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Journalism, history and war: Sit, type and bleed

The typical newsroom setup, where journalists chase after headlines dictated by a centralized news-gathering agency — often based in a Western capital — no longer suffices. In the case of the Middle East, the news narrative has been defined by others and dictated to Arab journalists and audiences for far too long. This hardly worked in the past but during the last few years, it has become even more irrelevant and dangerous.

There are millions of victims throughout the region, numerous bereaved families, constant streams of refugees and a human toll that cannot be understood or expressed through typical media narration: A gripping headline, a couple of quotes and a paragraph or two of context.

The price is too high for this kind of lazy journalism. There is too much at stake for the profession not to be fundamentally redefined by those who are experiencing war, understand the region’s pulse, fathom the culture and speak the language. Arabs have indeed spoken, and for years their words were filled with anger and hope. The haunting cries of Syrians and other Arab nations will define the memories of this generation and the next.

How much is journalism today a reflection of this harrowing, blood-soaked reality? American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” But modern journalism — at least the way it is communicated in the Middle East currently — hardly bleeds.

Under the guise of false objectivity, it remains detached from its immediate reality and is rarely expressive of the seriousness of this difficult transition in our history. But the truth is, journalism has not failed. We did. We are still unable to appreciate the gravity of what has befallen our region and by extension the world. 

As for the people, if we do not neglect them altogether, we turn their misery into fodder in our political feuds. Equally inexcusable, we pay little attention to history, as if the most significant component of our story is the least relevant. Orientalism still defines the way history is written in and about the Middle East. We should reject that, not only as a matter of principle but also because it is impractical and false.

This Orientalist depiction has afflicted journalism. Why do we allow others to define who we are, when we are in the most urgent need to define ourselves? Writing on Palestine for nearly 25 years, I have experienced this strange and persistent dichotomy in both journalism and academia. Palestine is reported as a recurring, seemingly never-ending “conflict,” coverage of which always adheres to the same rules, language and stereotypes.

An urgent issue that requires immediate resolution, not least because of its regional and global impact, is relegated as if a redundant, uninteresting story. Many people tend to have short-term memories when Palestinian rights are in question. This feeds well into the Israeli narrative, which has aimed to displace Palestinian history altogether and replace it with a false one.

To be a journalist reporting on the Arab upheavals and not fully fathom the region’s history and its peoples’ hopes and aspirations is no longer excusable.

Ramzy Baroud

Although files on the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians are still hidden in Israeli archives, one document, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has escaped the censor’s keen eye: File GL-18/17028, which shows how the country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resorted to Zionist historians in the early 1950s to forge an alternate story of how Palestinian refugees were expelled. He chose the most convincing one, and that became “history.”

This rewriting of history is ongoing and has tainted the present. How can journalists, then, unearth the seemingly complex truth without understanding history — not the version conveniently fashioned by Israel, but the history of the pain, suffering and ongoing struggle of the Palestinians?

To report on Palestine and Israel without fully fathoming the historical roots of this tragic story is to merely be content with providing a superficial account of what “both sides” are saying, which often favors Israel and demonizes the Palestinians. The Palestine scenario is now repeated everywhere. The narratives on Syria and other conflicts are guided by preconceived wisdom.

Journalism is still failing to break the stronghold of the old paradigm that relegates the people and focuses instead on rulers, politicians, governments and business elites. This is the media version of what is known in academia as the “Great Man Theory,” a defunct discipline that is sadly used abundantly in the Arab press. But without the people there is no history, no story to be written and no change to be expected.

Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Palestinians and Arabs already have a voice, an articulate one but it has been deliberately muted by a massive campaign of misinformation, distortion and misrepresentation.

When Israel and its allies say “Palestinians are not a people,” they essentially claim Palestinians have no identity or legitimate demands, and so deserve no voice. When the media silences the voice of the people, it relegates their rights, demands for freedom, change and democracy.

Our answer should not be speaking on behalf of the people but to actually listen to them and empower their voices so they articulate their own aspirations and rightful demands, and express their own identity. Journalism is not a technical profession, or a skill to be honed without compassion and a deep understanding of the past and present.

True intellectuals cannot operate outside the realm of history, and the Arab world is undergoing its greatest historical flux in a century. For journalists to be relevant, they must stop dictating the news in the same predictable pattern, and delve deeper into the story.

They need to understand that a narrative is lacking, if not irrelevant, if it does not begin and end with the people, whose story is not a sound bite but rooted in a complex reality in which history should take center stage.

To be a journalist reporting on the Arab upheavals and to not fully fathom the region’s history and its peoples’ hopes and aspirations is no longer excusable. When entire nations are bleeding, journalists need to heed Hemingway’s advice: “Sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.