ISIS media and Western Journalists

In an April 18 post, one of my classmates details the media and publication arm of ISIS, an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization. My classmate points out that the employees of the ISIS arm are some of the most well compensated in the organization. I’d like to extend on his post to talk about the relationship between Daesh “journalists” and their western counterparts.

The cruel irony of the ISIS media arm is that while they reward their own media professionals handsomely, they’ve made Western journalists one of their most sensational pawns in their propaganda war. In a Feb. 2015 Longform Podcast, Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for the NY Times, said that ISIS has realized that journalists are “the creme de la creme for targets in their propaganda videos”. A NY Times graphic, also published in Feb 2015, showed that 11 out of the 23 foreigners held in the same ISIS prison were journalists and photojournalists. The other prisoners were aid workers from Europe and the United States.

James Foley working from Aleppo, Syria, two weeks before he was kidnapped in November 2012. Photo courtesy of NY Times.

Everyone remembers seeing the freelance journalist James Foley kneeling in front of a DAESH caliphate in a desert, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. His beheadding by
ISIS fighter “Jihadi John” was the first in a series of journalist killings by ISIS. Another American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, was executed a month later.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother, Diane, said in a Facebook post days after his death. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Diane Foley’s remarks hint at why Western journalists are such a threat to ISIS. My classmate writes on his blog that “Under Daesh’s propaganda model, benevolent broadcasts are utilized to lure the in-group into new membership, with battle scenes serving to further alienate the out-group.” In their quest to reveal the suffering of Syrians, Western journalists have interests that are at diametric odds with the ISIS media strategists. They therefore have the most power to destroy the work of the ISIS media arm, making them prime targets for ISIS combatants.



ISIS media and Western Journalists

Islamaphobia in the New York Times

In the past few months alone, America’s paper of record has proven itself to be dreadfully out of touch when reporting on two populations: Millenials and Muslims.

I’ll only consider the latter here. Whenever the New York Times publishes an article about Muslim states, you can be fairly confident its headline will have all the trappings of click-bait sensationalism.  Two recent examples include the opinion pieces, “How Muslim governments impose ignorance,” published by Mustafa Akyol on March 16, 2016, and “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” a piece by Kamel Daoud that ran in February 2016. Both op-eds criticize  practices of Islamic governments, such as the stifling of intellectual freedom and the imposition of puritan sexual mores. The writers suggest that such moral injustices only happen in backward states “over there,” as if we would never permit them in the progressive West.

Akyol criticizes the censorship of canonical western books in Muslim states, including Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the Bible, and Karen Armstrong’s more recent study of Islamic faith, “Islam: a Short History.” Aykol, whose own book was subject to scrutiny by censors in Malaysia, concludes that “the Muslim world today is in a state of malaise,” calling them “underdeveloped” in science, technology, economics, and culture. Akyol says that this backwardness “will be overcome only with more freedom. Progress depends on more Muslims questioning whether policies that promote ignorance are really devised to protect their faith — or to protect the power of those who rule in its name.”

In his piece on sexual freedom, Daoud comdemns the “rigorous codes and discreet puratism” of Muslim governments that enable them to obstruct desire in their citizens, or “guilt trip” those who manage to feel any at all. “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands,” Daoud writes. Daoud wrote his essay just after the mass molestations of women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, and suggested that the assailants were driven by the repressive influence of Islam.

Both of these opinion pieces ignore similar offenses by Western governments, holding Islamic states to an unfair double standard. For example, one could also say that the Obama administration has “imposed ignorance” by making information less accessible to the press and the public: Obama’s administration is responsible for blocking reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, a revelation that (ironically) came out through a FOIA request.

According to VICE, documents obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation confirm longstanding suspicions that Obama’s administration halted reforms to FOIA: though the reforms got overwhelming bipartisan support in the house and senate, they never appeared for a final vote before either body. A separate investigation by VICE found that the FTC also tried to disrupt the FOIA reforms, since those reforms would have required the trade agency to enact more transparent practices. Commentary in the Washington Post in March 2016 concluded that Obama’s administration is not likely to be a model for transparency for generations to come, despite the president’s primise to run the “most transparent” administration in American history.

As for Daoud’s piece, it’s almost too easy to argue that sex is also “sick” in America, particularly if you’re writing from the vantage point of a college campus. In the US, 1 in 4 american college students will be assaulted by the end of their academic careers, and their uneducated counterparts are 30 percent more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have tried to pass legislation declaring porn a “public health crisis.” Both the articles by Akyol and Daoud show that it’s important to read American media coverage of the Middle East with a critical eye, and to try to see through the undue scrutiny the West places on Muslim governments and populations.

Islamaphobia in the New York Times

Egypt, Tunisia, and the problems with Facebook

The twitter-fueled revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia raise important questions about the intersections of social media and news. There’s no denying the necessity of social media in both countries, where governments suppress media outlets and imprison dissident journalists. The oppression of the media has led many citizens to rely on social media platforms to get their news: In a 2013 study, 52% of Tunisians reported using Facebook as their “primary news outlet.” In Egypt in 2011, “tweets became one of the most important sources of news in Egypt, as well a tool for coordinating activism and protest.”

While it’s important to have alternative, independent news sources in states with authoritarian regimes, it’s also important to distinguish the role that social media sites play in disseminating news. If you read Facebook for updates that citizen journalists post to their personal accounts, you can consider it a news outlet. But if you read it for stories from radio or TV stations, it’s an aggregator. There are problems with using it in either way. Hassan Zargouni, CEO of the Tunisian survey company Sigma Conseil, acknowledges that “The problem with Facebook is that some people become ‘journalists,’ and they are not used to it [acting as credible journalists].” In addition, “there is a problem of manipulation. Facebook can be manipulated by an invisible hand.”

That “invisible hand” could be the algorithms that Facebook uses to cater your newsfeed to your perceived political and cultural preferences. All Facebook users unwittingly impose their own editorial perceptions on their Facebook feed based on the stories they engage or ignore. Slate technology writer Will Oremus explains how the Facebook news feed is engineered to predict user preferences and curate stories that they’re likely to find interesting:

“Media organizations have historically defined what matters to their audience through their own editorial judgment. Press them on what makes a story worthwhile, and they’ll appeal to values such as truth, newsworthiness, and public interest. But Cox and his colleagues at Facebook have taken pains to avoid putting their own editorial stamp on the news feed. Instead, their working definition of what matters to any given Facebook user is just this: what he or she would rank at the top of their feeds given the choice.”

Facebook is no replacement for independent news outlets, and concerned citizens with camera phones and twitter accounts are no replacement for trained journalists. I say this not only because it’s in my professional interest to believe it, but because social media websites aren’t programmed to prioritize objectivity or even accuracy.

Egypt, Tunisia, and the problems with Facebook

Dancing in Jaffa

When I was in Israel in January, I attended a lecture by Tal Becker, a diplomat and senior member of Israel’s peace negotiations team. Dr. Becker has participated in three failed rounds of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, including the last round of talks mediated by John Kerry. Becker began his lecture by expressing regret that he studied International Relations in university. “What I should have done was get a doctorate in psychology,” Becker said, remarking that what he was doing in negotiation rooms was facilitating a dialogue between “two traumatized peoples.”

Becker’s view of Israelis and Palestinians as “two traumatized peoples” evades the common victim/victimizer binary of the conflict by equalizing the people on both sides. His acknowledgement of the psychological ramifications of living in terror zones can help explain the value of projects like Pierre Dulaine’s that bring the arts to divided communities. The documentary Dancing in Jaffa shows how the arts can facilitate communication and respect between two populations that are taught to vilify one another. It’s true that teaching Israeli and Palestinian (or arab-Israeli) children to dance with each other won’t bring an end to the conflict. But Dulaine’s project is laudable in its potential to instill respect and understanding among the generation that will one day inherit the responsibility of creating peace.

I think that the value of Dulaine’s project lies in its ability to make children show each other their insecurities.  The students from Israeli and Palsetinian schools learned at home to vilify one another. Their dance classes with Dulaine, though, revealed that all of students shared similar vulnerabilities in an unfamiliar situation: many were timid about approaching partners, leery of touching students of the opposite sex, and eager to get their moves right for Pierre. By giving students a shared goal that would force them to put their trust in one another, Dulaine’s project required them to revise what they’d learned at home so that they could see each other in a new way – as partners, and not as enemies.

Dancing in Jaffa

Turkish soaps

It’s fair to say that consumers expect the entertainment industry to provide them with opportunities for escapism. Few people want to read books, go to movies, or watch television shows that will present them with stories closely resembling their own lives. We don’t expect entertainment to mirror “real life,” which is why we grant certain allowances for far-fetched story lines, unrealistically happy endings, and unexpected plot twists in our entertainment media. This is why I took issue with the argument by Arab politicians that Turkish soap operas would engender weak morals among viewers. In Ola Diab’s documentary clip about Turkish soaps airing in Gulf States, Turks who were interviewed about the soaps said that they projected a “fantasy” of Turkish culture and didn’t reflect “real” Turkish life. The same could be said, I think, about soap operas from any nation – their characters and plot lines are, by nature of the genre, melodramatic.

Research about shows that Gulf state leaders need not worry about the “corrupting” power of cross-cultural media. In his 2006 article “The Case for Contamination,” Nigerian-born philosopher Kamwe Anthony Appiah dispels the notion movies and TV from the US will spread weak western values to other countries. He cited as evidence a study where researchers analyzed responses to North American TV shows in Northern European, MENA, and sub-saharan African countries. These social scientists found that “ how people respond to these cultural imports depends on their existing cultural context.” Appiah sumarizes:

“Dutch viewers of “Dallas” saw not the pleasures of conspicuous consumption among the superrich – the message that theorists of “cultural imperialism” find in every episode – but a reminder that money and power don’t protect you from tragedy. Israeli Arabs saw a program that confirmed that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers. Mexican telenovelas remind Ghanaian women that, where sex is at issue, men are not to be trusted. If the telenovelas tried to tell them otherwise, they wouldn’t believe it.”

The concern that Turkish entertainment will necessarily spread Turkish values assumes that viewers in Gulf States can’t be critical consumers of media. It’s possible that the reactions to Turkish media in the Gulf is part of a larger rejection of Turkish power extending into these countries, but the criticisms that Gulf leaders level against these sopas is a transparent sign of the regionalism endemic to the area.

Turkish soaps

World Values Survey Data

For the world Values Survey exercise, I chose to compare the United States, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan.

The first data set I analyzed was their relative confidence in the police. Jordan was an outlier in this dataset, with almost 53% of survey respondents reporting that they had “a great deal” of confidence in their police force. Egypt and Palestine each had about 40% of respondents with “quite a lot of confidence,” and 50% of US respondents chose the same descriptor.  I was surprised by the confidence in policing in both the US and Palestine: the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in America has renewed scrutiny of militarized police tactics, while in Palestine citizens are subject to abuse by the Israeli Defense Force as the Palestinian Authority remains largely ineffective.

Populations in the same countries had comparatively lower levels of confidence in the national press. In all countries, most respondents reported having “not very much” confidence in their press (the exception is Egypt, where 33% expressed “a great deal” of confidence compared to 32% for the former metric). The Egyptian media, however, seemed to be the most polarizing – 26% of those polled said that they had no confidence at all in news outlets. Print news media seem to be more respected in each of these countries, however, since poll respondents were highly critical of broadcast journalism. On average, 43% of those polled had “not very much” confidence in television news. This figure could have been skewed by the high levels of criticism among American respondents, since 61% of respondents fell under this metric, compared to just 25% in Egypt and about 40% in Jordan and Palestine. American broadcast channels are notorious for their party biases and manipulations of information (apparently, watching Fox News leaves you less informed about current events than watching no news at all.)

The final data set I used to compare these countries was confidence in churches. I wondered if responses to this question would correlate with the other data sets I’ve examined, since each one interrogates public perception of a different institution. The MENA countries I selected all reported high confidence in their churches, and Americans were less likely than their counterparts in Egypt, Jordan, or Palestine to think favorably of their churches. The US had the highest rate of respondents (31%) with “not very much” confidence in their churches. I assume (possibly because I just saw Spotlight) that this is due in part to the presence of Catholicism in the US and the recent sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church.

World Values Survey Data

On the Media


The February 10, 2016 episode of On the Media, “I’m an outsider and so can you,” highlights the the ways that media discourse can seep into campaign rhetoric. The episode examines the popularity of the word “outsider” in campaigns and media coverage of the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the landslide winners from the Iowa primaries, both bill themselves as “Outsiders” to the “Washington Establishment.”  Now nearly every candidate has made some argument for why they, too, qualify as “outsiders.” The episode leaves one central question unresolved: Who started using the term “outsider” first – the media, or candidates themselves? The possibility of candidates adopting language that originates in the media shows the power of media institutions to affect campaign rhetoric.

“Outsider” is a term that implies opposition – you have to stand apart from something to be an outsider to it. To what, then, are these candidates outside? I reject the idea that anyone who holds elected office can be an outsider to “establishment politics.” Even Jeb Bush, who claims to be a “Washington Outsider” since he worked on behalf as Floridians as governor, is part of the American political apparatus. Anyone who holds a seat in senate – Sanders, Cruz, or Rubio – contribute to the legislative gridlock that has been the source of outrage and exasperation during the Obama administration.  By that metric, no candidate but Trump, who has never held elected office, can claim status as an outsider to DC politics.

Fewer candidates, though, can claim that they are outsiders to the privilege that enables professional and political success. Trump’s $4.5 billion net worth is 100 times greater than the next-wealthiest candidate, Hillary Clinton, whose estate stands at $45 million. Only Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio, who paid off his law school debt in 2012, have fortunes under $1 million.

Americans have come to accept the sizable wealth gaps between themselves and the people they elect. After all, it’s expensive to be a politician: mounting a political campaign requires economic and social capital, which often circulate in a few exclusive circles. The education required (a bachelor’s degree and advanced degrees in law, business, or social sciences) is also expensive. This is why politicians have traditionally been white men from wealthy families. If we take this as the standard profile of an establishment candidate, then Clinton qualifies as an outsider as a woman (as she’s been quick to remind voters), and Sanders, Rubio, and Cruz are outsiders as the sons of immigrants.

I think that one reason “outsider” candidates may be so attractive is that the term taps into an idealized image of America as a nation that assimilates outsiders.  Even though Trump’s nativist rhetoric highlights anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the country, few voters can deny that America is a nation of immigrants, founded on the idea that anyone can transcend the conditions of their birth and build economic security. As wealth and power become more concentrated, perhaps the best way for people to convince themselves that social mobility still exists is by voting a candidate who is “outside” the traditional mold of a politician (white, male, and economically privileged”). That doesn’t explain the success of Trump’s “outsider” campaign, but it does help illuminate the slippery nature of this 2016 election buzzword.

On the Media

My Media Habits

I want to be a journalist, so I consider the time I spend reading the news both personal and professional development. I read the New York Times every day, thanks to Dickinson’s subscription service that brings hard copies to the dining hall. My strategy for reading the paper is to read the front page stories and op-ed page, and then skim the A-section for anything that piques my interest. I rarely read a Times article from start to finish.

I rely on Facebook to bring me articles from other print and digital media such as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Vox, Slate, ThinkProgress, and Politico. Of these sources, the Atlantic and the New Yorker offer well crafted pieces of literary and longform journalism. I go to Vox if I want to answer policy questions or understand the context behind a story. I’m skeptical of Slate and ThinkProgress, since their writing — their social media copy in particular — can be sensationalist, polemical, and biased. (not a good trifecta). Politico is a recent addition to my media diet but has an important place now that the election is approaching.

Once, in an effort to diversify my Liberal Media Establish lineup, I tried to read the National Review. But then I stumbled upon a piece about how liberals want to free everyone from the indignity of holding job. I stopped and never went back.

One media trend I’ve been monitoring lately is the rise of non-profit newsrooms. I subscribe to updates from the Marhsall Project, an organization dedicated to journalism about incarceration and courts, as well as Reveal: The Center for Investigative Reporting. Both organizations share news from other organizations on their social media accounts, but also produce and share original investigative journalism. Reveal has an excellent podcast with hour-long episodes, each devoted to a single investigative topic. Other non-profit news sources I like are the Southern Poverty Law Center and ProPublica.

My weekly Podcast lineup includes Slate’s Political Gabfest (were it nor for their podcasts, I would probably write off Slate entirely), Vox’s The Weeds, the Reveal podcast, and the Longform podcast. Each Longform podcast features a different journalist talking about their career and craft, so it isn’t topical or news driven. I’ve found it really helpful for thinking about my career path and methods of reporting and writing.



My Media Habits