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The Media Comedy Club

The Media Comedy Club
Barry Rubin
November 1, 2007


One of the dubious rewards of spending too much time reading newspapers on the Middle East are the laughs derived from those wonderful little phrases that seem logical but are so profoundly bizarre. Some indicate media bias but they are more often the result of some reporter or newsmaker who so takes for granted the bizarro, flat-earth version of the Middle East as to be blissfully unaware of the yawning contradiction in what they say.


For example, here's a great sentence in a rather good survey of European attitudes toward intensifying sanctions against Iran on the nuclear issue. It is taken from Jamey Keaten, AP, "Europeans Ponder Sanctions Against Iran," of October 27, 2007:


"Concerns have been rising in some European corners that the United States or Israel might attack to prevent Iran from developing atomic bombs...."


That's fine as far as it goes. But the alert reader will notice the lack of any sentence along these lines:


"Concerns have been rising in some European corners that Iran might be developing atomic bombs."


The word "corners," by the way is rather poorly chosen (circles? governments? capitals?) and should have been caught by the copy editor. But basically, what Keaten shows is that Britain and France are talking more toughly about sanctions but may not do much while European trade and investment in Iran remains at high levels. He also cites both Iranian denials of building such weapons alongside Iran's breaking promises to cooperate with international monitoring groups. (So the reader can conclude: hmm, they must have something to hide.)


Another reasonable article-though in this case with a giant gaff which is the author's fault-is that of Matthew Lee, AP, "Rice Looks to History for Peace Effort," October 28, 2007. It describes how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking to learn from the past on how to conduct Arab-Israeli negotiations before the Annapolis meeting. (Actually, this is a White House puff piece as one could write a far better article about how Rice has totally failed to heed the past. Indeed, her current strategy and its implementation is perfect for a textbook on, Big Stupid Mistakes of the Past, The Sequel. But never mind that right now.


Here is the payoff sentence, in explaining how Rice has consulted with former president (can one impeach former presidents?) Jimmy Carter. It states:


"Carter has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's Middle East polices and wrote a recent book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," that some believe is anti-Israeli."


So the raging debate about whether Carter's book full of slander and mistakes about Israel might actually be anti-Israeli? Perhaps the AP meant antisemitic? But while Islamophobia may be used at the drop of a hat apparently no one since the fall of the Berlin bunker can be called antisemitic. Much of the media can't even acknowledge there is a seriously provable claim being made in that regard. (Note: neo-Nazis can be accused of antisemitism but since they are right-wingers anything is permissible against them.)


OK, just one more and then go off to find your own. This is from Sally Buzbee, AP, October 29, 2007, "Egypt to Build Nuclear Plants." This is a reasonably balanced article about how some Arab countries are now talking about building nuclear power plants. (Actually, the same precise story appeared a few months ago and nothing much came of it but the mainstream media seems to have trouble recalling what it already wrote.)


The key laugh line:


'Despite the declarations of peaceful intentions, there are worries the countries could be taking the first steps toward a dangerous proliferation in the volatile Mideast. Such fears intensified when Israel launched a Sept. 6 airstrike against Syria...."


Get it? Now that Israel has attacked Syria's secret nuclear plant-obviously intended for military purposes-we can start worrying about proliferation. I thought Iran might just be raising some concerns in that regard but that must be wrong since this happened prior to the Israeli attack on Syria.


Of course, the reporter could have instead written something like this:


The revelation that Syria was building a secret nuclear plant has stirred worries that countries could be taking the first steps toward a dangerous proliferation in the volatile Mideast.


But that wouldn't make it sound like it was Israel's fault, would it? I don't know about you but I feel less worried about nuclear proliferation after the airstrike.


Otherwise there's the usual satire. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial of October 28, 2007, "Middle East Conference: More harm than good?" is basically accurate (no great hopes for the Annapolis conference) though it puts the fault on the Bush administration (why didn't they broker peace earlier?) and none particularly on the Palestinian side. The only fault they have is that-like the U.S. and Israeli governments-the Palestinian regime of Mahmoud Abbas is weak.


True there is this bit of unintentional humor:


"For a regional peace process to have a substantial shot at working, the administration would have had to prepare the diplomatic ground for years to gain the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt."


Hello? How about this: for many years the U.S. government prepared the diplomatic ground to gain the cooperation of those three countries. There was a peace process from 1993 to 2000, that's seven years and the United States worked hard. Yet during that period, and certainly in the year 2000, they got no help from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Jordan behaved differently but the reason for that-King Hussein was ruling the country-no longer exists.


Perhaps the problem is that Arab regimes aren't willing to help, no matter how much ground the United States prepares.


There's also this one:


"...Early in his presidency, Bush wanted nothing to do with brokering an end to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict."


You see, when you read stuff like this it is hard not to conclude that the authors are being intentionally dishonest. How about mentioning that President Bill Clinton failed completely to gain peace in 2000 and was made to look like a fool by Palestinian and Syrian rejectionism? In other words, was the Bush administration evil for not jumping into the process from their first day in office or perhaps they had a good reason for doing so?


Or how about this, discussing the Roadmap plan and Quartet group to conduct Middle East negotiations:


"But, as has happened with so many Bush foreign-policy initiatives, there was an initial burst of diplomacy, followed by determined neglect."


Perhaps there was an intifada going on, Palestinian intransigence, Arab unhelpfulness, and then the Hamas takeover, something not mentioned at all in the editorial. You see, though, the problem was "determined neglect," not incompetence or real problems or distracting events. In other words, those people in the White House wanted to wreck peace.


The implication-and it is an intentional one-is that they are the enemy, not Hamas, Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Fatah, radical Islamism, terrorism, or anything else. And if they had only been more energetic the conflict would be over by now. Bad Bush! Bad! Bad!


This is why one can charge that sections of the media-and I'm not talking about the AP here which has both good and bad days but I am talking about the New York Times-are simply scandalously dishonest and biased nowadays. This is not so much because of the conclusions they reach but due to the deliberate hiding of evidence that might point to a different, or at least more nuanced, ones. It is also due to their using arguments which if subjected to five minutes of critical analysis dissolve into toxic mist.


Please don't act as if the United States has full control of events, is the only one involved in action, and thus is at fault if things don't work.


Please don't point only to the factors that make the United States, West, or Israel look bad and that conceal the reasons behind their behavior and motives.


Please don't attribute to the current U.S. government your wacko conspiracy theories that they are warmongering evil imperialist monsters who invaded Iraq to make money and deliberately sabotage Middle East peace.


Finally, please give readers enough information so they understand what's happening and why. Wait a minute! That's a job for newspapers, isn't it?





Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://gloria.idc.ac.il and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).