What Arab Spring?

When I look at the "Arab Spring"; the coverage it got when it was just kicking off, and the mess the whole thing has turned into, I cannot help but wonder what role (if any), television news coverage of the "event" played in shaping our view of what was happening.
09/30/2015 10:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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images courtesy Wikicommons

When I was a producer for CBS News' Sunday Morning (the one with Charles Kuralt) in the 1980s, I was assigned to do a story on "Gun Alley", a place in Connecticut that produced more handguns than anywhere else in the world. It was the home of companies like Smith-Wesson of Colt, makers of the famous .45. Handgun manufacture in Connecticut has been a big business there since colonial days.

When the people at Colt heard that a producer from CBS News wanted to come to do a story on them, they were naturally reluctant to let our cameras in. There had recently been a spate of shootings with high powered assault rifles.

"We don't make assault rifles," the PR person told me. "And we don't want you coming in here doing a story about these things and associating them with us. I know how you people work."

I assured him that 'we', (that is, CBS Sunday Morning), were very much not "you people" -- meaning a lot of other folks in the TV news business).

He watched the show and and liked Kuralt, so he relented and let us in.

As it turned out, the people who worked at Colt took a great deal of pride in their workmanship and craftsmanship. They didn't manufacture "Saturday Night Specials", and they didn't manufacture the kind of automatic military style weapons that were being used for shoot outs on the streets (this was before they had migrated to schools or movie theaters).

I shot the piece as I had promised. I told the story as I saw it. It was in many ways a typical Charles Kuralt Sunday Morning piece for the mid 1980s.

When I came back to the office, I screened the cut for the Executive Producer of the show. She went nuts. "Where are the assault rifles? Where are the Saturday Night Specials?"

I told her that that was not the story.

She pulled out a copy of the New York Post with the most recent shooting on the front page.

"THIS," she informed me, "is the story," and ordered me to recut the piece with file footage of recent shootings around the country.

If I had had any integrity, I would have quit then and there. But I didn't, so I didn't. Today, I might have, but I didn't then. Instead, I did as I was told and the piece aired, replete with gun violence and shootings and things that had little to do with the people at Colt in Connecticut, but everything to do with what management at CBS News thought a "gun story" should have.

Needless to say, as soon as the piece aired, I got an irate (to say the least) call from the PR guy at Colt. "I knew I could not trust you." And he was right.

The problem was, (aside from my own lack of a spine in those days), that television news more often than not goes into a story with a pre-conceived story line. They like something that works. They like something easy -- something that plays to their viewers -- whether it is CBS or Fox News. They need something that fits their narrative.

This is not a "conspiracy" as some right-wing folks like to think. It isn't even thought out. It is just the way the TV news business works. "What story line does this fit into?"

When I look at the "Arab Spring"; the coverage it got when it was just kicking off, and the mess the whole thing has turned into, I cannot help but wonder what role (if any), television news coverage of the "event" played in shaping our view of what was happening. Was there really a sudden upwelling of democracy in formerly Arab dictatorships; a spontaneous and almost mystical transformation of formerly brutal and repressive societies taking place before or our eyes? Or did we simply see what we wanted to see and report what we thought we should be reporting?

Clearly, the results, (with the probably exception of Tunisia) have not worked out as predicted, reported or projected. The "Arab Spring" in Libya has turned that country into a simulacrum of Somalia, without the pirates, so far. The "Arab Spring" in Egypt resulted in a seizure of power by the Islamic Fundamentalist Ikwhan, followed by a return to a repressive military dictatorship. The "Arab Spring" in Syria -- well, you can see what a mess that has turned into, and we are just at the very start, apparently.

The "freedom fighters" and "champions of democracy" turned out to be more ISIS and Taliban than the Arab versions of Thomas Jefferson. Who knew?

Probably, a lot of people.

The problem was, I think, that a great many of the people sent to Egypt or Libya or Syria to "report" only saw what they wanted to see, and only came back with the story that their editors expected them to come back with.

During the Vietnam War, most reporters covering the war in the 1960s were quite content to follow the "national line" that we were "winning the war". Only one (really), David Halberstam had the courage to report on what was actually going on.

His reportage for The New York Times so unnerved the administration, that Lyndon Johnson called Punch Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times and asked him to withdraw Halberstam from Saigon and Vietnam. As it happened, Halberstam's tour of duty -- one year -- was about up. Following the call from LBJ, however, Sulzberger extended Halberstam for another year in Vietnam. Those were the days.

These days are different.

Was there really an "Arab Spring"? Or did we get blindsided by our own desire to see what we wanted to see? Certainly it is easier to interview a Libyan college student who speaks English and tweets than it is to find Islamic Fundamentalists living in Tripoli. It is simpler to stand before a massive crowd in Tahrir Square and report on the "revolution" than it is to really get a handle on the complexity of what is really happening. That is often not so transparent.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to send reporters to cover these kinds of "breaking news" stories who (for the most part, and there are certainly exceptions), don't know the language, don't really know the history, don't really understand the region or the politics or the players. they depend on local fixers, and the local fixers work for the networks and get paid because they deliver to the reporters what the reporters want to hear to begin with.

This is not journalism. This is television. And television is mostly about entertainment.

Which is fine, unless you start to believe it.

Then, you show up one day in Syria with your support and weapons and money and you can't find all the "freedom fighters". All you find are all those ISIS guys. Where were they when the reporters were here?