Mainstream media fail to adequately investigate the Egyptian revolution
As a sea of protesters packed streets and city squares, Hosni Mubarak’s presidency crumbled. With the fall of Mubarak, U.S. mainstream media quickly demonstrated hesitancy to explore certain unsightly aspects of the Egyptian revolution.
While reporting on Egypt, influences like the political sway of Egypt’s pro-Israeli policies were glossed over. Issues like the United States’ $1.3 billion average annual funding of the Egyptian military were left unexplored. The record-high food prices crippling the working class were forgotten. Covering Egypt’s 55-percent poverty rate was considered poor taste. The incompatibility of extremist Wahabee Islam with Egypt’s predominantly sexually liberated culture were glossed over. And stories about the nation’s powerful neoliberal economic structure were taboo. This bad reporting occurred even as the revolution received more coverage in the course of one week than any story recorded by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in its four years of existence.
Democracy Now!’s Senior Producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported on the Egyptian revolution differently than other mainstream journalists. While embedded, Kouddous filed comprehensive coverage of the protesters’ goals, reasons for demonstration and the major developments of the movement. But this is not the angle that other prominent journalists covered—the majority of hard news coverage was centered on official government stances and interviews with some of the most powerful officials. Stories dealing directly with the protests relied on bird’s-eye-view camera angles or Egyptians pumping their fists while chanting slogans unintelligible to many American ears.
The mainstream media failed at covering the revolution from the very beginning.
“The way the mainstream media covered it, they failed,” Kouddous said. “What they initially did—and this is what they always do—is have this false sense of objectivity, which is to report what each side is saying equally as if both are true and not investigating any claims. That’s like stenography, not journalism.”
There is an obvious disconnect between reporting on official government narratives coupled with brief soundbites of generally “angry” protesters, and conducting extensive interviews with the protesters, who were the truest embodiment of the revolution.
Kouddous said he spoke to doctors, journalists, lawyers, students and peasants.
“I spoke to everyone I could find in Tahrir who wanted to talk, and many people did,” he said. “It’s that simple to get the story. You just ask people, ‘Why are you here?’ and they’ll tell you why. They’ll tell you their hopes and frustrations and what they’re calling for and what they think of the U.S. policy.”
Before exploring the sources of media bias, it is important to understand just what the U.S. mainstream media weren’t reporting on.
The main causation purveyed by U.S. mainstream media was the November 2010 Egyptian elections, which were blatantly rigged, so much so that government tampering was caught on tape. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party won 83 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament.
But rigged elections weren’t the only concerns present in Egypt’s collective mind. That same November, global food prices reached record highs, and the next four consecutive months led to ever-higher food prices, which hit the highest rate on record in February 2011. The self-immolation of a Tunisian man brought forth the first Middle Eastern revolution of 2011 and actualized domino theory, as uprisings spread throughout the region.
Exactly one month later, an Egyptian man committed suicide by setting himself on fire. This, along with a wildly popular Facebook group dedicated to Kahleed Said, an Egyptian whose fatal beating by police was caught on-tape, and the demonstrations of activists who altruistically defied a government known for its brutality, triggered the Egyptian revolution.
In addition to having a government whose interests obviously do not hinge on popular support, Egypt has no minimum wage. Moreover, after decades of neoliberal economic reform, the disparity of wealth is so large that half of Egyptian spending is done by the wealthiest 3 percent of the population. And with 44 percent of the population living under or just near the poverty line, the average Egyptian family of five struggles to live on only $1 per family member per day. The Arab Human Society report of 2009 concluded that Egyptian youths are insecure “in almost all living aspects,” and their lives render them “hardly free” to make their own decisions. Their socio-political environments discourage any meaningful social participation.
Egyptian journalist Tarek Osman wrote about this report in 2010: “The abuse of their rights drives them to reject not only the government regime but the entire society in which they feel imprisoned and humiliated.”
The new figurehead of Egypt, Omar Suleiman, does not seem likely to change the country’s human rights problem. Mubarak’s replacement is appropriately nicknamed “Suleiman the Torturer.” In The New Yorker, journalist Jane Mayer established that Suleiman is the Egyptian point man on U.S. extraordinary rendition.
Suleiman’s backer, the Egyptian military, whose counsel is by and large the main political force in the country, is a literal incarnation of Eisenhower’s forewarned “military-industrial complex.” According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Egyptian military sells everything from bottled water to laptops. Also, The New York Times ran an article titled “Disappearances in Egypt Stoke Concerns About Military’s Vows for Transition,” which implicates the military in the abduction and torture of protesters.
Act Dependently and Maximize Harm
Pundits have utilized egregious mistruths about the Muslim Brotherhood to unfairly cast Islamic radicalism onto the protests. Neoconservative Op-ed columnists Charles Krauthammer and his colleague David Ignatius even advocated for a military-controlled Egypt. MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews has interrupted reports about U.S. funding of Egypt and then changed the subject. Even newspaper reporters tended to focus on official narratives, largely leaving the underlying causation of this revolution unexplored.
A Feb. 9, 2011, news story from The Washington Post focuses on the effects of the uprising and gives ample perspective from the Egyptian government and the influential players in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak movement. Unfortunately, the article loses major points by quoting real protesters only in the last 294 words of the 1,902-word story. Sparse coverage of intelligent discussion by middle-class Egyptian protesters, coupled with Americans irregularly seeing coverage of protesters’ voices, contributed to the fact that Westerners had problems relating to the spirit and implications of this uprising.
According to Steve Rendall, media analyst for the progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, media willingness to regurgitate government narratives is nothing new in the mainstream press. Often, it occurs within stories about “national security” issues. He said that they far too often report the views of very powerful people, which inevitably distort bias in favor of the power elite’s perspective.
With the goals of the revolution flying directly in the face of American political and economic interests, media presented the uprising with undertones of Muslim bigotry and overwhelmingly questioned the legitimacy of establishing a true democracy in Egypt.
Indirect documentation of this can be found in Pew Research Center’s study on the effects of Egyptian protests on the United States. The report found that 15 percent of Americans thought they were “good.” With only 15 percent of Americans supporting Egyptain democracy, this poll epitomizes an extreme break in conventional thinking about democratic reform. Since most Americans have no personal ties to Egypt, it is plausible that the main influence in forming U.S. opinion was the way in which the media framed the story. When looking at the same reporting on democratic movements in Syria or Eastern Europe, where the established governments are unfavorable to U.S. interests, media predominantly reported in favor of democratic demonstrators and revolution.
Democracy, Shot in the Head
Conflicts of interest are rampant within the story—The Washington Post’s parent company relied on government money for 61 percent of its profit in 2010, and General Electric, which still owns 41 percent of NBC, reported $3.5 billion in North African sales during 2008 and has extensive lobbying interests with the U.S. government. Despite these, it is unlikely that the first thought of a corporate journalist is to check his or her parent company’s affiliations before filing a story.
According to Rendall, blogger Glenn Greenwald and Kouddous, self-censorship is more likely the result of careerism. That is, journalists who unflinchingly support the same endeavors as the U.S. government and the corporate bosses are more likely to get interviews with elite news sources and be promoted within their company.
It is important to note that this sort of careerist journalism is the standard, but not the rule. Corporate-owned newspapers still publish articles that challenge the official government narrative. With close research, news about the realities of Egypt can be found deep within the coverage of mainstream outlets. But a culture of passionate and uninformed journalism is indeed the tone purveyed in popular debate. America is far removed from media blackout—instead, the reality is more akin to a whitewashing’s first coat of paint.
But with the most influential journalists supporting careerist interests, the need for an informed American citizenry is decidedly neglected. The press, which should be challenging power, is now engrained within the interests of power, whether government or corporate. The media are now acting as the most influential, integrated and powerful purveyor of rhetoric ever to exist.
This culture misses a large, valuable aspect of what it means to be an independent journalist. “The best investigative journalists, the most hard-hitting journalists, the journalists that break the biggest stories, and, in general, are better reporters are the ones who challenge power, not the ones who want to have access to it,” Kouddous said.
Remembering what he experienced when starting a career in journalism, he reflected on the advice Pulitzer Prize-winning Chris Hedges once gave him. Hedges said: “Never think about your career, just be a reporter. If you start thinking about your career, then you’re over.”
Andrew Casler is a senior journalism major who thinks protests are louder than bombs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.