This week’s Listening Post–the Al Jazeera program that includes clips from citizens all over the world with varying views–discusses “Syria’s media tug of war.” I haven’t listened yet (I’m at a conference) but the subject is pertinent and timely.
Today, there are two stories making the rounds that illustrate this “tug of war” perfectly. The first is a New York Times blog post that demonstrates the Syrian state news agency’s (SANA) falsification of evidence in its argument that rebels are funded by foreign agents. Another, on CNN and elsewhere, reports a tragedy: More than 40 Syrian soldiers allegedly executed by the regime. In this case, the story may very well be true…but the only source is unnamed “activists.”
In fact, the latter is entirely illustrative of the mainstream Western (and Gulf) media’s approach to Syria. A quick glance at the reporting done by the New York Times, CNN, Alarabiya, and others shows that “unnamed activists,” “Syrian opposition activists,” and “human rights activists” are their primary–and often, only–sources.
In a paper I wrote for the conference I’m currently attending, I analyzed the reporting of several mainstream news sources on Syrian casualty reports between November 2011 and February 2012. While that paper isn’t quite ready for prime time, here’s a table illustrating what I found:
As I intend to argue in my paper, these sources…and their numbers (which vary wildly) matter. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have personal history with Syria. I have known and talked about the horrors of the regime since long before March 2011. But while even 1,000 civilian deaths are far too many, these numbers matter when they’re being used to justify intervention. The media’s almost total reliance upon activists–not simply citizens, but self-described activists–is therefore problematic.
And yet, criticizing that fact has become even more problematic. As I said on Twitter earlier today, “question activist reports and you’re shabih. Report on regime atrocities and you’re a shill for the GCC.” Seriously…you can’t win. The international community largely appears to view Syria in terms of black and white when the situation is in fact quite grey…or at the very least, unclear, unverifiable.
This brings me back to the point about the media. At the moment, you have what is essentially a divide between journalists, commentators, and media bureaus that are very clearly pushing the opposition line and those that appear to be shilling for the regime. And there’s no middle ground – there’s almost no one condemning the regime, for example, whilst simultaneously questioning the dominant opposition narrative. Those who dare search for truth are immediately labeled as being on one side or the other.
This post isn’t about which side is right or wrong. As I’ve said before, what I think about Syria is well-known but frankly, it truly doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What concerns me, rather, is that the media–whose job it is to report facts, objectively*–is not only pushing a certain narrative, but also ignoring certain truths: the non-civilian casualty toll, for example (this one in particular bothers me when I think about all of my friends that did or almost did their compulsory Syrian military service).
What bothers me most, however, is the sheer certainty with which both sides attempt to make their points. The New Yorker in the screenshot above, for example, is so sure that “one side is for life, the other for death.” I’m not so sure. I’m certain that the regime is killing civilians (if you’re going to argue with me on that, just go away), but I’m not sure that there aren’t bad actors amongst the legitimate opposition. I can’t be sure…especially not when the media isn’t doing their job.
*not my favorite term, as you might know, but it’s nonetheless relevant.