Media Mediocrity in the Coverage of Yemen

Yemen Update 25(1989):9

Articles in the popular Western press on North Yemen are generally few and far between. However, the opening of the oil pipeline in 1987 provided an opportunity for members of the media and reporters to see the country celebrate a major event in the region. While I do not expect the few fleeting days of a reporters' sojourn in Yemen to yield a definitive coverage, I still look for a fair and adequate look at the society. I can not speak for the majority of the media people who came to Yemen, but I have been sadly disappointed by the shabby and biased reporting by one representing The Wall Street Journal. This reporter published two articles I have seen and perhaps many more variations on the theme. In the first, (January 12, 1988) we are treated to a front-page spread filed from Khamir, North Yemen (I must have missed the press office in my last trip to Khamir…). Do we learn about the fundamental change in Yemen's economy brought about by oil production? No, we are treated to a National Enquirer-ish line of "Guntoting Yemenis Buy Their Weapons at Corner Bazaars." This is Yemen with a "wild west atmosphere" where Sa‘da becomes an Oriental "Dodge City." The Journal informs its business-conscious readers that even in the most remote dukkans in Yemen you can pick up bayonets, submachine guns, assault rifles, bazookas, rockets, tanks and, of course, daggers! It would seem that the NRA could make a fortune here selling bumper stickers. How touching that the journalist was able to witness a 13-year-old-goatherd who conveniently "shrugs and empties his AK-17 into an abandoned roadside hut." In all, the article is so lacking in objectivity and insensitive to the society that one ends up wondering about the hang-ups of the reporter himself. Could it be that he really wanted to cover the war in Afghanistan?

The second article by the same reporter was billed as a top-level article in a spring issue of The Washington Post. Here the wild west atmosphere (which I imagine might scare off the tourist clientele) gives way to one of "Bowery bums" with "rumpled polyester shirts" (but how do you rumple polyester?). What we find is the standard obsession with qat and jambiyya, apparently the only things the journalist could peg his story on. How clever is it, though, to call the scarf worn around the head a "rag" or to say that chewing makes Yemen "look like a last-place team in mid-September (Are the Orioles really moving to Sanaa?) I do enjoy hearing about those "mud fortresses" in the mountains and all those hardworking "water buffalo" plowing the terraces. (I guess the carved stones are now being used to hide all the Zebu cattle I used to see in Yemen…)

Indeed it is clever, if only in a crude way. The point is that it is not journalism. The reporter is more in love with his own metaphors than describing or expressing what it is like to be in Yemen. He would rather write a comedy skit than look at Yemenis as ordinary people. The result is one of stereotype in the worst way and comments that belong to fiction rather than in major American newspapers. The bottom line is that all the puns and cleverness may get a cheap laugh, but none of this informs. This is the mediocritization of the media where the news takes a second seat to the one supposedly covering the news.

A great hue and cry is often raised in the U.S. about the inalienable rights of journalists. Third world and developing nations usually take the heat for restricting media coverage and censorship. While there is a certain amount of truth in the fact that many governments (including my own) like to control at least the direction of the media, there is also a measure of arrogance. A reporter who is invited to Yemen does not have to agree with what he sees. But when he prefers to work with stereotype and a condescending attitude, he forfeits any respect as a fair and objective reporter. In the case of North Yemen, which so seldom gets any coverage unless it is bad news, it is tragic that an opportunity for informing the American public about an out-of-the-way place has been so rudely squandered.

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