Analysis: What is behind the distorted media view of the Middle East?

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May 9, 2016 06:05

There are certain circumstances where media spin works, expert tells ‘Post’ in wake of NYT Magazine piece on Ben Rhodes.

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RHODES

BEN RHODES. (photo credit:KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

The groundbreaking article in The New York Times Magazine published on Thursday revealed that journalism covering the Middle East is mired in deeply rooted problems.

The White House manipulated a pliant press to push its narrative in order to build support for the Iran deal negotiations.

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“We created an echo chamber,” Ben Rhodes, Barak Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, was quoted as saying. He explained that clueless reporters “were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes said.

“Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Israeli and Western media covering the region often suffer from the same problems due to a lack of expertise or spin and a dependence on certain NGOs, governments, or local media which is of dubious credibility.

For the Israeli media, the lack of access to the Arab world and Iran has led to media coverage that is far removed from reality on the ground and is often based on sketchy media reports coming from outlets that are biased since they are supporting one of the parties in the regional upheavals.

“There are certain circumstances where media spin works, and one of which is when journalists are dealing with faraway places,” Prof. Zvi Reich from the department of communication at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Sunday. There is a Jewish saying, noted Reich, that states, “If someone wants to lie, he will distance his testimony.”

“Spin is not an independent phenomenon, it happens in a specific media context. I cannot spin you about the neighborhood you live in, but only about places you know less about or which are out of your sight,” he continued.

Other factors that facilitate spin is when there is a lack of access like in Iran and the fact that many journalists covering the White House these days are generalists and are not specialists in the various subjects involved in actual White House policies.

This has come about as news rooms and budgets shrink, resulting in less in-depth background stories on foreign countries of interest, said Reich, who previously worked as an editor at Yediot Aharonot.

“Today, journalists are demanded to do more with less: less time and expertise and more areas to cover,” he said.

In the past, remarked Reich, editors would give a journalist time to work on a story, but today that is far less common with the 24-hours news cycle.

Another factor that contributes to a shallower media is what has been termed “Click-economics of the media,” where the news media “looks for audience-engaging stories – an event driven news as opposed to more analysis and deeper pieces,” he explained.

In the case at hand, continued Reich, Iran was the country in focus. Iran is not an “elite” country such as Western Europe, Russia or China that are the focus of the media’s attention.

“If Iran doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead,” quips the media expert.

If there is an immediate threat to a Western country, the media goes there, but if there is a long-term threat, which is the case of Iran for the US, then Iran gets low media ratings, said Reich.

One of the main problems with covering Iran, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, is that the information coming out is not trustworthy.

“Is there accurate official data on the main parameters of the Iranian economy? No, it is mostly speculation. The problem is a lack of reliable data.”

Asked about the problem of information overload and how media coverage often devolves into quoting regional media reports of dubious accuracy, Reich responded that the issue is how the information is evaluated.

“An expert can dismiss a report he sees as dubious, but a layman might go with it,” said Reich, comparing it to one who goes to a doctor complaining of minor stomach pains only for the expert to diagnose him with a serious condition. “This is because the doctor deals with the full picture and not isolated factors.

“The expert is able to know what is a signal within all of the noise,” he concluded.

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