November 3, 2009

Media neglects Middle East coverage aside from bombings and violence, journalist says

Front-page stories about suicide bombings and sectarian violence leave little room for accurate depictions of the Middle East in American newspapers, journalist Neil MacFarquhar said Thursday at the International House.

His talk, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East, was based on MacFarquhar’s book of the same name. The title came from an e-mail he received from the political party while working in a Hizbollah-controlled area.

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

The book was written to address what MacFarquhar saw as a disconnect between American conceptions of the Middle East and what he experienced as a New York Times correspondent living and working in the Arab world. He described how the focus of foreign press bureaus is on violence and political turmoil, which leaves Americans without a clear picture of the day-to-day life of everyday Arabs.

“I had been in Saudi Arabia working on this story on USAID for months, and then there was an attack on an oil tanker, so I was pulled off what I was working on to go cover it,” he said. “Often the stories on the ground are overshadowed by these big headline events. Would I rather not have had to cover the 16th bombing in Saudi Arabia? Yes, but there was a bombing, there was violence, and I had to go cover that.”

MacFarquhar also listed several impediments to progressive change in the Middle East, including powerful secret police forces, government disregard of the law, and a lack of basic civil rights. “If you want to fight extremism, you must allow these rights to flourish,” he said.