Journalist’s lecture slams bias in American journalism
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
BEIRUT: Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, as he notes in one of his books, has lived a “charmed but dangerous life.” He has been a resident of the Beirut seafront for 34 years, covering the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and its numerous atrocities, most memorably the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias and their Israeli Army allies. The British-born journalist has reported on 10 other wars, several insurgencies, Iran’s bloody 2009 elections, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden no less than three times.
Over the years, Fisk has provoked as much anger as admiration, enduring two kidnap attempts and a beating by a group of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. His critics dismiss his writing as lies and embellishments, and his numerous awards and books, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are a source of some jealously for other correspondents in the region. No one in the world of journalism, it seems, is quite as divisive as Robert Fisk.
Kicking off a series of “Distinguished Journalists” lectures at the Lebanese American University of Beirut on Tuesday, however, he was firmly among friends and admirers.
Speaking to hundreds of journalism students, Fisk was quick to condemn “the lethal way in which [Western] reporters support war,” manipulating language to change meaning and historical context. Editors were also to be criticized for avoiding shocking photographs of war victims, an act which he said sterilized and hid the consequences of conflict.
One example of this was a newspaper that published a photograph of an Iraqi father carrying his supposedly injured daughter. The girl, Fisk said, was in fact already dead and her feet, which had been blown off in an explosion, had been tidily cut out of the photograph. “I’m against all violence, but because we protect our own readers from it, we produce a clean war,” he said. “For all the criticisms I have of the Arab press … at least your pictures in your newspaper … tend to show the real horrors of war.”
“A lot of journalists do not see their job as a vocation,” he continued. “Many journalists regard their job as the same as working in a bank, driving a truck or becoming a lawyer … But I think journalism should have responsibilities over and above just earning a salary to pay off the mortgage.”
His strongest criticism was reserved for the American media, where there was an “osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power.” Since the Bush administration, for example, Fisk observed US newspapers had followed on from Washington’s example in referring to the occupied Palestinian territories as the “disputed territories” or “the so-called occupied territories.”
Such glaring bias and half-truths have led, Fisk argued, to the “normalization of war” among Westerners. An additional reason for this was journalist’s obsession with reporting “50/50” from all sides of a story. “But the Middle East is not a football match, it’s a bloody tragedy,” Fisk said, adding journalists had a “duty to be unbiased and neutral on the side of those who suffer.”
Though he is best known for his reporting on Arab countries, Fisk avoided discussing the problems faced by the region’s journalists or the political woes of the Middle East, dedicating only a few closing lines to the subject.
But does Fisk, with over three decades of experience in the region tucked under his belt, see any prospect for peace? “I have no optimism about the Middle East. The chances of a Palestinian state are less by the day,” he said. And as for Lebanon, where Fisk calls home, it is a “Rolls Royce with square wheels” that won’t be a modern state until it has secular governance.