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Anthropology, Reporters and the Middle East

Click to see on Amazon.com

Click to see on Amazon.com

Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.

“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.

The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.

Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.

For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.

Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

To listen to a YouTube recording of our debate, please click on the photo. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.

Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.

Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.

Photo: Jak den Exter

Photo: Jak den Exter

Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.

After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.

Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.

A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs

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