Sunday, February 6, 2011

the great middle east disconnect

While we in the West have extolled the virtues of our very American (ahem, San Francisco Bay Area grown) social media in spreading pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East, and giving those of us in our comfortable homes access to real-time tweets and status updates, NYTimes columnist Frank Rich points out the uncomfortable fact that our digital emperor may be only partially clothed.

For one thing, one 20 percent of the population in Egypt has internet access. For another, the revolution only grew stronger when the government shut down the internet. But the more important question he addresses is this: One reason we in the West were obsessed with the social media hype was because we had no context for the real story: the grinding poverty in Egypt that fostered the demonstrations in the first place:

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.” What’s important is “why they were driven to do it in the first place” — starting with the issues of human dignity and crushing poverty that Engel was trying to shove back to center stage.

Exactly. But why was the story about social media in the first place? Because we had no other story to tell. No context. No backstory. No reporters. Back to Rich:

That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience. We see the Middle East on television only when it flares up and then generally in medium or long shot. But there actually is an English-language cable channel — Al Jazeera English — that blankets the region with bureaus and that could have been illuminating Arab life and politics for American audiences since 2006, when it was established as an editorially separate sister channel to its Qatar-based namesake.

Al Jazeera English, run by a 35-year veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is routinely available in Israel and Canada. It provided coverage of the 2009 Gaza war and this year’s Tunisian revolt when no other television networks would or could. Yet in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

The effect of this disconnect -- by not supporting our own foreign correspondents or allowing access to news orgs that do -- means we often just don't get it. Political upheavals take us by surprise. We demonize what we don't know. And we end up trivializing important political events as "twitter revolutions."

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