known, despite its young age, than its host country, Qatar. It was amusing to read how, in its short life, this all-Arabic news station that operated from within a country of 600,000 "with little tradition of press freedom" has managed to "irritate just about everybody from the U.S. State Department to Muslim fundamentalists to Saudi Arabia and the conservative Arab sheikdoms of the Gulf" (Dobbs. Washington Post. 10/9/01).

At this moment of crisis when the world thirsts for every piece of news, Al-Jazeera is the only channel with any journalistic links to al-Qaeda and inside Afghanistan. Thus, Al-Jazeera is gaining the kind of importance acquired by CNN during the Gulf war. But Al-Jazeeraís coverage of bin Laden and Afghanistan during wartime has not only brought it to the attention of the worldís news consumers but also to the attention of the American officials. Secretary Powell lost no time in expressing his concern to the emir of Qatar that by airing messages of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the network might be doing bin Ladenís job for him by spreading his propaganda message. Later, American officials openly urged American news networks to exercise caution in airing bin Ladenís messages which were at best propaganda and at worst direct signals to al-Qaeda members to put more terrorist attacks into action. When the Committee to Protect Journalists rushed to defend Al-Jazeera, an American official commented, "We want to see balanced and responsible coverage" (Dobbs. Washington Post. 10/9/01).

My question is what is responsible coverage? Surely airing footage of celebrating Palestinians hours after the horrible attacks on America is far from "responsible coverage." Does "balanced and responsible coverage" include pointing fingers at "Islamic fundamentalism" within hours of the attack and before the collection of evidence ? Donít programs like "Beneath the Veil", that disgust and confuse Non-Muslims about the treatment of women in Islam, qualify as propaganda ? Does focusing on one aspect of the war and not the other mean "balanced coverage?" Is involving audiences in their own safety at the expense of telling them about others who are equally innocent civilians and already in harmís way, "balanced coverage?" Does exacerbating public fear and increasing public paranoia by covering even the tiniest threats equate to "responsible coverage?" If we do not argue with the way news has been given to us for so long, then should we be so quick to shun any news item ?

Isnít journalism a pursuit of the true story from all possible perspectives with no biases? Then how is Al-Jazeera any different from any other network. "So what if he (Tayseer Allouni, the Syrian who is the only reporter in Kabul right now) has a beard?" argues Yosri Fouda,Al-Jazeerí London bureau chief and a former BBC reporter. "Itís like Christian Amanpour (CNNís chief international reporter) putting on a head scarf when she goes to Iran as a mark of respect to Islam" (Dobbs. Washington Post. 10/9/01). "Bin Laden talks to us for the same reason that Colin Powell talks to us or Shimon Peres talks to us. He wants to get his message across to the Arab world" (Dobbs. Washington Post. 10/9/01).

I think that Foudaís words are profound in the context of journalistic virtue and freedom. Reporting is not about taking sides or about highlighting some things at the expense of others. Journalism is all about covering the black, the white and the gray because all three colors exist in the world. As Chris Carterís once hit TV show "The X-Files" proclaimed, "The Truth if Out There." I believe that everyone has the right to go find it.