Corresondent’s Ugly Truth

Irfan Yusuf; The Sydney Morning Herald; 3/10/09;

Irfan Yusuf is the author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist.
Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East; Joris Luyendijk; Scribe
The Pope had just delivered his Regensburg address. The entire Islamic world (whatever that means) was up in arms. Churches were ablaze, nuns shot, flags and effigies in flames. Or so we in the West were told.One such article reached my attention. It was accompanied by a photo taking up a quarter of the tabloid page, showing angry men in Basra burning effigies of the Pope and president George W. Bush.The caption read: “Muslims in Basra hold massive protest against Pope’s recent lecture”. The headline was “Muslim fury against Pope”. It wasn’t until the ninth paragraph that the article noted that there were 300 people at the protest. Basra is a city of some 3 million. As Americans would, say: “Do the math.”

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We know what good foreign correspondents are meant to do. As Joris Luyendijk notes, “journalists know what’s going on in the world … the news gives an overview of these events, and it is possible to keep that overview objective”. Journalists are the gatekeepers of truth and perspective.
Luyendijk shared this perspective when he was an Arabic-speaking anthropology graduate employed by a big Dutch newspaper and broadcaster to be its Middle East correspondent in 1998. After five years he threw in the towel, just as US troops threw an American flag over the falling statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after temporarily winning the war in Iraq.
Here’s how Luyendijk describes CNN’s version of that: “We saw the colossal statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Firdos (Paradise) Square in Baghdad. Jubilant Iraqis screamed into the camera lens and struck the icon with their shoes. ‘Thank you, Mister Bush!’ The presenter solemnly described it as an ‘historic moment’: the war was over. They could put the nightmare of Saddam Hussein behind them. Baghdad was celebrating its liberation … ”
And what about al-Jazeera? Luyendijk writes: “They were showing Firdos Square, too, but their montage offered a different slant. In the same square, we saw American soldiers triumphantly throwing an American flag over the statue of Saddam. Then we were shown feverish discussions and the American soldiers rushing to remove the flag. Al-Jazeera went on to show the jubilant Iraqis from CNN, only they were shot from a longer range: you could see how few there were actually standing in the square, and that most of the people were watching from a safe distance.”
This is more a book about than of journalism. Luyendijk describes the secrets, shortcuts and tricks of the trade used by foreign correspondents for print, radio and television. This includes regurgitating wire service reports in a manner that, if done in academe, would almost certainly be considered plagiarism.
Luyendijk found that the news agenda for the events he was covering in Baghdad or Ramallah would be set by his foreign editor in Amsterdam. Occasionally he would be expected to make use of the list of “talking heads” such as diplomats (always Western ones), academics, UN workers and Western human rights activists, for obtaining “on the ground” perspectives.
The role of a correspondent was merely to be the person at the other end of the news assembly line.
Foreign correspondents and editors who take their work seriously may not enjoy Luyendijk’s condemnation of the insensitivity they show by checking into five-star hotels while on assignment in impoverished war zones. Or of the widespread response to the start of American bombing in Iraq in 2003: “A wave of suppressed relief swept over the correspondents . . . No bombing would have meant no work, after money had already been spent on coming to Amman,” Luyendijk writes.
Elsewhere, he describes Western journalists in the office of the Iraqi consul trying to secure a visa on the eve of the invasion: “We jostled [the consul] like children clustering around a dubious-looking man with candy … I saw grown men in tears by the embassy gates when they discovered they’d be reduced to peering through the fence.”
Luyendijk discovered that, by speaking to ordinary people, he found many stories far more interesting than the usual reports of which agreements were reached between which leaders and what accusations they made against each other when the deals inevitably came unstuck.
Luyendijk’s book dispels not just the West’s generally negative stereotypes of Arabs, Israelis and Muslims, but also our stereotypes of journalists. He sprinkles his text with Arab jokes about dictators and secret police and even Israeli jokes about – anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; people don’t just weep and burn flags in this part of the world.
This book was first published in Dutch as Het zijn net mensen (roughly “People like us”). A veteran correspondent who had seen his best friend die in the Iraq-Iran war gave Luyendijk this piece of advice: “If you want to write a book about the Middle East, you’d better do it in your first week. The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.” As Luyendijk repeatedly reminds us, in the Middle East “good journalism is a contradiction in terms”.