How not to critique US media coverage of the Middle East

US news coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, including the way the Iran story has been (mis)handled, is so bad that it ought to be almost impossible to write a critique that completely misses the mark. Unfortunately, an article published on the Electronic Intifada website manages to do just that. The article essentially forwards two objections: first, that the US media have been giving undue coverage to the crisis in Iran that is reflective of US foreign policy goals; and second, that the US media has been indefensibly relying on “unverified” video and information. This strikes me as an incredibly weak critique, and an object lesson in how to bungle the very important task of holding US media to a higher standard in coverage of Middle Eastern affairs.

The article asks why Iranian demonstrations have been receiving a great deal of attention unlike protests in “Georgia or Peru.” It suggests that the only explanation is that coverage of the Iranian demonstrations serves US foreign policy interests: “Why are protests in Iran receiving more attention than those in other places? One logical explanation is that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a key ally of the US and NATO.” It’s certainly true that more attention should have been paid to other issues in the past and present, including lots of Palestine and Gaza-related stories, but I don’t think it’s possible to seriously argue with the significance of the upheaval in Iran. Any critique that asks the readers to fail to understand the extraordinary strategic and political importance of the upheaval in Iran, which is without question far more significant than unrest in Peru or Georgia, is rooted in an unworkable definition of what is newsworthy.

It’s no doubt the case that US media tends to be parochial in its attitudes towards international affairs, but the idea that unrest in Georgia and Peru has the same global significance as the extraordinary developments in Iran is simply silly. The Arab media too have been far more interested in the extraordinary developments in Iran without being driven by a US foreign policy agenda, because the events in Iran obviously have a political and strategic significance that these other demonstrations simply do not. Assuming that every demonstration or every upheaval is equally newsworthy is frankly ridiculous, and failing to understand the importance of what has been going on in Iran to the rest of the region and to the world at large is just – and there is no other word for this – stupid.

The idea that “coverage of certain places might contradict US foreign policy there, something much of the media are proving unwilling to do,” is beyond simplistic. Critics on the far left share the view of the far right that the major American media is a monolithic and homogenous entity simply or effectively controlled by the government (Rush Limbaugh continuously refers to the media as “government controlled”), but this “analysis” elides the profound complexities of the actual relationship. The process by which American media coverage of international affairs is intertwined with US government attitudes and interests is real, but it is extremely complex, overdetermined and often subtle (although the result usually is not). To suggest that the American media simply ignores anything that may not serve US foreign policy interests is a caricature and not an analysis. How could one then, to take only one example, explain the exposé, which came precisely from the same major American media, of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, which was a disaster for US foreign policy interests in Iraq and the Middle East generally?

As for the reliance on “unverified sources,” this is primarily the result of a major crackdown on all serious forms of independent reporting and free speech by the Iranian government, especially in the past week, a fundamental reality that the article in question does not acknowledge. The implication that the media should simply ignore unverified sources when verifiable ones are unavailable due to a government effort to shut down all forms of legitimate journalism and quash a story is obviously absurd. The suggestion that because verifiable footage and information about other stories is available, they should therefore have primacy over what certainly seems to be a more significant story that can only be covered through unverifiable sources serves as just another way of suggesting that American media attention to events in Iran is excessive and the other stories should receive the same or more attention. It is not any more convincing than the more direct approach of asking, in effect, “why are you covering this when I think you should be covering something else?”

It would be hard to know where to begin with a serious critique of US media coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, because the weaknesses and mistakes are so striking. For serious media criticism, it is an embarrassment of riches. However, arguing that the US media should not be covering the story in Iran (or covering it less than it does), or that it should be covering other stories because better information is available about them, is a terrible approach. Even worse is the suggestion that the US media simply follows the US foreign policy agenda as if media organizations were simply agents of the State Department.

A real critique of US media coverage of Iran might include interrogations of the overreliance on uninformed commentators, the tendency to frame international relations as a partisan debate between Democrats and Republicans, the indefensible and increasingly maudlin romanticization of the protesters, the lack of a detailed analysis of contemporary Iranian politics, and the tendency to assume that all of the opponents of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are democrats and reformers when many are nothing of the kind. However, to argue that US media interest in the Iran story is simply driven by the US foreign policy agenda of trying to undermine the Iranian government doesn’t discredit US media coverage, it discredits media criticism.