Stories the Media Decide Not to Tell: An Arab American Assesses Coverage from His Dual Perspective. (Coverage of Terrorism)

By Mazen, Abdelmagid | Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Stories the Media Decide Not to Tell: An Arab American Assesses Coverage from His Dual Perspective. (Coverage of Terrorism)


Mazen, Abdelmagid, Nieman Reports


I am a man of falafel and apple pie; five prayers a day and a Mozart; reading from right and left of a page, and political spectra--a Muslim, a Middle Eastern, an Egyptian and an Arab. The four descriptors overlap but are never identical, and they melt into a dynamic deep within me that nourishes the very meaning of my being an American. I am not a journalist nor do I play one on TV. But my fantasy about a healthy interaction with the media is ongoing.

The talk is that we, in the United States, could do better in our propaganda war on terrorism. Three facts are clear to me: Propaganda and persuasive efforts require different postures; media are at the frontline of these efforts, and the overwhelming majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are at the center of both these efforts, oppose terrorism. Yet, we are not doing so well in getting our message through. How come?

That is when my fantasy kicks in. It usually starts with an innocent "what if" or two. What if televisions were like side mirrors of cars? If they were, we'd see a cautioning strip: "Objects and issues on this screen are actually much different than they appear." And what if from time to time viewers were allowed to reach into the teleprompter to change the anchor's script or press the cursor and insert a missing viewpoint or two into the story? What if TV viewers could be seen applauding in admiration for a piece well done, or heard whispering gently: "Snap out of it, please."

Someone once defined moral dilemma as not paying equal attention to the humanity and equal worth of people who are at a distance. I believe that our efforts to inform during this crisis are more likely to succeed when we are willing to look wider and deeper into the current reporting on the crisis. This applies to media I hear and see coming from all the lands to which my roots, trunk and branches extend.

On my New England rooftop sit two adjacent satellite dishes, one feeding my television from Western media, the other from Arab satellites, including Al-Jazeera (The Peninsula). Currently, many in the media attribute Al-Jazeera's success to a competitive advantage. The network had early access to Taliban sources and to the tapes of bin Laden. This thinking, while correct, is also truncated and could harm the media and efforts to reposition our image in the Middle East and related worlds.

I attribute my increasing attention to Al-Jazeera, the Egyptian Satellite Channel, and others to the thick description reporters use to portray and interpret events as well as to their ability to disrobe the comforts of their normal angle on issues and bring forth those of others. For me, the questions Al-Jazeera raises in reporting news reach beyond the predictable, and answers are often embedded in the complexities of our times. The best in Western news reporting does the same, but too much of it is less thickly layered, its content lessened. Time constraints are partly to blame but, frankly, when it comes to reporting about the Middle East or the third world, the U.S. media are often caught in the seductive practice of seeking excellent answers to very truncated questions.

In crafting questions and seeking answers, grades of excellence and exquisiteness apply. Once I heard a master violinmaker in Stradivarius's hometown say something that applies to how I think of news and analysis: "The challenge for me," this violinmaker said, "is to have my hands do what my eyes want to see. [Because] this doesn't always happen.... I have to be honest with myself. I have to recognize my mistakes. And when I do this, I feel, I know, I am doing my best work."

Whenever I interact with media, I find myself searching for the angles and degree of thickness with which stories are told. Often, I search for that pinch of exquisiteness with which a story is spiced; naturally, the yield ranges from the delicious to the bland.

For me, and for people rooted similarly, Al-Jazeera transmits news and translates its meaning across cultures. …

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