09/23/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2012

News Media Blow the Mideast Rioting Story

It's rare that a story so fully exemplifies the worst tendencies of the news media as the coverage of the protest in Muslim countries over a U.S.-made video ridiculing the founder of Islam.

The coverage is knit together by primordial bigotry and vile stereotypes. In Muslim countries, the media inflame ancestral hates and rekindle what Fouad Ajami calls "a deep and enduring sense of humiliation." News reports goad the masses, pointing to the video as yet another insult by a decadent, predatory West intent on cruelly defiling the most cherished elements of Islam.

U.S. media, for their part, fill their screens with images of bestial fury by throngs of wild-eyed lunatics, incapable of restraint and impervious to reason, fanatics whose forebears once screamed "the Quran or the sword" and held the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage.

Here we go again. Islamist leaders accuse Western governments of furtively promoting anti-Muslim slander; their media scoff at official denunciations of the video here and the use of anti-blasphemy laws in Europe to protect Muslims there from vilification. U.S. leaders issue bland pleas for civility, while insisting the protests are "spontaneous" --as U.S. UN ambassador Susan Rice put it -- a claim that defies common sense.

That spontaneity claim also defies recent history, and it's shocking that our media seem to know so little about that. They might start with The Cartoons That Shook the World, the book by Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen about the 2005-2006 uproar over the 12 satirical drawings of the prophet Muhammad that ran in a Danish newspaper. Klausen's book itself made news because of the decision of its publisher, the Yale University Press, to strip it of the cartoons themselves. (Some 200 people had died in 2006 rioting over their original publication.)

Too bad Klausen's findings didn't make news, since they remain highly newsworthy. She found that the rioting, far from being a mindless spasm of outrage, arose from a deeply political process consisting of months of backstage maneuvering involving Muslim leaders in Denmark, Islamic groups in the Middle East, and officials of various Arab governments. Only after key players saw they could benefit by encouraging mass protest that the cartoons -- originally published in September 2005 -- became a global cause four months later.

The central question isn't the one on which our media dwell endlessly -- "Why are they so mad?" -- since there is, regrettably, enough free-floating anger in the Muslim world, and in parts of our own for that matter, that summoning zealots to shake their fists, trash foreign-owned storefronts, and scream for the cameras is never all that hard. The real question for the media should be to find out who's doing the summoning and why.

In the cartoons case, Klausen assigned Egypt the pivotal role. It was in Cairo that the bitterness expressed by a visitation of Danish imams in late 2005 was given its stamp of pan-Islamic importance, and an obscure, local insult was launched into worldwide consequence.

Why? What use did Egypt and its then-leader, Hosni Mubarak, want to make of the cartoons? Klausen favors the explanation that angry mobs would be his warning to the West, particularly the neo-cons who held sway in Bush-era Washington, about what the democratization they were urging might unleash. "The cartoons were used to discourage the United States from pressuring the Middle Eastern governments to reform," she suggests.

What's more, Mubarak used the protests to dramatize the harm of an unfettered news media and defuse Western criticism over the press crackdown he was planning, and particularly targeting foreign broadcasters such as Al-Jazeera.

Hence, Klausen writes, the cartoon protests "were a reaction against a Western push for Arab democratization and social liberalization."

And now? Just who's sponsoring the current protests isn't clear. Klausen suggested recently that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, like his predecessor, was "using protest to consolidate power." Maybe so. Another clear beneficiary from today's demonstrations has been Syria's embattled Assad regime, since they are diverting attention from its slaughter of 25,000 fellow citizens. The protests in Afghanistan and most recently in Pakistan have their own roots, and the reasons for their official sanction need to be exposed.

If these protests are being engineered by cynical despots to ward off overdue reforms, that's what the news media should be exposing, instead of once again flooding the public with images of frenzy and chaos.