Tuesday, December 16, 2008

shoe-leather democracy

By now we've all heard about the notorious shoe-throwing incident on Monday when Iraqi reporter Muntadar al-Zeidi hurled his size 10 at America's lame duck president at a news conference in Baghdad.

As we assuredly know by now as well, a shoe is considered the lowest of the low in Iraq, as the NYT reports, "calling someone the “son of a shoe” is one of the worst insults in Iraq." Here in the U.S., many of us think the whole incident was pretty funny. Cartoonists, late-nighters, and digital funnymen have had a field day. (Check out this series of doctored videos from HuffPo)

But as that same article in the Times reports, al-Zeidi is now being regarded by some as a hero, whose act has unleashed a torrent of sentiment against the U.S. presence in Iraq. From the Times:

"In street-corner conversations, on television and in Internet chat rooms, the subject of shoes was inescapable throughout much of the Middle East on Monday, as was the defiant act that inspired the interest: a huge and spontaneous eruption of anger at President Bush on Sunday in his final visit here. Some deplored Mr. Zaidi’s act as a breach of respect or of traditional Arab hospitality toward guests, even if they shared the sentiment. (Mr. Bush, having demonstrated his quick reflexes, then brushed it off as an expression of democracy.)

“Although that action was not expressed in a civilized manner, it showed the Iraqi feelings, which is to object to the American occupation,” said Qutaiba Rajaa, a 58-year-old physician in Samarra, a Sunni stronghold north of Baghdad.

But many more expressed undiluted pleasure. “I swear by God that all Iraqis with their different nationalities are glad about this act,” said Yaareb Yousif Matti, a 45-year-old teacher from Mosul, in northern Iraq."

But the lowly shoe and the Iraqi who threw both of his at President Bush, with widely admired aim, were embraced around the Arab world on Monday as symbols of rage at a still unpopular war."

Most relevant to me, however -- despite the entertainment factor of it all -- is this piece by Mark Sandalow, formerly Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, who reminds us why reporters need to keep their shoes on their feet and their opinions to themselves.

He writes: "
There is a reason for the "no cheering in the press box" axiom. The public is entitled to information, and journalists have a responsibility to both elicit and broadcast it. Displays of anger, repulsion or even devotion - no matter how righteous - deny the public that information."

He continues later in the piece: "What did al-Zeidi accomplish? Bush ducked, made a few jokes, and said nothing of substance on the atrocities in Iraq. Access to political figures is a gift that should not be squandered.

"What if al-Zeidi had kept his shoes on, and instead lobbed verbally pointed questions about how Bush reconciles the agony of millions of Iraqis with the upbeat assessment of the war he had just given to American troops? Putting the ball in play does not mean asking softball questions. An earnest response would have made news, and a nonanswer would have been illuminating.

"Instead, Bush was asked what he thought about having shoes thrown at him.

"Al-Zeidi is no hero - certainly not as a journalist. Disgust is a satisfying and often entertaining emotion (ever watched Geraldo Rivera or Bill O'Reilly?). But a journalist's job is to educate, not pontificate."

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