A brief preface to two notable articles—there are others you can find on the Web (notably, this excellent piece by Anne Barnard in The New York Times Monday) — on the disparity in U.S. media coverage of the massacres in Paris and the bombings less than 24 hours before in Beirut. Yes, as noted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) below, U.S. media haven’t entirely neglected Beirut. But the large gap between the attention focused on Paris and on Beirut, the “Paris of the Middle East,” is truly remarkable and truly disgraceful.
Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that Paris would get more attention. Not only is it almost certainly the biggest foreign destination for U.S. tourists—except maybe London—it’s an icon of “Western civilization.” And most of the people who live there look like what the shrinking majority of white U.S. citizens think of as “Americans.” France is also a long-time ally, and what happens there is more likely to affect Washington’s own foreign- policy trajectory than virtually anything that happens in Lebanon. U.S. media, on the other hand, treat Lebanon as an integral part of a Middle East that is messy and repugnant (with the exception, of course, of that beacon of “Western civilization,” Israel). So, a disparity in coverage is itself not surprising and can even be justified to an extent.
But such a large disparity, both quantitative and qualitative, can’t be justified. I’ll leave the quantitative to the FAIR post below. What really gets to me is the qualitative difference.I was listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Sunday evening while working in the garden. There was, of course, a very moving story about the mourning that followed the Paris massacres, complete with interviews of ordinary citizens that provided emotion and color to the larger story in a way that conveyed the “humanness” of the French interviewees.
That was followed by a nearly four-minute interview with James Woolsey, introduced as a “former director of the CIA” (which he was for less than two years nearly 25 years ago), in which he gave his predictably hawkish and thoughtless prescription for going after the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). And I thought to myself: why give such very valuable time to this Iraq war champion (who is also chairman of the board of the Likudnik Foundation for Defense of Democracies) to go on and on when they could actually have sent a reporter to interview people in Beirut who were mourning the deadliest bombing in that city in decades. Of course, a higher percentage of Parisians speak English than Beirutis, but you can find people in Beirut who speak English just as well as Parisians. And if you can’t find them, interpreters are available, just as they are in France. The point is, NPR had a relatively low-cost opportunity to convey the “humanness” of people in Beirut as it had in Paris, but it chose (whether consciously or unconsciously) not to do so. Instead, we got Woolsey and his predictable, if fluent, blather.
The same, of course, goes for the television network and cable coverage. When was the last time any of them anchored coverage from Beirut—or anywhere in the Arab world—when the story wasn’t essentially about Americans, specifically American soldiers? When, over the last four days, did they interview Beirutis on the street, as opposed to Parisians or Americans in Paris, or even Israelis or Americans in Israel when they covered the ongoing violence there? (Let’s not go there.)
Of course, one result of this qualitative disparity is simply to confirm pre-existing prejudices (which is what mass media, especially television, tend to do). Despite the apparent fact that both cities were attacked by the same organization (IS) and almost certainly for the same reason (retaliation for attacks on it), the media treats the massacres in Paris almost as if they happened here (which can’t help but provoke profound sympathy, sorrow, and anger). As for the bombing in Beirut, well, it’s almost on another planet (and, besides, the neighborhood was a “Hezbollah stronghold”). Parisians are virtually Americans; Beirutis are aliens. This is called racism, and it happens all the time in media coverage. But this was particularly glaring given the proximity in time of the two mass killings and the identity of both the perpetrators and the apparent motives.
Again, let me stress: a disparity in quantity and quality is unsurprising and can be justified to some extent. That the disparity is so enormous is truly deplorable.
Here are the two posts from other publications (both reprinted with permission).
What About Beirut
by Dave Johnson
The day before the Paris terrorist attacks, “the Paris of the Middle East” – Beirut – was attacked by ISIS. Terrorist set off two bombs in a busy shopping area, killing more than 40 people and injuring more than 240.
Then, on Sunday, a string of ISIS bombs in Baghdad killed at least 7 people and injured 15 others.
The terrible attacks on Paris have ignited a fury of reaction. But the Paris attacks were just part of a series of ongoing attacks by ISIS. Civilians have been attacked by ISIS all across the Middle East, in Iraq, in Syria and most recently in Beirut. The wave of refugees entering Europe are people fleeing ISIS attacks along with the Syrian civil war.
The recent ISIS attacks in Arab countries are barely mentioned in the discussion of ISIS and terrorism. The outpouring of sympathy for and solidarity with people in Paris is not matched by sympathy and solidarity for the people in the Middle East who are constantly suffering similar attacks. Why not?
Do Arab lives matter less than non-Arab lives? Was it because the attack on Paris is an excuse to cast this as an Islam vs. West battle?
The New York Times reported on this lack of discussion of what happened in Beirut, in “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten“:
But for some in Beirut, that solidarity was mixed with anguish over the fact that just one of the stricken cities — Paris — received a global outpouring of sympathy akin to the one lavished on the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
Monuments around the world lit up in the colors of the French flag; presidential speeches touted the need to defend “shared values;” Facebook offered users a one-click option to overlay their profile pictures with the French tricolor, a service not offered for the Lebanese flag. On Friday the social media giant even activated Safety Check, a feature usually reserved for natural disasters that lets people alert loved ones that they are unhurt; they had not activated it the day before for Beirut.
David Shariatmadari writes at The Guardian, in “Isis hates Middle Eastern civilisation too“:
The terrorists certainly had civilisation in their crosshairs. They spread chaos and killing through a city famous for its culture, its intermingling of influences, its freedom of expression. In as much as they targeted one of Europe’s great capitals, it was an assault on European values – the way our citizens choose to live and behave. However, it is wrong to frame the atrocities as attacks on “western civilisation” alone.
[. . .]
First of all, it downplays the suffering of Middle Easterners at the hands of Isis. On Thursday, for example, 43 people in a mainly Shia part of Beirut were murdered by Isis suicide bombers. Although that city is far more used to violence than Paris, it still represented an assault on normal, civilised life. The most immediate opponents of the violent jihadists are the people they live among – the Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis of Iraq and Syria…
Secondly, it distorts our ability to recognise who our proper allies are. There is a broad risk of tarring the whole Middle East with the brush of extremism – as though the violent ideology of Isis is typical of the entire region, and life across it carries on in an utterly different mode to our own. Here in the west, that can mean those of Arab or Muslim heritage being blamed and abused.
In 2003, conservatives blasted France for its reluctance to join in the invasion of Iraq. They called the French “surrender monkeys” and renamed French fries on congressional cafeteria menus to “Freedom fries”.
Now that the consequences of that invasion have, as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont put it in Saturday’s Democratic debate “unraveled the region completely,” conservatives have unleashed a wave of hatred for the people fleeing attacks like those in Beirut, Baghdad and especially Syria.
These are the same people who were trying to keep children fleeing violence from Central America from receiving asylum in the U.S.
These are the same people who were trying to keep people from Africa out of the U.S. because of Ebola.
And now the same people are saying the U.S. should not even allow orphans – even those under the age of 5 – into the country because they might be “terrorists.”
It Is Not About “We”
We can’t say there is a “we” behind this special resonance of Paris. It is not a “we” of civilization; Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. We can’t say this is “Westerners” expressing a sympathy of similars; there are millions of people in the U.S. who are of Middle Eastern descent, and they are part of the “we” that is the United States. There are millions more who constitute the “we” of Europe.
So what about Beirut? What is it about the people in Beirut – and Baghdad and Syria and so many other places under attack by ISIS – that makes them somehow different from the people in Paris, somehow less worthy of our attention and empathy and solidarity?
ISIS is at war with humanity, and those of us who are human should express our sympathy for and solidarity with all humans suffering these attacks.
It’s True, Media Did Cover Beirut Bombings—About 1/40th as Much as They Covered Paris Attacks
Max Fisher takes issue in Vox (11/16/15) with people who complain about the lack of media coverage of ISIS’s bombings in Beirut compared to its attacks in Paris:
The media has, in fact, covered the Beirut bombings extensively.
The New York Times covered it. The Washington Post, in addition to running an Associated Press story on it, sent reporter Hugh Naylor to cover the blasts and then write a lengthy piece on their aftermath. The Economist had a thoughtful piece reflecting on the attack’s significance. CNN, which rightly or wrongly has a reputation for least-common-denominator news judgment, aired one segment after another on the Beirut bombings. Even the Daily Mail, a British tabloid most known for its gossipy royals coverage, was on the story. And on and on.
Yet these are stories that, like so many stories of previous bombings and mass acts of violence outside of the West, readers have largely ignored.
Let’s grant Fisher one point: The much-retweeted Twitter complaint that “no media has covered” the Beirut bombing is wrong—as is most media criticism that asserts that “no media” did anything.
But Fisher’s overarching argument—that because “the media does cover Beirut,” it’s wrong to blame media for the fact that “the world truly does care more about France”—is equally absurd.
Let’s take Fisher’s first for-instance, for instance. The New York Times did cover the Beirut blasts—in one story, on page 6, that FAIR criticized because it initially framed the attack as being aimed at a “Hezbollah stronghold”; if you can think of a better way to discourage Americans from caring about the victims of a terror attack, let me know.
By comparison, the Times (11/14/15) had six first-day stories on the Paris attacks, three of them on the front page. There were some 20 follow-up stories the next day (11/15/15), four of them on the front page. The day after that (11/16/15), there were 15 more follow-up stories, another four on Page 1. One of the November 16 follow-ups—on page 6—looked at reactions in Beirut to the Paris bombing. This was cited by Fisher as proof that media were too covering Beirut!
Fisher’s piece notes a fact of human nature: “People start with a narrative they feel is true, and then look for evidence to support that narrative.” To find evidence to support that claim, Fisher need look no further than the mirror.
UPDATE: FAIR produced another critique of the media’s treatment of the two mass killings Thursday, entitled “Isis Killed More Americans in Beirut Than in Paris — But Only Their Hometown Papers Noticed.” The headline says it all, but it’s well worth reading.