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MEDIA BIAS - is alive and well
By Khalaf Al Habtoor

An Open Letter of Warning to Arab people Around the World

     Ill informed and partisan reporting by Western media oganisations of events since September 11th, are once again reinforcing the negative stereotyping of Arab people, Arab Culture and Islam. A prime example of this careless and thoughtless approach towards Arabs and Islam was a recent background story transmitted by CNN.

In it, a female reporter who clearly had a very little knowledge of the Arab world was interviewing the pupils of a ‘madrassa’ in Pakistan. The reason for this follow-up story was clearly to capitalise on the fact that most of the leaders and many of the followers of the Taliban had been students of such madrassas. While the story was journalistically legitimate, the tone and colouring of the interviews, and the reporter’s commentary, were obviously designed to imply, that the madrassa was, and is, a finishing school for future terrorists. The report implied that young men receive Islamic indoctrination and practical training in all forms of terrorism at the madrassa, and are then sent out to fight the ungodly, in this case, America.

     The most disturbing about this report was, that it misquoted the young students and completely omitted to point out that the word ‘madrassa’ just means ‘school’ in Arabic. In fact, the journalist was interviewing an ordinary 12-year-old schoolgirl and not some novice religious fanatic. All schools in the Arab world are called madrassa, and just as in the West, they are in the main, secular schools, concentrating on exactly the same subjects that would be taught elsewhere in the world: Science, mathematics, history, geography and some religious instruction. The word encompasses in its meaning the concept of education to Arab people, but the interviewer made no effort to clarify this. The impression left in the minds of anyone not familiar with the Arab world, or the education system, would be, that all Arab schools teach their students to hate the West and blindly follow Islam. All this is even more upsetting for the Arab people, because it was the development of madrassa system throughout the Islamic world by the Fatimids, that was the model for all colleges and universities in Europe.

     This is just one of many such instances, that has arisen over the years, where the media, under pressure to fill air-time or column-inches, has thoughtlessly reinforced the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Islam, while at the same time offering no context for the story 

     This stereotyping is the creation of a biased viewpoint, which has taken the behavior of a minority, belonging to a particular group, and then attaching the same behavior to all members of that particular group, be they ethnic, religious, or social. This stereotyping encourages people to react and behave in a way that is both judgmental and prejudicial.

     This is exactly what the Western media is doing in the current situation; they are once again portraying Arabs and Islam in a negative manner. The media use this stereotype to attach certain words that conjure up biased images in their readers or viewers minds. All Arabs are currently seen as terrorists and murderers. This distortion of the ordinary Arab people has created a general mistrust, fear, and dislike of Arabs and Islam amongst the Americans.

     Today, in the current climate of revenge and anger, to use Arabs as the symbol for terrorism, is to classify them as enemies.

     Another example of just how careless and irresponsible the Media have become in their constant need to find content, maintain audience share, or prop up circulation to ensure their profitability, is the use of the same tired worn out ‘Experts’ that are rolled out by all branches of the media when such disasters occur. After the Oklahoma bombing the factual reporting of the tragedy, giving casualties and damage reports, soon gave way to commentary and opinion. In came the ‘terrorism experts’, who immediately laid the blame for the bombing at the door of Arab Islamic terrorists. One pundit went as far, as to say on air, that the public should not believe Islamic groups when they deny involvement.  CNN followed this up, by releasing the names of Arab suspects being detained for questioning. This type of reporting clearly lacks objectivity, and further reinforces the image of the Arabs as terrorists. As we all now know, far from being an Arab terrorist group, it was in fact a very conservative, God fearing, American citizen, that along with accomplices caused so much devastation and loss of life.

     As with the Oklahoma bombing, the reporting of the events of September 11th almost immediately lost objectivity. While it is true that some effort was made initially, to avoid immediately laying the blame for this act of terrorism on the Arabs or Islamists, it was not long before these same ‘terrorism experts’ and ‘Arab experts’ were airing their views across the media. In some cases, blame was placed within hours on ‘Arab terrorists’ without there being, at the time, any evidence at all that this was the case.

     Here is just an example of the objective way these events and the unfolding situation in Afghanistan is being reported:

     On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly began banging the drum loudly for ‘indiscriminate reprisals’ unless the Taliban hand over Osama Bin Ladin and dismantle his training camps. He wanted the Bush Administration to bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble, destroy their water resources and power plants. When asked about the civilian population of Afghanistan, he said. “ If they don’t rise up against the Taliban they could starve”, and just for good measure, he wanted the US to bomb Libya and Iraq.

     Another such ‘expert’ added another set of names to the list - Iran, Syria, and Sudan. He wanted Bush to give all these countries, 72 hours to comply with Washington’s demands, which, if not met, would quickly be followed by massive air strikes.

     Worst of all, the New York Post columnist Steve Dunlevey demanded, “oceans of innocent blood” and continued,  “as for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts. If we flatten Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution”.

     As it can be seen, not only is the media reinforcing these terrible stereotypes, it is encouraging America and the West to commit acts of mass murder in the name of justice. This lack of objectivity and ignorance by nearly all Western media and its personnel is truly appalling, for what it is doing, it is dehumanising the Arab people and setting them up to become the next victims in this mythical war against terrorism, being waged by America.

     The American media has wrapped itself with the American flag, and love of the country; but now this symbol of American democracy is affixed to military means of destruction. President George W. Bush has promised the American people a long war, and it seems that the American TV networks are ready to play their part in the military operation, named ‘Enduring Freedom’. They now seem unwilling to “reason why”; it seems they would “rather do and not think about it.” But far from the comforts of TV land with its modern conveniences, many people will be enduring the West’s freedom to kill. All of this sanctioned and applauded by nearly every pundit on the planet.

     But it has been the constant failure to report truthfully and fairly the situation in Palestine over the last fifty years, that has done the most damage to the image of Arabs and Islam; except from a very few honest journalists who have a deep understanding of the causes of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Western media always seem to be able to skew their coverage in favour of the Israelis. Little is said of the targeted assassinations of senior Palestinian leaders by the Israeli Army using high explosive, rocket attacks and snipers to eliminate them. But when a Palestinian gunman killed a right wing Israeli politician in retaliation for the killing of their leader, his picture, life story and views were run across all media. CNN referred to it as a terrorist attack, while failing to really mention that this revenge killing was the result of Israel’s use of murder as a political weapon.

     Little mention was also made of the innocent civilian lives that are sometimes lost because of this state terrorism. Recently, shell tearing into her home when Israeli tanks entered a Palestinian town, killed a young girl. CNN did not even mention her name, nor did bother to find out the names of the other eight people killed by this incursion. But when a angry Palestinian suicide bomber detonates himself in a restaurant full of young Israelis, CNN gives their names, seeks reactions from their relatives, shows their funerals and describes the bomber as an ‘Arab Terrorist’; then each victim is an individual. But when CNN covers the F16 air strikes on West Bank and Gaza townships, all they give is the number of dead. The Palestinian deads are hardly ever seen as individual victims of state directed terror.

     If Media Companies, such as CNN start misrepresenting the truth, then it is perhaps time for all Arabs to become activists. We should form media watch organisations and quick response groups. Even governments could be involved, setting up specialist media units, dedicated to disseminating true and factual information about Arabs and Islam and to respond quickly to careless or inaccurate reporting. Every time a false report is aired or written, or when the Arab people or their culture is misrepresented through ignorance or malice, the offending media should be swamped with e-mails, faxes, letters and phone calls, pointing out the inaccuracy or bias of the story in question. Failure to act will, in a long run, allow these false images of the Arab world to linger in the minds of Westerners, for generations to come, and will continue to be a cause of terrible misunderstanding between the Arab world and the West.


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