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When Worldviews Collide

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis /
April 15, 2003

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece, CNN Executive News Director Eason Jordan recently made the disturbing revelation that the network had suppressed news of Iraqi brutality in exchange for permission to keep its Baghdad office open. While on some level most people understand that Arabic news media routinely engage in such practices, the fact that a western news organization is also culpable casts doubt on the entire enterprise of news-gathering in the Middle East. In addition, it brings the differences between Arab and western worldviews into sharp relief.

Jordan specifically said that, fearing for the lives of the family of one of its locally hired crew members, CNN did not report that the man had been tortured by Saddam Hussein. Further, although having advance knowledge, CNN in 1995 "could not report that . . . Uday [Hussein] . . . intended to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law" upon their return to Iraq. The reason given? Fear of the Iraqi regime's reprisals against the translator present when Uday revealed the plot to its reporter. The real reason? To blow the whistle would mean to lose access. Rather than stop hiring locally or close their Baghdad office, the network went to conspiratorial lengths to continue broadcasting "news" from Iraq. (It's now clear — as it should have been after the network's straight-faced reporting on last year's Iraqi "election" — that the term "news" will always have to be put in quotes when it appears in the same sentence with the acronym CNN, because whatever CNN has been broadcasting, it's not news as we know it.)

In addition to the issues raised by CNN's trading free speech for access, however, there is the further question of the degree of freedom Arabic news media enjoy in reporting the "news." On April 4, 2003, the Kurdistan Journalists Union issued a statement which emphasized that for 12 years in northern Iraq there has been "a real democracy" and that the world's journalists have been able to report "as freely as they like benefitting from the atmosphere of freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan." The statement goes on to say that "unfortunately, some Arabic Media Channels, especially the Satellite Televisions are trying to play down and degrade the Iraqi peoples demands and wishes of freedom and democracy. They still turn a blind eye on over 35 years of isolation, repression, suffering and the dreams of the Iraqi people in their coverage of news and events." It further accuses the Arabic satellite channels of having become a "mouthpiece for the demagogic policies of that dying fascist regime" and of exceeding "the rules of true journalism" by trampling "on all the principles of freedom, democracy, and human rights."

While the statement must now be amended to include CNN among the guilty, the key is that it articulates what happens in areas such as Iraqi Kurdistan where freedom and democracy flourish: Specifically, things begin to be seen for what they are. But the model that emerges from even a cursory look at many other Arabic news sources is one in which autocratic rule leads to a disenfranchised populace, informed by media that become, in order to survive, apologists for, not to say co-conspirators with, those in power.

The dynamic at work has to do with the perverse relationships which a number of Middle Eastern governments cultivate among themselves, their people, and the United States. Many of these governments use the news services in their countries to attack the U.S., in no small part to deflect potential (and wholly justified) criticism among their subjects that they are beholden to America. Fostering a culture of hatred for the United States is the operative tactic of governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia and from Libya to Lebanon. Of course the U.S. is propping up some Middle Eastern governments for the purposes of maintaining our oil interests. In the early 1990s, we restored the Emir to the throne of Kuwait and saved the collective bacon (no insult intended) of the Saudi royal family from Saddam Hussein's impending invasion, and we're the unacknowledged bodyguards of several other oil producing nations in the region.

But these relationships are not without their price, and part of that price is the necessity on our part to look the other way while Arab media perpetuate damning lies about the United States. Now, however, expectations are escalating that the successful ouster of Saddam Hussein and the potential institution of a democratic government in Iraq will put pressure on other regimes to loosen their stranglehold on the truth. The imminent nightmare of many Arab rulers is that their people will begin to understand that they're not being given the true story.

It's not just a matter of the Arab street's having a different way of looking at the world than we do; it is rather that the Arab street is looking at a completely different world than the one we see. The fact is that they receive a dangerously distorted and disingenuous representation of the world through Arab media, and they are coerced without their realizing it into becoming what amounts to an angry mob in the service of duplicitous governments.

The good news is that, since America has liberated Iraq and there is at least a fighting chance that a democratic government will be installed there, CNN will no longer have to buy access by becoming a media adjunct to yet another murderous and despotic regime. The bad news is that Fox News Channel, which has to all appearances taken the high road on this issue, will have finished cleaning CNN's clock by that time and will be have cemented its position, not only as the ratings champ among cable news outlets, but as the good guys of the broadcast business.

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