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U.S. vs. THEM
American coverage of Iran called simplistic and sensational.
BY GABRIELLE COSGRIFF
In the current issue of the Columbia
Journalism Review, Columbia professor Edward W. Said has written a
devastating assessment of the coverage of events in Iran by American journalists. He is particularly critical of their
treatment of Islam, the religion of 40
nations and 800 million people.
Said questions why political events are
reduced, in Pavlovian fashion, to the
peculiarities of Islam. He feels that
governmental and academic experts seem
to have agreed implicitly not to recognize
political developments as political, but to
represent them as "a cosmic drama
pitting civilization as we like it against the
uncivilized and barbaric.
Said, a distinguished scholar and
author, painstakingly documents the
shortcomings of the American media's
coverage of Iran. As one example, he describes a three-minute ABC "course" on
Islam "which was reduced to a rush of
images and symbols: Mecca, Purdah,
Chador, Sunni, Shi'ite (accompanied by
a picture of young men beating themselves), Mullah, Ayatollah, Khomeini.
Said compares American coverage to
that of other countries, particularly to
Eric Rouleau's series of articles in Le
Monde: "Rouleau never used 'Islam' to
explain events or personalities, because he
viewed his reporter's rnandate as comprising the analysis of politics, societies
and history . . . without resorting to
ideological generalizations and mystifying
rhetoric. No American reporter spent the
kind of time Rouleau did reportirg the
extended debate in Iran over the co stitu-
tional referendum; nor did others match
his analyses of the various parties, tactics
of struggle, personalities, ideas and institutions vying for power and attention.
"In sum," concludes Said, "Rouleau's
reporting on Iran for Le Monde was political in the best sense of the word. The
U.S. news media's simply was not; or, one
could say, it was political in the bad sense.
What seemed unfamiliar or strange to
U.S. reporters was branded 'Islamic' and
treated with commensurate hostility or
derision . . . Cliches, caricatures, ignor
ance, unqualified ethnocentrism and inaccuracy were inordinately evident, as was
an almost total subservience to the government thesis that the only thing that mattered was 'not giving in to blackmail.'
Along with this went a shocking assumption that if the U.S. had forgiven the ex-
shah and declared him a charity case, it
did not matter what Iranians (or Iranian
history itself) had to say."
CJR publisher Edward W. Barrett expresses his reservations about Said's story
in Publisher's Notes, in that same issue.
He says he has "strong feelings that a
publisher should restrain most of his impulses to intervene in the editing process.
Moreover, magazines should not go too
far in telling authors what they should or
should not say in bylined analysis or
Having stated that, Barrett then takes
Said to task, claiming that he "overstates
his case in some respects, downplays the
monstrous nature of seizing an embassy
and staff, and confuses world outrage at
the offense with press hostility to the
Iranian revolution in general."
Barrett then "questions" whether another writer in the same issue "blames
media standards too much . i ."
We reported last month that a Newsweek story quoted Barrett as saying that
in the future the CJR would carry "no
more than one feature article per issue
criticizing the overall performance of the
American press." Barrett responded to
that story in a letter to Newsweek (March
17). "What I actually said was 'An occasional piece—say one major article per
issue—by an outsider (a nonjournalist)
sharply critical of American journalism in
general is OK, probably desirable to shake
up the profession—provided it is rational
and does not distort the facts, and provided it is 'insulated' by heads and introduction if we do not basically agree with
it. We are going too far if such overwhelmingly negative articles dominate any one
issue of the Review."
It is ironic that CJR, for almost 20
years the most thoughtful, uncompromising vehicle for media criticism in this
country, should see fit to "insulate" itself from writers of media criticism.
He knew how to savor the good
life, and had the money to do
it," began Time's write-up
(March 24) on the fatal shooting of Dr. Herman Tarnover. "He was the
author of the bestselling The Complete
Scarsdale Medical Diet. He was an avid
hunter and fisherman, and a connoisseur
of good food, fine wine and thoroughbred
women." A perfect encapsulation of the
Playboy philosophy-that women, like
food and wine, are mere accessories to
"the good life."
That lead was right in line with the
rest of the story. Cliche-ridden and sensational, it read like a pulp novel: An attractive blond divorcee.. . shots rang out
. . . the well-groomed headmistress of the
prestigious Madeira School . . . the
daughters of some of America's richest
and most prominent families . . . small,
elegant dinner parties...
At Newsweek, "The Lady and the
Doctor" had its share of cliches, but at
least the lead showed more class (no
'thoroughbreds' here) and stuck to the
facts: "They had been friends and frer
quent companions for at least 15 years."
Time described the woman accused in
the shooting, Jean Struven Harris, as
"daughter of a career military officer"—
no mother, apparently. (One assumes the
father was the officer, since it would certainly have been newsworthy were it the
Harris thus joins those news celebrities
born of a male parent only. This male
equivalent of parthenogenesis is apparently far more common than its female
counterpart. Only one of those is on
record, and that happened 1,980 years
ago, if at all.
Into each life a little sun must fall, if
we are to believe the metaphorically
mixed story on the front page of the
Houston Post, March 25. In "Kennedy, Bush scramble for crucial support
in 2 races," an Associated Press writer