Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

Anisa Mehdi became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2018

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

  • Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth
  • A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale

MAKKAH: The numbers alone are simply staggering — last year involving 40,000 civil servants, 17,000 civil defense personnel, eight air ambulances and 300 ambulances on the ground, 2,000 Saudi Red Crescent representatives — all with the same mission; to look after more than three million people from more than 80 countries speaking goodness knows how many different languages.
Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth. By comparison, Christmas mass at the Vatican, with 11,000 in attendance, looks like an intimate occasion.
In terms of religious gatherings, only the Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela, is bigger with about 100 million to 120 million participants. But that takes place over two months, not two weeks, and rotates around four different locations.
A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale. Sky News Arabia, to name but one network, is sending a team of 15, from the London, Cairo, Riyadh and Jeddah bureaus.
Some reporters will mingle with the masses in search of heart-warming stories of family reunions and dreams come true. Others will be in the air, circling overhead in police helicopters.
BBC Arabic, the British public service broadcaster's Arabic service, is sending “a small team, including a reporter and local producer.” Planning began in early June and the coverage will include digital and Facebook content.
This year the Saudi Ministry of Media said that it will be offering “state of the art facilities” to the 800 foreign journalists who are expected to descend on Makkah and its environs.


 There are fully equipped media centers with computers, and a new online portal will be an official source of news and information about the Hajj.
By far outnumbering the “official” journalists are the so-called “citizen journalists” — essentially people recording their Hajj experience on their mobile phone and posting it on social media, with the full blessing of the authorities.
While news outlets have to apply for permits to film or record, pilgrims taking selfies to post on Instagram face no such restrictions.
Arab-American Muslim journalist Anisa Mehdi said that Dr. Saud
Kateb, then Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, told her in 2013: “We’re all about citizen journalism now.”
In 1998, Mehdi, who is half-Iraqi, became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily the government getting in my way, although I had to plead my case when I got there with only a Hajj visa and wanted permission to film. I had to explain why it was essential for the audience I was serving to dispel misconceptions and they (the Saudi authorities) understood that.
“There was simply no tradition of having journalists there so there were no facilities. There was nowhere for the cameraman to recharge the battery for the camera. He had to attach a cable to a car so I could continue an interview. There were no mobile phones so if you wanted to find someone you had to walk. It took more than four hours for me to find one subject in Mina. All I knew was that he was in Camp 19, but there were no maps and it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Mehdi returned in 2003 for National Geographic and again in 2014 for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series “Sacred Journeys.” Despite having all the necessary permits, she and her crew were prevented from filming at the entrance to the plaza leading to the Haram.
The solution, which saved both time and hassle, was to distribute small cameras to Hajjis and let them capture the atmosphere in their own way. The minister approved, maintaining it was a good way to project a positive image.
“It’s not only the mainstream media. For non-Muslims it’s good to see the real Muslims,” Kateb told PBS. “Muslims are not having the right image all over the world, and I think we have a big responsibility to show who real Muslims are.”
The fact that the Hajj is a Muslim ritual does not mean that it holds no interest for non-Muslims.
“If you look at press coverage year in, year out, the main reason for interest in the Hajj outside the Muslim world is firstly that it’s perhaps the largest gathering of so many people from so many different parts of the world together in one place at one time,” said Dr. Sean McLoughlin, professor of the anthropology of Islam at Leeds University, who studies Muslim diasporas.
“Another headline issue that has featured periodically in the UK is the radical expansion of the Haram and the commercial redevelopment of Makkah in recent years, and especially the impact of this on Muslim history and heritage.
“However, beyond this focus on the infrastructural and organizational side of Hajj, the journeys of the pilgrims are also a genuine human interest story.”
McLoughlin said that US network CNN pioneered coverage from the Holy Places more than a decade ago. A 2003 documentary on Channel 4 in the UK “gave a genuine insight into pilgrims’ religious motivations an experiences of the sacred journey,” he added.
“There is a fascination too with the spiritual magnetism of perhaps the last place on Earth that non-Muslim Westerners cannot visit.”
In fact, CNN’s coverage of dates back 30 years, but the network is not sending a team this year because resources are taken up with covering other breaking news stories in the region.
The media — both mainstream and social — have an important part to play in challenging the perception of Muslims as “other,” said Dr. Chris Allen, associate professor at the Center for Hate Studies at Leicester University.
“In Britain, religion is a private matter. For Muslims, that line between the public and personal is less clear. If it’s presented well, without the element of preaching, if it focuses on the human story, then coverage of the Hajj has the potential to draw people into what, in Britain at least, is a niche subject.”
Does that mean Hajj is best explained to a Western audience by Western media?
“There is, in fact, very little of the ‘weird practices’ type of reporting,” said Allen. “Stories about people being fleeced by scam Hajj tour operators is not negative reporting, it’s legitimate consumer affairs journalism.
“Reporting on a tragedy like in 2015, when people died in a stampede, is not negative. It was newsworthy. There is an interest in Hajj, but it’s not a sinister interest.”
The influence of social media should not be dismissed, he added.
“The reach may be smaller and more localized than mainstream media, but put a lot of those smaller networks together and it adds up.”
He recounts how staff at his daughter’s workplace rearranged the rota so that a Muslim colleague was able to be at home for iftar during Ramadan.
“He was the only Muslim in the place and the reason the non-Muslims understood about Ramadan was because he had spoken about it. Small numbers can make big changes,” said Allen.
The success of the 2012 exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” at the British Museum in London demonstrated the growing appetite for better understanding of the Hajj, said Professor McLoughlin.
Several UK production companies have sought to make documentaries since then. BBC One was planning to run a two-part series following Nadiya Hussain, winner of “The Great British Bake Off,” on her Hajj.
While these projects have not all been realized, there is ample evidence that the importance of good media coverage is well-recognized.
Last year the Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria organized a conference in Lagos to “examine how robust media coverage can enhance the performance of the spiritual exercise.” It was attended by the Lagos State Deputy Governor, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, States Pilgrims Welfare Boards, private tour operators and airline representatives as well as the media.
McLoughlin said that the new media facilities fit into Saudi Arabia’s plan to expand Hajj and Umrah numbers significantly in the next decade to increase the role that religious tourism will play in the national economy. But there is more to it than that, he added. “Hajj has always been a focus for intra-Muslim exchange and diplomacy.”
Mehdi is now executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative, an NGO that has opened up 2,000 walking trails through Jordan, Palestine and Israel, following the journey of Ibrahim/Abraham, a figure revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
“The aim is to promote understanding and bring people together,” she said. “And that’s the point of the Hajj too.”


Hajj numbers

An estimated 2.4 million people performed Hajj last year.

Is Trump’s love affair with Fox News fading?

Updated 19 August 2019

Is Trump’s love affair with Fox News fading?

  • Trump appears to be tilting his media gaze toward a more right-wing rival, cable outfit OANN
  • Since March Trump has tweeted links to OANN stories or shared his appreciation of the network 13 times

WASHINGTON: Last month after Donald Trump watched Fox News lob what he called “softball questions” at a Democratic lawmaker, the US president delivered a crisp smackdown of his favorite network: “Fox sure ain’t what it used to be.”
After years of often fawning coverage by Fox, particularly from its pro-Trump anchors like Sean Hannity, the commander in chief appears to be tilting his media gaze toward a younger, more right-wing rival, cable outfit One America News Network (OANN).
The small upstart broadcaster was launched only recently, in 2013, by technology millionaire Robert Herring, who sought a more conservative alternative to mainstream media behemoths like CNN.
Today it seeks to outfox Fox by drawing extra attention from Trump, who has been voicing his displeasure with the ratings leader over everything from presidential polling to its hosting of Democratic candidate town halls.
Last week in a tweet to his 63 million followers, the president managed to disparage Fox and his mainstream news foil CNN, while heaping praise on the new object of his media affection.
“Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith, the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN!” Trump posted.
Since March he has tweeted links to OANN stories or shared his appreciation of the network 13 times.
The relationship has been years in the making. In 2015 Trump was interviewed by Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, when she guest-hosted OANN’s show “On Point.”
At his first press conference as president-elect, in January 2017, Trump took a question from an OANN reporter. OANN was then called on dozens of times at the daily briefings in Trump’s first 100 days in office.
During his June 2018 press conference in Singapore, following the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump took a question from OANN White House correspondent Emerald Robinson, but not before gushing about her network.
“Thank you for the nice way you treat us. We appreciate it,” he said. “Really, it’s very good. It’s really beautiful what you do.”
The San Diego-based operation describes itself as “straight news, no opinion.” But the pro-Trump agenda is crystal clear, more than a dozen current and former employees told The Washington Post in 2017.
Herring himself, in his pinned tweet, describes OANN as “the president’s favorite new outlet.”
When Fox cut away from broadcasting a Trump rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, Herring tweeted, “We will never cut away!“

Purveyor of conspiracy theories
OANN has faced accusations of promoting conspiracy theories and peddling Kremlin propaganda.
“Yeah, we like Russia here,” a staffer assigned to brief new OANN producer Ernest Champell told him, according to The Daily Beast. Champell left, disillusioned, four months later.
“The network has a history of race-baiting and presenting anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion reporting,” according to Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit group that says its mission is “analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation.”
While OANN’s influence in the White House may far outweigh its position in the news media landscape, Trump clearly retains an affinity for several people in the Fox organization.
The show “Fox & Friends” remains his go-to morning program; Trump has phoned in on numerous occasions as president.
Perhaps that is why Democratic longshot contender Julian Castro purchased ad time during “Fox & Friends” this week, airing a spot in which he directly addresses Trump and blames him for inspiring the El Paso shooter who massacred 22 people early this month.

Trump jealous
Sean Hannity, the network’s popular anchor, appeared alongside Trump at a campaign rally ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.
But friction emerged this week when Hannity expressed support for CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after a video of Cuomo in a heated argument at a New York bar went viral.
It was a sharp contrast to Trump, who tweeted that Cuomo — the brother of New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo — was “nuts” and showed a “total loss of control” in the incident.
The president expressed frustration when Fox aired multiple town halls in recent months featuring Democrats who are trying to unseat him in 2020, including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, currently fifth in major polling.
“Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete,” Trump tweeted in May. “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems.”
Fox News presidential polling is also a concern for Trump, whose job approval rating in the network’s mid-August poll dipped substantially, to 43 percent, while his disapproval rating spiked to 56 percent, its highest since October 2017.
In head-to-head matchups, the poll shows Trump losing to major Democratic candidates, including to frontrunner Joe Biden by 12 percentage points and to liberal Bernie Sanders by nine.
Fox polls “have always been terrible to me,” he tweeted in late July.