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Media Failed Us on Bin Laden Kill

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Media Failed Us On Bin Laden Kill.

As part of my masters degree in Media Practice, I am researching and writing a dissertation on press criticism and the role it plays in promoting/maintaining a functioning and democratic press. Whilst my thesis is focused on the New York Times’ and how it rates its own coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over the last week and a half I have been struck by how suitable the coverage of the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has been for systematic criticism.

The death of bin Laden, and subsequent media circus, is an ideal opportunity for the news media to assess its own performance and function. In our western media system, the news media and democracy are inextricably linked; with some journalism academics go as far as to say they are one and the same. In such a context, the news media must provide the public with all the information they require to be free, informed and functioning citizens.

The job of a journalist is to question, to demand answers and to verify information, particularly that obtained from politicians. To keep the bastards honest, in other words. So why, in just over a week of bin Laden death coverage has the mainstream media functioned largely as a mouthpiece for the US government?

The death of Bin Laden was witnessed by no one other than the American operatives and their (mostly dead) victims. It was relayed to the world in a shock announcement by the US president, Barrack Obama, who proudly advanced the cause of American exceptionalism by declaring America can indeed do anything it wants to (he must have been paying attention to Gillard’s’ speech in the congress earlier this year). The world’s media immediately reported the death as fact, even though it had occurred, in the words of Guy Rundle, ‘in the President’s words and nowhere else.’

Whatever happened to the word ‘allegedly’? Since when has the media existed only to regurgitate the claims of the government and declare them true without independent verification? Turns out, questions were just were what was required, given the ever-changing details of the surreptious raid. Was the Obama administration ‘correcting facts’, as the Sydney Morning Herald politely claims, or merely making them up as they go along?

Scepticism should not be confused with conspiracy propagation. Yet, conspiracy theorists is exactly what the many in the media, whose very job description calls for healthy scepticism, were quick to label anyone who dared ask questions. The fact the raid came hot on the tails of the release of Obama’s long form birth certificate prompted many to liken sceptics over the US government version of events to the notorious ‘birthers’, who refuse to believe the president is a natural-born US citizen. This is a preposterous comparison. Conspiracy theorists ardently stick to their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The evidence for Obama’s citizenship was both abundant and in the public domain. The evidence for the death and deep-sea burial of bin Laden exists only in the hands of the Obama administration, evidence they still refuse to release. It is not conspiracy propagation to doubt the veracity of the statements made by a government that had just enacted a kill operation in total secrecy in a foreign country- without that country’s knowledge. It is simply asking for transparency.

Had the media acted more critically, perhaps it would not have been left up lawyers  and academics  to question the morality and legality of the raid, let alone the claim that ‘justice had been served.’ A claim first put forward by former lawyer Obama himself, faithfully repeated by western leaders including PM Gillard, and disseminated by the media. The irony of a life-long opponent of the death penalty ‘welcoming the news’ of the manner of bin Laden’s demise seemed to be lost on the great chunk of the local media, save for the usual inquiring suspects including Crikey, Eureka St and New Matilda.

To be clear, I am not implying that the government is lying about all aspects of the operation, nor do I mean to suggest that bin Laden is still alive or not buried at sea. Rather, I mean to stress that demanding verification and evidence is both right and proper when it comes to any story, particularly ones which appear to be as one-sided as this. It is the only way in which the public can hope to know anything approximating the truth. As more details emerge, and change, making yesterday’s facts today’s misinformation, the news media should use this as an opportunity to assess their own performance.

Whilst few may have any sympathy for bin Laden, what is at stake is bigger than the life and death of a single man. The news media cannot go down the road of accepting, without question, any claim by any government, much less that of a foreign administration. It directly contradicts the function of the press and sets a dangerous precedent where the media exists not serve the public but to advance the interest of the ruling elite. Nor can the media shy away from criticism such as this. Press criticism is a vital aspect of assessing whether the media is fulfilling its function. Our democracy depends on it.


Written by Ruby

May 10, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Media, Terrorism, USA

Tagged with , , , ,

My Crikey piece in full

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As I mentioned yesterday, here is my Crikey piece in full. Published Tuesday Feb 1, 2011:

Muslims don’t fit into a simple left v right debate.

In an attempt to undermine Labor’s traditional stronghold with immigrant communities, Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan has cynically taken up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority.

Sheehan begins by waxing poetic about a rally held in Martin Place last Wednesday, recalling a, “medieval…forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins.” The rally, “drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora,” was protesting the current wave of terrorist attacks targeting Christians in the Middle East.

Less a meaningful comment on the attacks or the rally itself, and more the opportunity to take pot shots at “the Left” (including “the broadcast arm of the Greens, the ABC”), Sheehan boasts of the three Liberal MPs who spoke whilst scorning Labor’s single attendee Greg Donnelly, who was representing Premier Kristina Keneally.

Referring to Labor as, “the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence,” Sheehan chastises the PM for not preparing a statement, and calls the absence of a Greens representative “predictable.”

Accusing both the Gillard government and the Greens of siding “with Muslims” against Christians, Sheehan gleefully concludes, “support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.”

Whilst making much of the recent attacks against Egypt’s Copts, Sheehan fails to mention that after the New Year’s Day attack in Alexandria which killed 23 people; thousands of Muslims marched with their Christian compatriots against the radical threat. Many even formed human shields outside churches to allow worshipers to celebrate the Coptic Christmas without the fear of attack.

Sheehan is correct in denouncing violence against Christians. But his failure to acknowledge the support that some Muslims are providing the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians is dishonest in the extreme. Apparently the fact that many Muslims also “take discrimination against Christians seriously,” is not worthy of mention for Sheehan. Ironic in an article whose reason d’ etre is to criticise the omissions and absences of others.

His purposefully inflammatory statements signify so much of what is wrong in the current debate about Islam. Namely that, lacking the nuances of Christianity, Islam is a monolithic entity that is fundamentally incompatible with western values. Proving however, the old adage that a broken clock is right twice a day, there is a grain of truth in Sheehan’s statements.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as it almost always emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

By reflexively denouncing everything from opposition to Park 51 to questioning the place of the burqa in modern society, western leftists are also treating Islam as a monolith and denying Muslims the opportunity to debate these issues themselves.

But when Sheehan simplifies a complex problem by saying, “the left sides with Muslims,” he simultaneously demonises all Muslims and undermines efforts by liberal Muslims to counter the extremism that threatens to engulf them.

His comments also diminish the efforts of those Tunisians who have forced a dictator from his lofty perch. Their revolution has ignited dissent in neighbouring Algeria, Yemen and Egypt, also struggling under authoritarian regimes.

These are not Islamist uprisings, in fact, these dictators held onto power largely by pointing to the radicals waiting in the wings. Like Iran’s failed Green Revolution they are protests by Muslims who don’t seek to replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one, but who crave freedom. Since when has freedom being incompatible with western values?

Those who denounce Islamic ideology as ‘medieval’ would do well to note that the golden age of Islam was actually in the Middle Ages, when art and literature flourished. Muslim women, not yet driven behind the veil, enjoyed rights that were unseen in the west until the 20th century.

While Muslims were excelling in science and mathematics, the Catholic Church was torturing heretics and burning ‘witches’ at the stake.

Fundamentalist Islam is a modern construct, a reaction to secularism and western hegemony. The way to counteract its growing influence is not by decrying Islam itself as evil, but nor is it by dismissing all criticism of it as racist.

It is time for secular and other liberal Muslims in this country to be a given a louder voice, for in the polarising Us v Them framework that Sheehan champions, they are the biggest casualty. Conservative Muslims far outnumber seculars and liberals, and the gulf between them- both in numbers and ideological position -is growing.

But as long as some western voices continue to assume Muslims are homogenous, and other western voices respond by defending fundamentalism at the expense of dissent, then the voices of progressive Muslims who seek to alter their negative image in the west, as well fight the growing radicalisation in their midst are marginalised into irrelevancy.

Written by Ruby

February 2, 2011 at 6:43 am

Posted in Islam, Media

Tagged with , , , , ,