Monday, January 11, 2010

BIAS AND PREJUDICE IN THE PRESS : NO STORY IS EVER SIMPLE

AN ESSAY

I read the New York Post for two main reasons. First and foremost, it makes me laugh. The headlines are just flat-out funny. Its staff writes in a nasty, even satirical style to mock celebrities and other visible, well-off folks (invisible tycoons are different story because they are not visible). It also covers local New York City stories quite well. In all these ways, the Post is "populist:" It provides a laugh while dispensing relatively accurate local news.

Still, I read the Post for a second reason: To understand my intellectual opponents. While the Post's generic local coverage is populist and funny, its editorial spirit is neither populist nor funny. In fact, it is terrifyingly biased. That's not to say that the Post is any more biased than another newspaper. Every newspaper has a distinct perspective. But the Post's perspective is extremely right-wing. Bill O'Reilly writes columns in the Opinion section. 'Nuff said.

I like getting my news from as many sources as possible. I understand that human sense does not permit me to directly perceive too much in the world. So I turn to second-hand reporting to fill in the gaps. And because second-hand reporting necessarily reflects the bias of those who perceive things, I expect bias when I read newspapers.

For me, reading the news is as much about learning competing arguments as it is about learning "facts." As a philosophical matter, I have difficulty even understanding what a "fact" is, especially when I have no first-hand knowledge about the matter in issue. News reporting purports to relay "just facts." But in reality, its "facts" reflect interpretation and bias as much as any objective "truth." In that light, I suspect every fact I read in a newspaper. The only things I can confidently learn are the newspaper's biases and arguments.

And what luscious biases I find in the Post. To be fair, all American newspapers espouse a particularly virulent bias against Islam. But the Post takes shortsighted prejudice to a fantastic extreme. For almost a decade now, Americans have wondered why "Muslim extremists" attacked the United States on 9/11. I have always known why: Because Western commercial values--which treasure earthly existence over all things--clash fundamentally with Muslim teachings--which eschew earthly success for spiritual success. The fact that Western powers have long encroached on Muslim territory for commercial gain brings this tension in values to confrontation. In essence, the struggle between the West and Islam is a struggle between competing views of human existence: One grossly secular; the other grossly religious. Both are anathema to one another. Misunderstanding and acrimony are inevitable.

But you won't find that analysis in any American newspaper. Rather, you'll find self-righteous odes to the American way over the Muslim way. It's a colossal exercise in "us vs. them." No newspaper makes an effort to see the debate from the Muslim perspective. Heavens no; that would be treasonous. Instead, American newspapers--especially the Post--fan resentment against the "mortal Muslim enemy" by exulting American values over Muslim ones. In the process, they cast difficult questions in a simplistic light, using prejudice and stereotypes distort reality.

Consider two recent Post articles that illustrate these tactics at work. In the first, the Post reports about a Muslim man who fled the FBI, leading agents on a 90 MPH chase through Queens that culminated in a crash and foot chase on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. See N.Y. Post, Bridge 'Terror' Thug's Allah Cry, Jan. 9, 2010 at 5. The article says that the man--Adis Medunjanin--was a "high school acquaintance" of Najibullah Zazi, the New York student arrested last year for hoarding drugstore hydrogen peroxide in an alleged effort to build a bomb. Id. The FBI staked out his home for months. Finally, Medunjanin just left the house and ran. According to the report, he "praised Allah" in Arabic shortly before striking a car on the bridge. The report also claims he said: "We love death more than you love life!" in Arabic. Id. Finally, it says that authorities first merely charged him with leaving the scene of an accident. Later, they added terror-related charges. Id.

It is not clear how anyone heard these statements. The article does not say how FBI agents could hear what Medunjanin was saying in the instant before he crashed his car. It is also not clear under what circumstances he said "we love death more than you love life."

What is the net effect here? In short, the report leads the uncritical reader to assume that Medunjanin is a terrorist because he "said things in Arabic" and because he praised Allah. These are gross stereotypes. After all, what does the neutral evidence show here? It shows that Medunjanin was a high school acquaintance of a terror suspect six years ago. There is no evidence that they interacted with each other since that time. The FBI surveilled Medunjanin for months. Presumably, they also wiretapped him. The article does not divulge what the FBI may have heard in those wiretaps. All we know is that Medunjanin fled and crashed his car after saying something in Arabic about Allah, life and death. Those details suffice to brand him a terrorist.

That is bias at its worst.

What about presuming people innocent in the United States? What about fairness? How can Medunjanin escape the stigma that will now follow him? I find all these things unfortunate. After all, we are talking about a criminal prosecution for terrorism. That carries severe penalties. Yet the Post here gave Medunjanin an unfair trial before he was even arraigned. In so doing, it revealed the pernicious American bias that pervades our media: It made him a terrorist because he spoke Arabic, had a Muslim name, mentioned Allah and knew a suspected terrorist six years ago.

But is this the only conclusion to draw from the evidence? Perhaps Medunjanin simply "lost it" after being surveilled without reason for so long. And how do we know what he said in the car before he crashed? What if he said something in English, rather than Arabic? Would that have made a difference? What if he had said: "Oh shit, I'm about to crash" in Arabic? Would that still make him a terrorist? Who knows. All I know is that no one ever reports on these difficult questions in the American press--and especially not the Post.

In the second article, the Post again espouses its virulent prejudice toward Muslims. See N.Y. Post, How Did 'Undy Bomber' Get a Visa? Jan. 9, 2010 at p. 19. Columnist Michelle Malkin takes the opportunity to both generalize about Muslims and castigate the Obama administration for not spotting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before his failed bomb attack on Christmas Day.

Malkin argues that U.S. consular officials should never issue "coveted entrance pass[es]" to "globe-trotting, Nigerian-born nomad[s]" who "buy tickets in cash" without "checking in much baggage." Id. Later, she adds that "unmarried, rootless Muslim male nomads" should never receive U.S. visas, either.

Leaving the practical problems associated with Malkin's consular formula to one side, I find it appalling that she recommends a Federal policy based on invidious religious and ethnic stereotypes. After all, Malkin says that "Muslim male nomads" should not be allowed into the United States. Neither should "Nigerian-born" nomads, or "rootless" people, or "globe-trotters," or "unmarried people" or "people who fly with little baggage." These are not workable standards. And they are certainly not standards to which the United States should subscribe, a country that has always prided itself on diversity and equality. It would be awkward at best for the U.S. State Department to advertise America's openness to the world by saying: "Come one, come all…unless you're Muslim, a nomad, unmarried or Nigerian-born."

Hell, I'm unmarried, I fly with little baggage and I sometimes globe-trot to Europe. I shouldn't get a visa, either. Imagine if I was Nigerian: I'd really be in trouble.

In short, Malkin wants prejudice on a governmental scale. Yet her anti-Muslim views find strong support in the Post. Although Malkin's position is extreme, her basic bias against Muslims finds constant expression throughout the American press. In that light, I wonder why the Arab world casts a suspicious eye on America? Could it be that its media routinely mocks them and judges them as terrorists before the fact? I wonder.

We will not solve the tensions between the Muslim world and the West until we stop viewing Muslims as one-dimensional villains. The problems between the Muslim world and the West are understandable. We must merely examine the sharp contrast between the two value systems to see why problems persist. Unfortunately, newspapers do not like talking about value systems. Newspapers do not analyze values; they simply voice them. But the confrontation between the West and the Muslim world will continue until the West tries to understand why its values contrast so strongly with Muslim values.

Sadly, I do not think that's going to happen any time soon. Stubborn self-righteousness inheres in Western thought. And I think the West would rather fight a permanent war against a religion-based civilization than deign to comprehend it.

2 comments:

angelshair said...

This is very sad indeed.
I wonder what they were taught in journalism school, what their work ethic is, and what their goal is.
I was surprised by the reactions to Obama's speach in Cairo. Apparently, respect and mutual understanding with the muslim world isn't in their program.

MaxThrust said...

"Because Western commercial values--which treasure earthly existence over all things--clash fundamentally with Muslim teachings--which eschew earthly success for spiritual success."

This is true of all religions, at their pure core. The trouble is they often get bastardized and institutionalized. That has happened with all western religions, Islam included, so I don't think it's as pure as you say here.

Modern Islam is about guaranteeing health, wealth, and progeny, just as much as institutionalized Christianity is today.