Essential reading

by Chris Bertram on January 24, 2010

When I read the Financial Times review of Joris Luyendijk’s People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East last year, I knew it was a book I wanted and needed to read (Australian title is Fit to Print). So I placed an order on amazon.uk that very morning. But it never came and I only just got my hands on a second-hand copy. Amazon (US and UK) are both listing it as out-of-print. Which is a pity, because you need to read it too. Some of it will be familiar to intelligent and well-informed people: of course we know things work like that. But it is hard to keep the knowledge one has of the news process in view, when watching TV, reading the papers, listening to the radio over breakfast. Luyendijk will, at the very least, do the necessary job of keeping us sensitized.

Actually, he seems to have been pretty poorly informed himself about how journalism works when he took a job as Dutch paper De Volkskrant’s Middle East correspondent back in 1998. An Arab-speaker, he seems to have started with very little background as a reporter. He was under the illusion that journalists would go and ferret-out stories, which, fed back to the paper, would end up conveying the most important things to know about a country or a situation. But it doesn’t work like that. In a dictatorship (such as most countries in the Middle East are), you only get to talk to a limited range of approved sources. These are supplemented by a few tame academics and “human-rights activists” (in the pay of NGOs, largely – Luyendijk calls them “donor darlings”) and the news agencies (AP, AFP etc) have already decided what’s important. And ordinary people (if you can overcome intra-arabic linguistic barriers at all) are too scared to tell you what they really think and say stuff that you can’t use because you can’t attribute. So you end up just being the final decoration to stories that have already been written and pre-digested and just need the the stamp of “our man in Cairo” (or Baghdad, or Damascus …) who is probably confined to a hotel room watching CNN.

Things get dramatically worse once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of the story, and even more so when the report is for TV (all complexity and background disappear). Basically, the Israelis have a well engineered machine for giving correspondents what they want in the form they want it. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are crap at the media war and any Palestinians who come across in the West as sympathetic, well-informed, persuasive, are sure to be sidelined by a Palestinian leadership ever alert to internal threats to their power (hence not much sign of Hanan Ashrawi on the box recently).

The book finishes with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the “embedding” of correspondents. American news-management is even more professional and directive than Israeli, so there’s very little scope for an alternative narrative (until way too late). Interestingly, in the section on the 2003 invasion, Luyendijk highlights a major problem with getting the truth across to audiences: they often don’t want to hear it. That’s a problem if you are a commercial organization selling a product: Americans (for example) want (or wanted) to watch reports that confirm their patriotic view of their military and its essentially benign mission. So even if you could do your job properly, you’d have a tough time getting people to watch or listen.

{ 24 comments }

1

Geoffrey 01.24.10 at 7:23 pm

I was able to find it on Amazon and put it on my wishlist in about 20 seconds – no mention of out of print.

Looks very interesting.

2

Detlef 01.24.10 at 7:25 pm

Just wanted to mention it.
Amazon.DE lists “People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East” as “in stock”.
Both the English and the German version.
Just search for “Joris Luyendijk”.

3

Metatone 01.24.10 at 7:26 pm

It was some time ago, over at the European Tribune, someone tried to coin the phrase “Foreign Correspondent’s Syndrome.”

Basically, as soon as you live in a foreign country you realise that the majority of the coverage of the place you used to read back home was formed in a hotel bar as a bunch of foreign correspondents had drinks together, forming a consensus on what was going on, with some input from their friends on one of the big “serious” local media outlets.

Weld on the fact that sub-editors back home will hack out anything that doesn’t match the local received line… and well… there you go…

4

Joaquin Tamiroff 01.24.10 at 8:10 pm

[comment by Seth Edenbaum – therefore deleted]

5

otto 01.24.10 at 8:11 pm

There’s much more to this than the Israelis having a slick media machine. Here’s a bit of Emma Williams book via Mondoweiss:
http://mondoweiss.net/2009/12/the-relentless-pressure-on-journalists-to-submerge-the-palestinian-story.html

In London a senior editor admitted he had been “brought to heel” by his management, and financially he couldn’t risk his position by including unacceptable–to management–balance. A radio journalist told me in Jerusalem: “When I do a Palestinian story, my editors are all over me. They tell me I must have an Israeli story to balance it, but when I do an Israeli story, there is no such request.” Sometimes the journalists applied the silencing themselves: “That editor’s visit,” said a Times correspondent, “was a waste of bloody time. Doing a story on the Palestinians, comes all the way to Israel, and refuses to go to the Occupied Territories. Still did the story though. From Tel Aviv.”

6

alex 01.24.10 at 8:19 pm

Joaquin: a) he did, and b) so some bloke doesn’t like her; so?

Meanwhile, nitpick, Desert Storm was ‘way back in ’91. I suspect you mean OIF?

[yes I did – thanks fixed. cb]

7

Akshay 01.24.10 at 8:20 pm

The cynical Dutch title of the book is “Het zijn net mensen”, i.e. “They’re just like people!”, an exclamation usually made when observing chimpanzees at the zoo. The cover photograph (http://img.literatuurplein.nl/blobs/ORIGB/623038/1/1.jpg) shows a group of white photographers grinning at a Palestinian who has just struck a heroic stone-throwing pose for their benefit.

I recall being struck by his description of rituals of grieving. Introverted Jewish funerals come across as dignified and solemn to Western audiences. The more extroverted grieving and wailing of Arabs is misunderstood and misrepresented: cultural distance and selective TV editing can transform a desperately grieving Arab community into an angry mob within seconds of air time.

But there’s lots of interesting stuff in the book.

8

Aaron Swartz 01.24.10 at 11:20 pm

9

Anon 01.24.10 at 11:28 pm

All one needs to know about the Middle East can be learned from reading experts like Instapundits Glenn Reynolds.

10

Map Maker 01.25.10 at 5:54 am

Tough issue – when any of us look at the “other” we are seeing them through our lens across any number of cultural, religious, political, and economic views. Hanan Ashrawi’s views are far less common than Hamas’ – who represents the authentic voice? Where is the truth? If you were looking for Truth, it isn’t in the media … try one of the major religions involved in the conflict.

As for the cheap shot about Glenn Reynolds, ask Yehia El-Mashad if saving potentially millions of lives is worth one?

11

weaver 01.25.10 at 5:55 am

If it is out of print I wouldn’t worry because apparently in May it’s being re-released with yet another title: Hello Everybody!: One Journalist’s Search for Truth in the Middle East . Perhaps Profile Books thought that “misrepresenting” bit was a tad harsh.

Three different titles for the English translation? Seriously, publishers, have you not got your pointy little heads around the fact that books have a global market now?

12

Zamfir 01.25.10 at 7:55 am

It’s interesting that the title can’t be translated literally. Apparently, the barrier between Dutch and English is already too large to get the provacation across with the right nuance.

13

Hidari 01.25.10 at 8:21 am

‘That’s a problem if you are a commercial organization selling a product: Americans (for example) want (or wanted) to watch reports that confirm their patriotic view of their military and its essentially benign mission. So even if you could do your job properly, you’d have a tough time getting people to watch or listen.’

With the decline of the organised ‘radical’ Left, this is something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention nowadays. People have to become aware (as they once were, but aren’t any more) that, whatever the talents and abilities of individual teachers, schools are, in the final analysis, run by the State.* And, given this, one should not be surprised if they end up attempting to mould children into ‘worthwhile’ citizens of the State, and this is, in fact, what they do.

Obviously there are all sorts of problems with modern schools, but the most egregious of their sins, and the most relevant to the piece above, is in the teaching of History. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I was at school till I was 17, and yet in all that time, I was not given any tuition or teaching, or any sort, about the British Empire. This despite the fact that, for most people ‘abroad’ the fact that Britain had the largest Empire of all time (and then lost most, but not all of it) is the key fact about 19th and 20th century Britain.

But how are we to even begin to have an understanding of (for example) the contemporary middle East without knowledge of the Balfour declaration? Or Sykes-Picot? Or the WW2 invasions of Iraq and Iran? Or later British ‘interventions’ in, for example, Oman?

These issues are sometimes discussed but usually in terms of media analysis, and obviously, the media should be mentioning these things. But frankly, they should be part of ‘our’ ‘common knowledge’. And discussing these things in a media context gives one’s opponents the obvious rejoinder that these facts are ‘boring’ (as opposed to Nuts and Zoo magazine, which are, apparently, ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’). And to be honest, they are a bit boring. But that’s precisely why kids should be taught them at school.

Unfortunately, of course, I have no idea what to do about any of this. In the absence of the rise of a radical Left wing political movement (which, in Britain and the United States at the moment looks about as likely as a Martian invasion) to put pressure on the Govt, what can one do? Might it be possible to put together a ‘pack’ about the British Empire for possible use in schools? I seem to remember this being mooted a while back. Of course, it depends a lot on what might be in this proposed ‘module’: with Blair and Brown apparently convinced that the British Empire was a ‘good thing’, a genuinely critical discussion seems hard to imagine.

But to return to the subject of the post: yes. The average British and American are not sympathetic to the Arab cause, but that’s because of what they have been taught (and have not been taught) about the history of the Middle East, and in the United States we have the baleful influence of modern (radical, protestant) religion as well.

Of course this should in no way exonerate the modern media, who have so dismally failed to keep their readers informed about foreign affairs generally, and the middle eastern situation in particular.

*Or in the case of private schools, follow a curriculum set by the State.

14

alex 01.25.10 at 8:23 am

Sarcasm rarely works well in the public sphere; and whatever the noble intentions behind the title, in English some at least of the nuance would be read as sarcasm.

15

des von bladet 01.25.10 at 9:03 am

The cover-photo on my copy is largely obscured by a sticker proclaiming it to be the winner of the NS Publieksprijs for Boek van het jaar 2007.

But it is CB’s review that has prompted me to get it down from the attic and start reading it at last.

16

Zamfir 01.25.10 at 9:28 am

Sarcasm rarely works well in the public sphere; and whatever the noble intentions behind the title, in English some at least of the nuance would be read as sarcasm.
The sarcasm is definitely there in the original too, slightly softened by the neutral undertitle that simply says “Images from the Middle East”.

17

Tim Wilkinson 01.25.10 at 9:47 am

Always good value, Tony Benn.

18

Ingrid Robeyns 01.25.10 at 7:52 pm

Incidentally, I blogged about the original Dutch version of this book (with the same enthusiasm as Chris) in one of my very first posts here in August 2006, see
http://crookedtimber.org/2006/08/23/a-correspondent-in-the-middle-east/

I am glad to read it’s now translated!

19

Chris Bertram 01.25.10 at 9:06 pm

Oh, I’m embarrassed not to have remembered that Ingrid.

20

Donald Johnson 01.25.10 at 9:32 pm

” And ordinary people (if you can overcome intra-arabic linguistic barriers at all) are too scared to tell you what they really think and say stuff that you can’t use because you can’t attribute.”

I think Tom Friedman has had a lot of success with taxi drivers.

21

Akshay 01.25.10 at 10:03 pm

To be clear, I think the translators were right to translate the positive message of the Dutch title: those Others are people, just like us. That the sarcasm is aimed at lack of empathy is clear to a Dutch audience, but it would simply sound nasty to others.
I brought up the title because I think that for Luyendijk, it is not merely an inability to get at the Truth, which is important: he is most troubled by the inability of journalistic institutions to convey an empathetic understanding of their subjects. Human beings get used as background to “The Narrative” or worse, as titillating images on TV.

Luyendijk suggests that journalists should be far more open about the difficulties of their work, about the limitations of working in dictatorships or propaganda wars and simply tell people about them. News stories should be more reflexive. Concretely, reporters should say “I am now embedded and that means that…”, or “X is offering us this ‘news item’, Y’s slant is this, but frankly, there is a lot of spin and I can’t really tell right now what is really going on”. This comes closer to the ideal of ‘telling it like it is’ than the usual convention of reporting like an omniscient narrator.

However, he also makes an even riskier suggestion: to simply drop the convention of journalistic detachment when it gets in the way of empathy. If more journalists would say things like “The grief was palpable, I was shaken and troubled by witnessing it as an outsider”, they might no longer return to their hotel rooms to see the mourners they had accompanied presented as an angry mob on cable news. Perhaps because the risks are obvious, it’s the immanent critique of journalistic objectivity which gets most of the attention. But I think we should keep in mind that empathy is the ultimate goal. We don’t merely want to spout fashionable postmodernist verbiage about the nonexistence of the truly true.

22

Hungover Guy 01.27.10 at 6:03 pm

As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

23

Alice de Tocqueville 01.29.10 at 3:53 am

Just yesterday I came across some Youtube videos of Robert Fisk, especially a 6-part series about Beirut called The Martyr’s Smile. He shows how journalism is done. He’s interviewed Osama bin Laden twice, but just as important, he’s interviewed the mothers of suicide bombers, as well as a kidnapper of Americans who was caught and jailed, but then traded for some American captives. Fisk was a personal friend of Terry Anderson, and asks the guy whether it’s moral to kidnap someone like Anderson who’s only ever tried to help people. The kidnapper (a quite sensitive-seeming person) says it’s not right, but then he’s just one, and there were 16 or 17 thousand Arabs being held, and tortured by Israel without charges, trial or contact with family or anyone (still are), and no one in the West cares about that.
In another interview there, he’s asked about his criticism of contemporary so-called ‘objective’ journalism. He says when you walk thru, say, Sabra and Shatila, which he did, immediately after the massacre (there was still some firing by the Phalangists going on) and you see babies, children and elderly among the hundreds of bodies, none of which have weapons near them, it’s not ‘objective’ to just say ‘the Israeli foreign minister said such and such. And he said, “If you were reporting the liberation of, say, Auschwitz, would you provide ‘balance’ by providing the comments of the camp commandant?”

24

David 01.29.10 at 8:49 pm

It’s ridiculous to bemoan media coverage of the Middle East by mentioning Hanan Ashrawi, who never anything but a CNN creation.

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