August 28th, 2006 14:57 EST
Bushwhacking the news industry
The need for special knowledge keeps bushwhacking the news industry. Today we need writers who have studied China and the climate. In the past we have needed writers who understand finance or oceanography or oil geology or globalization.
But it isn’t just a matter of needing people with special knowledge; it’s often a question of not knowing we need them or not using them well. For example, we have an ample supply of Arabists, but we don’t have an ample supply of media willing to listen to them.
The other day I watched CNN covering the latest twist in the JonBenet Ramsey murder. Covering it isn't the right term. They were hyping it. Meanwhile the planet was erupting with news that didn’t seem as significant to CNN. So these insignificant eruptions—a few massacres, truce violations, evidence of massive insider trading on Wall Street, etc—were relegated to crawlers at the bottom of the screen. The usual quasi-literate crawlers.
One of these crawlers might well have been the most significant story to come out of Iraq since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. A clutch of tribal sheiks swore allegiance to the coalition government. It didn’t strike CNN as much of a story and it didn’t strike anybody else as a major story the next day. But to anybody who has studied Arab culture it was a huge story, because Arab society, in varying degrees depending on the country, remains tribal—and in Iraq to a high degree.
This was the best news the beleaguered Bush Administration could possibly have, and yet neither the Administration nor the media grasped its significance.
You can be sure Arabists all over the world are exchanging e-mails about this development. Only a month before some tribesmen in southern Iraq intervened when Islamists hassled urban youngsters for wearing Western clothing and patronizing a record shop selling Western music. The tribesmen said leave the kids alone or else.
This, too, was a significant story. Historically tribal Arabs distrust any form of government, except their own councils. But, even more significantly, they have historically been allergic to all forms of extremism. They simply don’t like to be pushed around by anyone. The Israelis understand this, which is why they try to leave their Bedouins alone and yet offer military careers to them if they want them.
Throughout Arab history governments have been able to function by leaving Bedouins alone. They often constitute the backbone of Arab armies. They sometimes participate in national government. But they don't tolerate intrusions on their way of life.
If the fundamentalists in Iraq get on the wrong side of the Bedouins nothing will save them, not even the American military.
In the early 1970s, worried about the clamorous extremism of his growing Palestinian population, the late King Hussein of Jordan unleashed his Jordan Legion on armed Palestinians. The result was a massacre. The Israelis have never inflicted the losses on the
Palestinians that Hussein’s Bedouin soldiers did. The Jordanian monarchy rests squarely on the present King Abdullah’s Bedouin soldiers.
Consider Algeria in the far west of the Arab world. The Algerian army, well regarded by military analysts, has waged a relentless and bloody campaign against fundamentalists. The backbone of that army is Bedouin.
Urban Arab business classes and intelligentsia have a love-hate relationship with the Bedouins. The Bedouin is perceived as the prototypical Arab. It was the Bedouins who created an Arab empire at the point of their lances. But on the other hand the Bedouin is often perceived as ignorant, backward and feckless. The Bedouins don’t respond to ideologies. They don’t even regard themselves as Arabs; they regard themselves as members of particular tribes. And yet they are aware in their collective unconscious of being the people upon whom Arab history hinges, because, like the Native Americans, especially the Plains natives, with whom they have a great deal in common, they call themselves The People.
But this incalculably important aspect of Arab culture again and again eludes the media and the government.
The reporter whose reportage has consistently reflected this historical subtext is the Briton Robert Fisk, who writes for The Independent. This Beirut-based Middle East hand covered the Algerian war for independence. But his coverage, widely respected by his peers, remains nonetheless a voice in the wilderness.
So it isn’t always enough to have the special knowledge to put the news in context, you must have senior editors and political operatives who grasp the importance of the knowledge.
All too often important news, like the decision of the Bedouin sheiks in Iraq, washes by under the radar. But if you were to challenge CNN about this they would, in all likelihood, say with some degree of truth that they covered this story. And so they did. Once, inadequately and ignorantly.