Coverage in black and white: Mainstream media and post-30 June Egypt
Hani Shukrallah, Wednesday 23 Oct 2013
If you were looking for truthful, objective and balanced coverage of the profoundly complex, intensely polarised Egyptian scene after the 30 June uprising, you had to look outside the mainstream media‚Äďat home or abroad

1. Egypt media

Think of American mainstream media in the aftermath of 9/11 and you might get a general idea of the state of the Egyptian equivalent since the June 30 uprising against Muslim Brotherhood rule—allowing, that is, for less sophistication and a considerably greater measure of crudity. The fluttering flags at the top of television screens, along with variations on the “war on terror” banner, were copied almost identically, if less tastefully, by both state-owned and private Egyptian television stations from CNN, FOX, and the rest.

The triggers may have been vastly different, but it was the same flag waving, frantic patriotism, and warlike mindsets, wherein the best interests of one side take precedence over any other consideration. This includes the unquestioning acceptance of whatever the “leaders” of “our side” churn out in terms of information or misinformation. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capability and culpability in 9/11 were no more unimpeachable by halfway decent journalism than the alleged caches of chemical weaponry in Rabaa al-Adaweya Square and the claims of U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood collusion and conspiracy.

Yet the respective merits, or lack thereof, in the descent into bad journalism in either of these cases are not our concern here. The point is in the drawn battle lines: it’s hurray for our side and let the devil take the hindmost, regardless of basic standards and ethics of journalism.

On June 30 millions of Egyptians rose up against Muslim Brotherhood rule; their rebellion was supported by the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence bodies, among other organs of state. While there was little doubt in anyone’s mind in the country that the majority of Egyptians supported the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and his group, the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies had the support of a fairly sizeable minority of the population that, moreover, was well organized and highly committed.

Thus, on one side, a popular rebellion, unprecedented in scale and intensity and easily surpassing that which had overthrown Mubarak, and on another, a political/ideological movement that had just realized an 80-year old dream, that believed itself chosen by God to fulfill His will on earth, and that is the best organized and financed—if among the least politically savvy—political organization in the country. Add to this the fact that the military, the police, and other state bodies had sided with the uprising, putting their heads on the block in the event of failure, and you have all the ingredients of a life-and-death confrontation.

A contest of this nature might well put the best journalism—the most rooted in sound tradition and institutional sophistication—to harsh test. It would, however, strike an Egyptian journalism that already had been in the throes of deep crisis. To even begin to unravel the salient features of this crisis, a little background is necessary.

For the best part of half a century, Egypt’s media was overwhelmingly dominated by state ownership and control, with private enterprise nonexistent or negligible. The monopoly began to fracture in the 2000s, especially during the second half of the decade. New privately-owned daily newspapers began to emerge, increasingly competing with the giant state-owned news organizations. This was followed by the emergence of private satellite television channels, which in turn—and as the decade was drawing to a close—took viewers away from state-owned television, which had been considerably more government controlled than the print media. State television had also been facing stiff competition from the emergent Arab satellite news channels, most notably Al Jazeera. The Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011 would drive this process considerably further, yet to this day terrestrial television channels remain the exclusive monopoly of the state.

State media enterprises, both print and broadcast, had in the course of Mubarak’s 30-year rule degenerated into bloated, corruption-ridden, and supremely inefficient dinosaurs, their survival and the livelihoods of the thousands they employed dependent on state largesse and their monopoly status. Even when faced with steeply declining readership and growing competition from the up-and-coming private dailies, the state-owned print media maintained its grip on a wholly disproportionate segment of available advertising monies, thanks to government meddling.

In fact, one chief editor of a top state-owned news organization was known to shrug off dwindling readership, saying it meant bigger profits, what with the backing of a crony capitalist state guaranteeing the daily some 70 percent of the country’s total print advertising budget, paired with savings on expensive newsprint.

Yet the situation was untenable even before the Egyptian revolution triggered a deep economic recession, which continues to this day and sends advertising revenues in all media, especially print, down the drain. Even the most successful print news organization, al-Ahram, owed billions in unpaid back taxes. The ERTU (Egyptian Radio and Television Federation) was consistently making such huge losses that one media expert suggested that shutting down the gigantic state-owned organization would be sufficient to finance the government’s yawning budget deficit.

Sycophancy and the perception of the journalist as an obsequious servant of the president had become the rule. The chairmen and chief editors of the main state-owned newspapers were, effectively, presidential appointees, often in fierce competition among themselves over presidential favor. In a private conversation with one pre-revolution chief editor, I suggested that the only way to face the competition from privately-owned dailies was to move toward “greater balance.” The answer was droll, if honest: “And you want those sons of … [he went on to name a number of his prominent peers at the head of other state-owned dailies] to malign me with the president?” On the occasion of Mubarak’s last birthday in power, that particular editor published a full-page editorial article under the title, “The Day Egypt was Reborn.”

The sycophancy and bidding wars among top-ranking editors and journalists became particularly embarrassing after February 2011. Come the revolution, with its unsavory habit of changing rulers every few months, the leaders of state-owned media outlets went into a tizzy of shifting allegiances. On the morning after Mubarak’s ouster, the top newspaper in the country, al-Ahram, ran a heroic banner headline proclaiming, “The People Have Overthrown the Regime;” just a few days earlier the paper’s banner headlines, under the same editor, proclaimed unyielding love and support for Mubarak by Egypt’s teeming millions.

Shamelessly, the top journalists in the country would go on changing fawning loyalties with every major change in the post-revolution power structure, from Mubarak to Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. (One senior journalist and erstwhile member of Mubarak’s Policies Committee would by the time Morsi was in power explain to colleagues how he’d discovered that, at heart, he’d always been a Muslim Brother.) Now, it’s back to the military, currently led by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, and the fawning is considerably more heated.

For its part, the privately-owned media, which had created a window of dissent and a semblance of professionalism under Mubarak and beyond, has floundered badly in the face of the challenge of post June 30 intense political polarization. It is worth noting that even within the state-owned media, cracks always existed through which the more professional and ethical journalists could make some impact. The post-June 30 polarization has all but sealed those cracks, pushing state- no less than privately-owned journalism into an abyss of frenzied bias and unprofessionalism.

The reasons behind the failure of the privately-owned media are many. Institutionally and financially fragile, these fairly young news organizations, whether print or broadcast, were already suffering from poor management practices, including inordinately intrusive interference by owners. With the bulk of their senior editors and journalists drawn from the state-owned media (for many years, the sole source of journalism in the country), they were not free of the mindsets, perspectives, and prevalent practices that had evolved over decades.

Most significantly, the very role and mission of journalism has remained bound within an authoritarian mindset, wherein the dominant perception is one of “mobilizing” or “guiding” public opinion rather than presenting the public with the truth. A free press is still seen more as a diversity of opinions and media outlets rather than a commitment to balanced and truthful coverage by journalists and their respective media organizations. This has been starkly apparent in the broadcast media, wherein public opinion talk shows have become the single most important source of “news” available to the Egyptian public.

Intense political polarization after June 30, coupled with the bellicose posture occasioned by the severity of the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, did away with whatever diversity had existed in journalism beforehand. Television presenters and anchors have been transformed into overzealous preachers shouting harangues from their various pulpits. Meanwhile, the few exceptionally talented and ethical among them, such as ONTV’s Reem Maged and Yousry Fouda and the enormously popular CBC satirist Bassem Youssef, have disappeared off the airwaves.

For the time being, in print and on television, it’s the season for passionate bias, bizarre conspiracy theories, “deep state” propaganda, and a virtual collapse of journalistic standards. Egypt’s top journalist and most prominent political analyst, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, put it bluntly in a recent television interview. The Egyptian people need the truth, he said, and they’re not getting it.

(The above was first published by the Washington-based Middle East Institute.)

2. Western media

Nearly everybody failed the test of Egypt’s post-30 June turmoil. Mainstream media everywhere, in the West, in the Middle East as in Egypt itself, earns a well deserved “F” for their coverage of the intense and bloody polarization of Egyptian society that followed upon the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule in the country. They equally receive failure marks on objectivity, balance and honesty, even bare facts.

A New York Times story would describe Mohamed Baradei as one of Interim President Adly Mansour’s vice-presidents (there was only one, Baradei himself); some weeks later, an AFP story run by the International Herald Tribunewould describe defense minister Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi as (any guesses?!) – you got it: Egypt’s vice president (he never held that particular post).

Nitpicking? Possibly, but I suggest revealing nonetheless. Even for an editor sitting in New York or Paris, who has not bothered to actually follow the Egyptian scene before writing stories about it, such rudimentary information is a Google search-click away.

But let’s get a teeny bit Freudian here. Certainly, such foolish “slips” cannot have been deliberate, yet there is some logic to them, even if on a subconscious level. Baradei is rather positively perceived by NYT readers, so he can’t be The Vice-President (which might, however vaguely reflect positively on the “military coup”), but one of several. El-Sissi, on the other hand, is evil incarnate, the real ruler of the country and the architect of the coup. So, for an AFP editor or reporter, he can’t be a mere defense minister, he must at least be vice-president.

On 30 June the New York Times would report on the anti-Morsi demonstrations under the title: “By the millions, Egyptians seek Morsi’s ouster.”The story would acknowledge that “the scale of the demonstrations… appeared to exceed even the massive street protests in the heady final days of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.”

Yet, the Washington Post, which throughout almost militantly hoisted the pro-Morsi “democratic legitimacy” banner, would speak of “rival protests”, under the vague headline: “Tension roils Egypt as protests grow.”

In a surprising bit of gratuitous editorializing, the Post story would report that some pro-Morsi supporters “brandished wooden clubs, canes and metal pipes”, but goes on to add that these were “to defend themselves in the event that clashes erupted between the two camps.”

If you wanted background, Morsi supporters in fact had been known to use clubs, canes, metal pipes and indeed, swords, guns and knives to attack anti-Morsi protesters (as had occurred on a number of occasions since Egyptians took to Tahrir Square as early as 12 October 2012 to protest his rule, and was most shockingly revealed on the night of 8 December of the same year, in the armed attack by Muslim Brotherhood supporters on protesters sitting in before the Presidential Palace.) But background notwithstanding, how was it that the Post correspondent was able to discern whether the clubs, etc. were to be used defensively or offensively?

Journalism is about truth, which is always nuanced, complex and multifaceted. The act of reporting is one of discovery. So when a journalist sets out to cover a story which he/she has all but scripted already and is out for the odd observation, quote, color to beef it up, the very mission of journalism goes out the window.

This, sadly, happens only too often, but is especially manifested when a local story becomes of international interest. For it is then that the big shots in the business are called upon to deploy in the field. They do so in droves, bringing along their baggage of biases, preconceived notions and, in the case of a Third World Muslim nation, a host of inherited and continuously updated banalities as to what makes “us” tick – this, plus a storehouse of ignorance of the country, its people and history.

Western media and experts would also pontificate on how Egyptians are indoctrinated from childhood to worship their armed forces, neglecting to even note that just a mere year before, and for a full year and a half, “down with military rule” was being chanted by hundreds of thousands in the country – and that in fact it was the fierce resistance to military rule by these hundreds of thousands that brought down the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This resistance, incidentally, was consistently boycotted and condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet this is not unusual for foreign journalists reporting on a Third World nation, even in the most mundane of circumstances. They just love to spew out easy generalizations. How many times have you come across a quote of Herodotus’ silly remark about Egypt being “the gift of the Nile” or, more significantly, the assertion of the fundamentally Islamic identity of Muslim peoples?

The common denominator of nearly all mainstream coverage of the Egyptian scene after the 30 June uprising against President Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule was not just bias, however, but zeal. And while one may find some excuse for this in the case of Egyptian journalists – who almost literally were standing on opposite sides of the barricade – I fail to see why visiting Western journalists would get so hot and bothered about it. Yet, foreign or local, a Crusading journalist is by definition a very poor one, looking not for truth but for ammunition.

One could offer several aspects to the failure of Western journalism to provide honest, unbiased and truthful coverage of the post-30 June Egyptian scene, yet all of these have one thing in common: they say much more about the reporter than the issues and people being reported. Almost invariably they reflect purely Western considerations and concerns, which feature very little, if at all in those of the “locals”.

Take the decades-old paradigm that Muslims’ political, social and cultural existence and behavior can only be understood in terms of Islam – whatever that means. This revival of 19th century European Orientalism had – since the late 1970s – firmed up into an overwhelmingly predominant conventional wisdom, so much so that none other than Francis Fukuyama would grudgingly admit that Samuel Huntington may be right after all; that Islamic nations could prove the single global exception to his “end of history” thesis.

Shaken during the first months of the Arab Spring, later developments would seem to consolidate this conventional wisdom. So much so that the hysterical reaction to the Prophet Mohammed-insulting film (Sept. 2012) would drive Newsweek to yet another “Muslim rage” cover. An old Freud fan, I described this at the time as “regression to infantile Orientalism”.

With such baggage, Western journalists were ill-equipped to see and try to understand a popular uprising by millions of Muslims against an ostensibly Islamic regime – and a “moderate” one at that.

Take as well, the strategic shift in Western nations’ foreign policy towards the Arab Middle East. Since the fateful 9/11, American policy makers and their European allies were coming increasingly to the conclusion that failed “semi-secular” police states – selling themselves to the West as bulwarks against militant Islamist mayhem – were in fact breeding grounds for extremism and militant Islamist terror. It was almost a dream come true that the very mother of modern Islamism, Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood, would provide an Islamist alternative that is reasonable, friendly to the West, willing to commit to Israeli security and to Arab-Israeli peace accords, and to play – at least formally – by democratic norms.

It makes some sense that denial would prove to be the best way to see such a sterling model (whose potentially beneficial spill-over effects could reach as far as the war-torn hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where American soldiers continued to die) go down the drain. And there is nothing new in mainstream Western media identifying with the more strategic requisites of their nations’ foreign policy.

Even the most benevolent impulse would show itself as of purely Western concern. Among many on the liberal side of the profession, “Islamophobia” is quite properly an arch enemy, to be fiercely fought whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Yet, a Muslim population cannot be “Islamophobic”, which I’ve always thought an unfortunate term in any event, since what it describes is anti-Muslim racism, and racism as anyone who has had a taste of it knows, has nothing to do with fear (however irrational) and everything to do with contempt. (British “Paki-bashers” were bashing away long before “Muslim rage” became all the rage).

In dread of being white supremacists towards the Muslim community in West, liberal journalists and editors didn’t seem to care about showing Western supremacist colors towards the millions of Egyptians who rose up in revolt against Muslim Brotherhood rule. In their eyes, these millions – despite continuous fierce resistance to authoritarianism for two and a half years – could have no political will of their own; were driven by the machinations of the deep-state and the military, and at best, misguided liberals and leftists who wouldn’t heed the good advice of the doubtlessly more rational, wiser and more politically sophisticated European and American counter-parts. Britain’s The Guardian would expose some not so spick and span petticoats in a recent cutesy piece about Egypt’s notorious “spy stork” being hunted and eaten– hungry people will eat whatever they can get their hands on, there’s nothing cute or amusing about it.

All in all, the Western coverage of Egypt’s tumultuous political upheaval since 30 June has been as polarized and partisan as that in Egypt itself. During the 18 day uprising against Mubarak (Jan/Feb 2011) we would go to Al Jazeera, CNN or the BBC for coverage of at least some of what was truly happening in the country. Since 30 June of this year, mainstream media at home, in the region or abroad has all but shut out the very notion of a balanced story. For the time being, it’s either look outside the mainstream or shuttle between biases in the hope of picking out some truths, here and there.