In my first days back from the Middle East, there was one, rather insubstantial, question I answered more than any other: “Is it really how it is on television?” It is a question that raises a slew of other questions and cannot satisfactorily be answered. Lucky for me, the typical questioner was only asking for effect. He wanted me to know that he was no dummy; he realized news media reports are flawed and biased and that there is certainly more to the stories than they could possibly report.
Never mind that by allowing mainstream news media to define the issues in the first place, a reader is already privileging the journalist’s point of view, whether he decides to agree with it or not. What newspapers report is substantially detached from what things really are like. Rather, it is a stylized interpretation catered to certain specific purposes. By itself, this is no condemnation of the news’ value: on most topics, we can read news as a source, perhaps be a little skeptical about it, and walk away satisfied. Alas, it is not so with U.S. reporting on the Middle East.
Here is why. First, U.S. news sources usually use their own correspondents, which they send to various regions, to cover news. Historians spend lifetimes studying a region before making any claims about truth, and this is about things that happened long ago; how a journalist could, in good faith, spend six months in a country and claim to report contemporary truths (news), I do not know. European papers often have permanent correspondents, or they contract stories to reliable sources inside the country. U.S. news sources are simply content with less.
Now, because of dangers associated with covering the region, many news agencies will not risk their “expert” journalists on the front, and instead will report truth at second-hand based on egregiously biased sources. Please recall the frustrating episode 10 months ago, when The New York Times erroneously reported the number of people at an anti-U.S. rally in Teheran by a factor of 10. Their source: a liaison for the Iranian government.
These problems, in turn, are compounded by Arabic’s Semitic grammatical structure and script, which makes the language notoriously difficult for English-speakers to understand, much less speak.
Each of these factors is a possible source for error. In and of themselves, they do not guarantee biased news reporting. But U.S. news reporting has a built-in source of bias, which exploits each of these factors to the fullest: news is business and it has to sell. I am not suggesting state-sponsored papers. I am merely stating a fact that must be taken into consideration, rather than ignored.
The things I saw in the Middle East, as far as politics and society are concerned, served as new evidence to fit into my old arguments. What’s best, it all comes with a handy “I experienced it and you didn’t” card, which I will continue to hold over the heads of others for years to come. None of this is surprising: self-importance and pomposity are traits I hold in common with the entire human race (New York Times correspondents not being exempt).
My most surprising impression of the Middle East was thoroughly underwhelming. I saw many teenagers standing around street corners because they do not have anything to do, wearing shabby faux-Levi jeans and worn-out Reeboks. I met people who hated Jews and the United States the same way I hate Britney Spears — passively, as a focal point of anger for a wider phenomenon, not because of anything intrinsic.
Does jealousy play any part? This is more difficult to ascertain. Again, the analogy to Ms. Spears could be instructive. I suppose jealousy plays a part, but the object of desire is distant and hopeless enough to render any jealousy meaningless.
Nowhere did I encounter the untapped revolutionary fervor that is supposed to bring democracy to the region, a la Thomas Friedman. Nor did I see the virulent Islamists who portend the end of Western civilization, a la William Safire. At the core, people have always and everywhere been pretty much the same.
You are skeptical about what you see on television? Read Le Monde, or The Economist, every once in a while. Exercise common sense, generally favor the simplest answers. Rich people are complacent, and poor people are angry — not only in this region, but everywhere.
But simple answers are not the same as easy answers. The search for truth, about Mideast politics as well as everything else, is certainly difficult. It could very well be futile. But I recommend you give it a go anyway.
Mahbod Moghadam is a junior in Calhoun College. He is speaker of the Yale Political Union.