US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

What  they say…

What they hope you think…

What it really means…

”Reports are coming in of a shooting/bombing…”

”This news organization is connected to all major news sources…”

”An intern happened to be on Twitter…”
”As yet, there are no indications that this is a terrorist act…” ”These guys are really being careful not to draw any conclusions…”

”As yet. But we can hope…”

”There are reports that this could, we repeat could, be an act of terror…” ”This is a complex story with potentially deep geo-political implications…” ”The suspect isn’t white…”
”The assailant is reported to have links to a possible terrorist cell…” ”These terrorists are far more organized in the US than we imagined…” ”The suspect has friends with weird names on Facebook…”
”We now turn to our Senior Domestic Security Analyst…” ”Wow! This channel has some knowledgeable people…” ”Only person in newsroom with degree in Political Science…”
”It seems possible that this is not, repeat not, an act or terror…” ”Thank God…” ”Despite what we suggested, it would appear that not all non-whites are Muslim…”
“Sources now confirm that they are now not treating this as an act of terror…” “Good. Now that is confirmed…” “We can confirm that the suspect is white…”
”This would appear to be a domestic incident…” ”So, this is just the work of a deranged nut…” ”Shit. Now we have to talk about gun control again…”
“Of course, we can never entirely rule out the possibility of home-grown terror…” “We must be vigilant when it comes to far-right extremists…” “Didn’t CNN say something once about a Norwegian Al Qaeda…?”
”The situation is fluid…” ”These guys are covering a fast-moving story…” ”We really don’t have a clue what’s going on…”
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Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

by Christian Christensen

Several years ago the highly-acclaimed – and supposedly über-liberal – television series The West Wing aired an episode in which President Bartlet had to address a diplomatic crisis involving Turkey. The story was that a woman in Turkey, found guilty of having sex with her fiancée before marriage, had been sentenced to death by beheading under religious laws implemented by a newly-elected Turkish government. The crisis for Bartlet was that he supported Turkish efforts to join the EU, but, naturally, opposed the beheading of women by rabid Muslim lunatics. In the end, Bartlet, while condemning the execution, maintained his support for Turkish EU membership. The sheer idiocy of this episode prompted me to publish a commentary in which I pointed out that, in reality, not only is Sharia Law a non-factor in the Turkish legal system, but Turkey – unlike the United States that President Bartlet presides over – does not even have the death penalty.

In broad strokes, conservatives hated the show because of a perceived liberal bias; liberals loved the show because it had a Democratic president with backbone, intelligence and ethics. The West Wing undoubtedly provided a kind of political pacifier to US liberals suffering through the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration. What made The West Wing Turkish story so egregious was the fact that the show was hailed as some kind of benchmark for “thoughtful” scriptwriting on behalf of the political left (US left, that is). The injection of a blatantly ill-informed, Islamophobic storyline into what was spun as an intelligent program only highlighted the extent to which, once one cracks the veneer of enlightenment encasing shows like The West Wing, what lies beneath is often little better than cheap xenophobia.

And this brings us to Homeland. Winner of back-to-back Golden Globes for “Best Television Series – Drama” the show has garnered positive feedback, including the following in a December 2012 Guardian editorial entitled, “In Praise of…Homeland”:

The presentation of good and evil is far more nuanced than in a conventional political thriller. One minute, the war on terror is depicted as a sad necessity; the next, terrorists show their human side. Herein lies Homeland’s strength: it is difficult to know where one’s sympathies should lie. The truth, as in life, hovers in the grey areas in between.    

Similarly, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker lauded the show for being the “antidote” to superficial shows about terrorism such as 24 (in fact, Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were both writers on 24), finding Homeland to be, “surprisingly grounded in the world we live in.”

Therein, I would argue, we find the heart of the problem. The West Wing and Homeland may very well do a better (but not necessarily good) job of reflecting the nuances of politics or counter-terrorism in the United States than blunt fare such as 24, but these are, as Nussbaum put it, reflections of the world “we live in.” And which “we” is that, exactly? As Laila Al Arian noted, Homeland repeats so many Muslim stereotypes, and contains so many errors in fact and detail about Muslim and/or Arab culture, that she labels the program “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” (Reading Al Arian’s piece provides many excellent examples.)

Yes, The West Wing and Homeland contain dialog about the US political process and the War on Terror seldom, if ever, heard on US television. But if that dialog contains basic factual errors or crude stereotypes, then it is worth asking what, precisely, the show contributes to broader understanding of the issues in question? If the writers of The West Wing tell viewers that Turkey has a system of quasi-Sharia Law in place where women are beheaded for adultery, then no amount of sharp, intelligent writing can overcome the damage done by the use of that dramatic vehicle. Similarly, and as Al Arian points out in her Salon article, Homeland is based upon a single, overarching premise: that it is Brody’s conversion to Islam which enables his planned attacks against the United States. There are other factors (such as the death of the boy Issa), of course, but the core of the show revolves around his conversion.

And this is where Nussbaum’s notion of Homeland being “grounded in the world we live in” returns. The program is grounded, yes, but it is grounded in the America Americans live in: an America where an understanding of the nuances of Islam and countries with predominantly Muslim populations remains at a fairly elemental level. What makes programs such as Homeland dangerous is the idea that they represent a deeper, more mature analysis of these geo-politics, when, in fact, they represent a deeper analysis of a particular, limited understanding of geo-politics. Similarly, when critics hail programs like The West Wing and Homeland for their depth, intelligence and grounding in reality, the impact of Islamophobic content is all the more damaging. No-one expected 24 to be culturally-aware in relation to Islam, so when Islamophobic content emerged in the show, it was hardly a surprise. But, when Islamophobic material crops up in Homeland, it is easier to deflect critique of this material by pointing out the relative depth and relative broad-mindedness of the show. That is the problem with relativity in this context: when 24 or Jerry Bruckheimer are your bias benchmarks, then all is takes is content that is a bit less ethnocentric and a bit less xenophobic to make yourself look enlightened.

When critics hail Homeland, they would do well to ask themselves how they would react to a program where a Muslim captive at Guantanamo Bay succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, converts to Christianity, returns to Kabul/Tehran/Riyadh, rises through the political ranks to a position of authority, and, with the help of a radical Christian CNN journalist, plots a campaign of terror in his home country at the behest of a Christian extremist. I think I can guess some of the words used to describe such a program, but “nuanced” and “grounded” would not be among them.

5 Arguments Why Opposing Islamophobia is Not a Defense of Extremism

(The following post has been published in Le Monde Diplomatique and Counterpunch.)

Recent events have generated a lot of debate about Islam, Muslims, free speech and Islamophobia. Unfortunately, much of that debate has fallen back upon rather tired arguments about not only what “Muslims are like” but also how those who oppose Islamophobia are somehow defending repression or appeasing extremists. In this short piece I would like to boil these lines of thinking down into five basic arguments, and offer my counter-response.

#1: Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam, but radical Islam is, for example, anti-feminism and anti-gay. So, to fear the spread is not irrational, and, thus, not Islamophobic.

I’ve heard this one a lot. The problem is that this statement takes as a point of departure that Islamophobia is all about an opposition to radical, fundamentalist Islam.  It isn’t. If fear of radical Islam were the same as “Islamophobia” then a lot of secular Muslims in Turkey could (ironically) be classified as Islamophobic. They are not, however, because Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims in general, not just extremists, and rooted in crude stereotypes by which all Muslims are lumped together as some kind of uniform mass. There are plenty of anti-feminist, anti-gay elements within Christianity, for example, but those elements are rarely portrayed as representative of Christians as a whole. The problem is that it is the radical fundamentalist image of the Muslim which is usually used as the “default” image for all Muslims. This is what I have called the “hegemony of Islam” perspective whereby, in terms of identity, being a Muslim is seen as trumping all other factors: be they economics, education, gender, family history, and so on. In other words, in this stereotypical view, if you are a Muslim, your identity is subservient to your religious identification, with all other influencing factors a distant second. This faulty logic is applied to all Muslims, whether fundamentalist or not. That’s Islamophobia.

#2: Criticizing the very making of “Innocence of Muslims” and/or the Muhammad cartoons has a chilling effect on free speech, and is a form of soft censorship.

According to this line of thinking, “Innocence of Muslims” and the Muhammad cartoons are protected by free speech, but to criticize their making and/or content is somehow borderline censorship. No. To critique the manner in which free speech is exercised is in no way the same thing as saying that the right should be revoked or the speech banned. To use another example: I am opposed to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am also opposed to any bans on protesting against these occupations. If, however, anti-war protesters decided to stage a protest at the funeral of a soldier killed in the war, and did so with placards saying that the solder deserved to die, then I would question both the mode and content of their free speech. That does not mean I would want to ban either their right to gather or their right to speech. It just means that I am exercising my right to free speech to question how others have exercised that same right. That’s how, not if. The interplay is actually the crystallization of free speech in action. The same goes for the anti-Islam film and cartoons. If you want to make an inflammatory film/carton during a time of crisis: fine. But don’t then be surprised if others exercise their rights in response.

#3: Muslim fundamentalists do not respect the values of free speech: look at what happened to Theo Van Gogh and Salman Rushdie. Why should we worry about their being offended?

This goes back to the point I made earlier: no-one who opposes Islamophobia is worried about the feelings of small numbers of unrepresentative, violent extremists. To bring up Theo Van Gogh or Salman Rushdie is to suggest that most Muslims were/are somehow in favor of Van Gogh’s murder, or the fatwah against Rushdie. If anyone has any solid evidence to support those extremely broad suggestions, I have yet to see it. It is also a very convenient strategy: to bring up Van Gogh when discussing Islamophobia as it is so emotive. Is the suggestion that the vast majority Muslims are simply unable of being offended without an accompanying desire to kill the person(s) who offended them? Yes, his murder was a terrible crime, but who has ever said that murder is an acceptable by-product of opposing Islamophobic words and pictures? Few, if any.

#4: Free speech is part of democratic society, and so these riots proved that many predominantly Muslim countries are not ready for democracy.

This would be a great argument were not so utterly de-contextualized. The basis of this line of reasoning is that free speech is a beloved component of European and North American socio-political reality. People in these regions can speak their minds without fear of reprisal, unlike countries in, for example, the “Middle East” where religious dissent is met with violence or death.  Let’s not be naïve here: many regimes in predominantly Muslim nations are incredibly violent and repressive, and their commitment to freedom of speech (as well as freedom of assembly and fundamental human rights) is close to zero. But if you think that this type of repression is relegated to the “Muslim world” then I would suggest brushing up on post-war South American dictatorships (start with Chile); or the recent history of the Balkans.  And, closer to home (for me, at least), it would be worth having a chat about actual tolerance for freedom of speech in the United States with Americans who dared to utter some uncomfortable truths about US geo-politics on September 12, 2001. Saudi Arabia is often held up as the poster-child for free speech repression in the name of Islam.  Is that the same Sharia-loving, free-speech hating Saudi Arabia, staunch US and UK ally, who in 2010 purchased $60 billion in US arms and whose leader was warmly welcomed by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2007? The one and same.

#5: Why should progressives spend time defending a religious group when there are far more pressing issues (such as poverty, gender inequality, etc.)? 

I don’t think of opposing Islamophobia as defending Islam any more that I consider opposing anti-Semitism as some kind of de facto support for Judaism.  Opposing Islamophobia is about opposing knee-jerk discrimination and xenophobia, dressed up as concern for “rights” (rights I rarely see addressed in other contexts) using vulgar stereotypes and crude generalizations. Finally, it is worth considering more precisely the role that poverty and inequality have played in the current unrest. While films, cartoons and religious fervor are held up as the main causes of the riots, I would suspect that a number of other factors have played into these events. If, however, we ignore these other factors in favor of the simple answer – “Muslim Rage” – then we contribute to an environment in which Islamophiobia, and thus discrimination, will thrive.

#JournoRage: “Why do they write so much?”

#JournoRage: “Why do they write so much?”

A balanced Opinion piece by Christian Christensen

It was horrible. Just horrible. I was at home taking a shower before work when it started. The noise was indescribable…shouting, garbled words, swooshing noises and strange music. It was like we were under attack. I put on a towel and rushed into the living room, and that’s when I saw it. My 3-year-old son had turned on the TV. It was Fox News. It was like they were possessed. Waving their arms frantically, wild-eyed, yelling something about “Muslims,” “Islam” and “riots.” One of them, that blonde woman, I mean…I can’t be sure, but I think she actually started frothing at the mouth. Look, I’m not prejudiced, or anything. My niece goes to school with the daughter of a journalist. I respect their beliefs, but they just looked crazy. It’s when I heard the name Michele Bachmann mentioned…that’s when I grabbed my son and just ran. This is the safety of my kid we are talking about.”

Is this the new, disturbing face of modern journalism? Who are these people, and what drives them to write and speak on a wide range of issues without any consideration of the consequences? Tellingly, the woman who told me this story  wished to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals from a group that has become increasing “radicalized” and isolated in recent years: people who choose to remain locked up in “bureaux” (as they exotically call their camps) in London, New York and Paris.

What began as a routine story has turned into a worldwide series of attacks. There are reports of aggressive, highly de-contextualized opinion pieces appearing in newspapers and magazines as far away as Oslo, London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Amsterdam. Innocent bystanders in Washington were subjected to virulent articles about why Muslims “hate us,” while the Newsweek “Muslim Rage” cover picture caused a Twitter panic as users rushed to send messages to loved ones, urging them to exercise caution and avoid the website entirely. Said one Barcelona commuter: “That Newsweek cover was just sick. What is it that these people want? There are, what, a billion Muslims in the world? But they keep insisting that these groups of rioters represent all of them? Look, I’m not prejudiced. When I was a kid our neighbor was an editor, and she seemed like a nice woman. I’m sure they are sincere in their beliefs, but these people won’t listen to reason. What can you do?”

It is unclear if these pieces were spontaneous, or part of an organized campaign. According to unconfirmed reports, however, some of the participants may have attended special schools where, as young adults, they were trained in writing, as well as taking Orwellian-sounding “modules” in subjects such as “Political Science” or “The History of Western Civilization.” Precisely what role these schools play in spreading this particular brand of information ideology is unclear, but what is clear is that there exists the possibility that extremist “cells” are exerting an increasing influence on the community.

We are told that those responsible are only a small minority, and not representative of the so-called “moderate” elements within the profession. Perhaps. But until the leaders of these moderate elements clearly, unanimously and unequivocally condemn the extremists, we can only assume that their silence is tantamount to support. Being part of a modern, democratic society means placing reason above emotion, because when the foundation of logic begins to crack, the entire structure will fall.

God Save Us From the Islam Cliches

It is sad to say, but a 2006 piece I wrote for the British Journalism Review on the skewed coverage of predominantly Muslim nations entitled, God Save Us From the Islam Cliches does not appear to have lost relevance. The opening section is about Turkey, but the majority addresses broader coverage. You can click on the link to access a PDF version.

Christensen, C. (2006). God Save Us From The Islam Clichés. British Journalism Review, 17(1): 65-70.

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