Rethinking the Middle East – Will the Western Media Rise to the Challenge?
I was asked to give a speech yesterday in New York about media coverage regarding Israel. Here is the text of the speech.
My name is Avi Melamed.
I’m an Independent Middle East Expert and a Strategic Intelligence Analyst.
I’m an Israeli Jew.
I’m here today, not as a prosecutor.
I’m here today, not to blame and accuse the media.
I’m here today to address the Western media.
Not from a place of resentment or criticism; rather, I’m here today to respectfully address the Western media from a place of seeking cooperation and a better mutual understanding.
Over the last generation a disturbing process has taken place in regard to knowledge in the West about the Middle East.
Narratives have replaced facts and theories have replaced reality.
The Middle East reality became subject to concepts and narratives generated and perpetuated within circles guided by a Western mindset and Western codes of thinking – which rarely have anything to do with the Middle East reality, mindset and codes of thinking.
These concepts and narratives became embedded in certain circles of influence – and what I call a “looping echo chamber” developed.
This “looping echo chamber “of concepts and narratives were perceived to be the Middle East “reality.”
Yet, in many cases, the reality was by far totally different.
And the Western Media bears considerable responsibility for the creation of that false reality.
I do respect and cherish the role and the importance of the media. But with that role comes responsibility.
Journalists, reporters, analysts and anchors are given the privilege to educate and expand knowledge. They are given the power to shape public opinion, to impact policy, and to shape and influence policy makers.
It is because of that privilege that the media must adopt greater responsibility.
It is because of that responsibility that the media must practice an everlasting inquisitive, questioning and interrogating approach.
The media has the responsibility to adopt a mindset which seeks to learn more profoundly about the facts, the trends, the sequence of events and the historical perspectives.
The media has a responsibility to commit themselves to present a much more accurate, comprehensive picture of the Middle East reality.
Unfortunately, in the context of Israel, it seems as if the Western media quite often portrays Israel in a negative light – sometimes in an even distorted and unbalanced way; while neglecting or minimizing the facts, the trends, the historical context and the sequence of events which shape the challenges Israel confronts.
I know that many people think that the Western media’s biased approach towards Israel is motivated by hostility. I do not necessarily subscribe to that point of view.
I think that that line of argument does not serve Israel – nor the Western media.
I think that that argument exempts the Western media from doing its due diligence, it creates feelings of resentment, and thus reduces the willingness of the media to be more receptive to Israel’s needs and arguments.
Furthermore, accusing the media of hostility towards Israel does not allow for the creation of a constructive, productive dialogue that will enable more balanced coverage of Israel in the various media outlets .
I also think that this argument is doing an injustice to the many journalists and reporters who are trying to do their job and complete their assignments the best way they can – sometimes operating in very challenging conditions. It is not a simple task to be a journalist in Iraq or Syria or Iran or Yemen or the Gaza Strip.
I think that the negative coverage of Israel in the Western media stems first and foremost from the fact that the Arab perspectives, narratives and outlook were embedded within the media discourse and awareness as the “right one.”
Concepts like “Israel is the aggressor” or “The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is the source for instability in the Middle East” or “The fence Israel built is an apartheid fence” or “Israel deliberately creates the humanitarian crisis in The Gaza Strip.” These and many other concepts have become imbedded in wide parts of public opinion as uncontroversial truths and unquestionable facts.
In many of my briefings when these concepts come up I ask the person, for example, how they know so decisively that these concepts truly reflect reality and I ask them what the basis of their knowledge is? The common answer is often “well everybody knows.” This is how concepts and narratives become noncontroversial “reality” and “facts.”
There are two reasons for that. Both are very elementary – yet crucial.
One reason is the simple fact that most of the Western media professionals do not speak Arabic – the main language of the Middle East.
Due to the lack of knowledge of the language, the Western media has limited tools to delve, to check and to verify information provided by the eloquent Arab spokespeople who quite often fluently speak the foreign languages like English, German, French, etc.
Quite often these spokespeople – knowing very well who they are talking to – use the right buzz words and the PC terminology that resonates very easily with average Western mindset, codes and values. These words are music to the ears of the Western reporter and are easy for them to report and to identify with – mentally and emotionally.
These spokespeople totally control what kind of the information they want to provide the journalists with, and no less important – the information they do not want the journalists to know.
The second reason is the fact that an average correspondent in Syria or Iraq or Iran or Turkey – or “almost any other place” in the Middle East – does not enjoy a free access to local sources of knowledge and information.
Moreover, he or she will be under strict monitoring surveillance, censorship and, sometimes under intimidation by the local authorities.
I said “almost any other place in the Middle East” because there is one place in the Middle East where freedom of journalism is fully respected – and this place is Israel.
As an outcome of not knowing Arabic and being dependent on mediators, translators, spokesman – or even drivers – the knowledge of the Western media about the reality in the Middle East is limited; and the information they get is mediated, processed and sometimes – cynically manipulated.
Here is a true story:
I was about to be on a panel discussing The Arab Street in The Arab World Today. A distinguished, veteran reporter who reports on Palestinian issues for very prominent journals and newspapers in the West was to be on the panel with me. He came to me before the session very nervous. He admitted to me that he and his colleagues – because they don’t speak Arabic – really don’t know anything. Because they don’t speak Arabic they are completely dependent on others for their information. On the panel he admitted that none of them saw the coming of The Arab Spring. (As a side note: I have been forecasting, briefing and lecturing about the coming eruption in the Arab World since 2005.)
Because the Western media, are not fluent in Arabic they are not able to read the Arab street or have their finger on the pulse of the Arab world.
The reporters that shape public opinion when it comes to the Arab world are, for the most part, completely dependent on mediated information.
The “knowledge” of reporters that don’t speak Arabic is conveyed to the West as “reality.”
Yet is far from the accurate picture.
The reality they show and report is at best a partial, sometime times distorted picture, in which ironically and sadly it is Israel – the one and only true democracy in the Middle East – that is presented negatively.
I have no illusions. It is unlikely to expect that Western reporters covering the Middle East will be fluent in Arabic. And Israel will continue to be the only place in the Middle East where journalists truly enjoy the full freedom to practice their mission and profession.
Nevertheless, I think it is important to raise the awareness of the Western media to the facts I have mentioned because it does not absolve them from their professional and moral responsibility.
I hope that such an awareness will encourage every Western media professional who honestly strives to perform to the highest professional standards, to develop methods, tools and sources of knowledge that are essential for any good reporter. This is doable – even without knowing Arabic.
Furthermore, it is every media professional’s responsibility to employ critical thinking skills which would result in a much more skeptical attitude toward information provided by Arab speakers and spokespeople – and Israelis too by the way – that’s ok. Everyone should be held to rigorous standards.
Employing critical thinking will afford the Western media a better understanding of the Middle East reality and will result in a much more balanced presentation of Israel.
In the era of Instagram, WhatsApp , Facebook and other social media networks, where narratives, concepts and myths are perceived as “reality”, it is the obligation of the professional media to adopt and exercise a critical thinking approach.
It is time for the Western media to reevaluate its approach towards coverage of the Middle East.
It is time that the Western media should ask itself one basic yet crucial question:
“What do we really know?”
It is time for Western media to rethink the Middle East and the coverage of Israel.
Will Western media rise to that challenge?