Foreign news and foreign correspondents

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.

The scale of the events attracted worldwide media attention and huge coverage. After I arrived in the US in October of that year, I visited the libraries to read the newspapers and newsmagazines of that period and was appalled at how the events had been reported here. I was shocked to find that the reporting by nearly all the major newspapers and newsmagazines in the US were incredibly narrow, shallow, biased, and misleading. The sole exception was Mark Fineman, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reports were wrong, however, in an interesting way and with an interesting pattern. It seemed as if the reporters had relied on a combination of just three sources: US (and other western) embassy sources, official Sri Lankan government sources, and members of the upper and middle-class English speaking minority, the kinds of people who populate the cocktail lounges of the major hotels. All these groups had a vested interest in giving just one side of the story. (This was the beginning of my interest in how the media works and how its has agendas other than just giving the facts.)

To understand why this is so, one has to know that the Sri Lankan government at that time was extremely closely allied to the US government, and was adopting very pro-Western policies, strongly favored by the English speaking elites. So all these groups were anxious to disassociate the mobs from the government and to pin the blame for the upheaval on whatever convenient and mysterious elements that they could conjure up.

If the reporters had got translators, gone outside the capital city Colombo and beyond the confines of their luxury hotels and official briefing rooms in the capital, and actually spoken to more representative groups of people and local journalists and academics (which is what Mark Fineman seemed to have done) they were more likely to have obtained an accurate version of events.

This problem is endemic to coverage of fast-breaking news events in foreign countries. Journalists are flown in who know nothing of the local languages, history, and culture, and thus are dependent of little more than official sources and the few English-speaking people who happen to be around.

This is why I am skeptical of foreign news coverage of such events, unless they are by journalists who have a long history of working in the region, have knowledge of its history and culture, preferably know the language as well, and have over the years developed knowledgeable sources. So in the case of Iraq, I take seriously the reporting of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and people like them from Iraq. I do not bother to watch the “reporting” of US TV news anchors and journalists who fly in one day, do a report, and fly out the next day.

People like Juan Cole, who is not even a reporter but is a US-based academic, has more to offer than a lot of these foreign correspondents because he has studied the language and history of the middle east, lived in that region for an extended period, can read the newspapers and listen to the broadcasts of the region which feature the writings of the local journalists who are much better informed, and has a good sense of which reports are credible and which are not.

So when you read the news reports of some event from some foreign country, be alert that what you might be reading could be just the version of events put out by the US embassy there, the government of that country (if it happens to be friendly to the US), and a few members of the English speaking elite who have access to the foreign press and like to hang out with them at upscale bars and hotels in the capital city of that country. All of them have a particular agenda, a particular story to tell, and that agenda might have very little to do with the truth.


Historian and Middle East scholar Juan Cole has given excellent capsule history of the way that the US government, along with Saudi Arabia, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, helped to create what is now Al-Qaeda by supporting Usama Bin Laden, the Afghan mujahideen, and Afghan warlords as a way to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Cole provides an interesting sidelight:

In the US, the Christian Right adopted the Mujahideen as their favorite project. They even sent around a “biblical checklist” for grading US congressman as to how close they were to the “Christian” political line. If a congressman didn’t support the radical Muslim Muj, he or she was downgraded by the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The whole sordid story of how that strategy, which you will rarely see publicized in the mass media, backfired can be read here.


Under the category of news reports that make you shake your head comes this study that suggests that “if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle.” Women did not show similar correlations.

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