Covering Islam begins on op-ed page.
I attended several seminars on Iraq in which the media took quite a grilling. At one of them, a fellow panelist excoriated The New York Times and Washington Post for "look[ing] the other way" while the administration dragged America into "this disastrous war" He said Americans "can remain ignorant of the Muslim world at our peril," and so "newspapers need to allot more space" and media in general more resources to cover it.
Did he think, a woman asked, that the Times and Post "would have told us what we're getting into" in Iraq if they had "a few more Judy Millers and Charles Krauthammers" on their staffs? The audience broke into laughter, and my colleague didn't answer.
I disagree with the notion that stuffing more Iraq copy into the news hole or editorial pages during the run-up to the war would have alerted Americans to the war's fallout. In fact, media had poured out a torrent of Iraq stories and commentaries before the war.
Reporters, editors, and broadcasters are products of their societies. Their news judgment derives mainly from their cultural values. The values that guided most American journalists in framing stories about the war were those of the sole superpower that had won the Cold War and two world wars. Plans to transform Iraq into a peaceable democracy called up their memories of turning Nazi Germany into a democratic ally. It seemed an exciting moral project.
So facts and arguments pointing to the perils of the war often didn't make the cut in their stories. I know of Middle East specialists who tried frantically but unsuccessfully to publish op-eds warning that the war would unravel Iraq and bring Islamists to power. As Iraq bleeds and America reels from the war's human and material costs, we know better the hazards of reporting and analyzing news about a Muslim society from the American vantage-point, from where Muslim antipathy for Christian or Western hegemony and the strength of ethnic and religious bonds in a post-colonial state are hard to fathom.
American media can and will do a good job of covering the Muslim world, but they mostly aren't there yet. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center told me in 2004 that his outfit had found that "two-thirds" of American reporters who covered Muslim societies "don't have the background." Islam is a new beat for most American journalists, who will take a little while to get the hang of it. European media generally can handle Islamic issues somewhat better because Europeans have known Muslim societies for centuries.
I suggest that the op-ed page lead the way to providing readers with an inside view of Islam for purely practical reasons. The news and editorial pages can't undertake the task without having writers with a grounding in Islam. Those writers take time to train and come aboard. The op-ed editor can serve up a rich variety of Islamic viewpoints now, and on the cheap. American Islamic scholars of different persuasions are always offering to comment on Muslim issues.
I think it would be worthwhile to give them a try.
Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based opinion writer, worked as a columnist, London bureau chief, and editor for the Pakistan Observer, Hartford Courant, and Washington Times. E-mail Mmalik41@comcast.net
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|Title Annotation:||SYMPOSIUM: Editorializing on international issues|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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