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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

The Press and the Current Middle East Crisis

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The flames of rage and change sweep all across the Middle East. Some watch with horror, some with hope, almost all with utter surprise. The inevitable blame game is In full force, as to how the public was kept in the dark about the gathering storm. The usual suspects are leaders and intelligence agencies, who are subjected for ridicule for their failure to predict the tidal wave.

And what about the press? Can the Seventh Kingdom wash its hands of responsibility? I, for one, don't think so. The American press is exposed, yet again, for its basic flaws in dealing with a foreign crisis of such magnitude.

Some of these flaws are structural weaknesses, some are issues of cross-cultural communications, and some are concerned with terminology, content and political narrative. To start with, there are not enough American correspondents overseas -- and definitely not in the Middle East. This has been a problem for many years, clearly aggravated by the recent financial meltdown. The institution of foreign correspondence has lost a lot of its charm and attraction, consequently creating neglected trouble spots. No wonder that much of the reporting of the current crisis in some Middle East countries is performed by hastily assigned correspondents, and read like Monday morning quarterbacking.

Many of the correspondents do not command the local languages, an essential requirement if they are to cover all social strata. Gisa, Heliopolis and Zamalek are nice, western-style neighborhoods of Cairo, but they are just one face, interesting, but not overwhelmingly reflective of the true pulse of life in the huge capital. The same was in the case of Tehran prior to the Islamic Revolution. North Tehran was one side of the city, south Tehran quite another. The same refers to Beirut, where the Sh'ii Dahia and the stylish Hamra are complete opposites.

Add up to all that, the obvious restrictions imposed by so many Middle East regimes on the foreign correspondents, and the picture emerging is very discouraging.

Cross-cultural communications is a tricky issue in the best of times, all the more so In times of crisis. Many foreign correspondents bring to the plate their deeply entrenched preconceived notions about culture, society and political discourse and use them indiscriminately in their coverage of the Middle East, and with that, their coverage loses much of its effectiveness.

For example, the word secular has different connotations in English and Arabic. I challenge American correspondents based in the Middle East to provide us with even one instance, when President Mubarak, King Abdallah of Jordan, King Muhammad of Morocco, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, or even Bashar Asad of Syria refer to themselves as "secular."

The first to bring such statement should be entitled to a Pulitzer prize. My recommendation, for whatever it's worth...

Then there is the question of what is the Middle East crisis. The almost exclusive emphasis of the press is on the Israeli-Palestinian situation being the focal point of the Middle East problems, hence the one issue whose solution is the key to regional stability and prosperity. For that to happen, pressure has to be brought to bear on Israel, especially on the issue of settlements, and with that the bells of peace will start ringing. So simple, so clear, so politically correct and so superficial.

The almost obsessive discussion of this issue is in sharp contrast to the lack of discussion of other explosive time bombs, such as the issues of oppression, deprivation, neglect , poverty and educational and scientific backwardness. Exactly the issues that have triggered the current mayhem.

Even the most effective search committee will be unable to find these crucial subjects covered by the press, and not because there isn't any accessible information. As of 2003, the UN publishes a yearly report on the status of human development in the Arab world, compiled by Arab scholars. These reports provide us a very depressing state of affairs, one which became even worse in 2009.

These reports have never been the most favorite reading material of the Arab leaders, and it is clear why. But the press? Who stops them from doing it, and digging ever deeper to the root causes of the rage that has engulfed the Arab world?

They can still do it, in fact, they are bound to do it, if they wish to maintain their professional credibility.

The crisis is just nearing the end of the beginning, far from the beginning of the end. So, the press still has the time to live up to the expectations of the public and save its reputation.