BOB GARFIELD: As protests erupted last month throughout the Muslim world, western media followed an increasingly familiar line, one focused on bitter anti-Americanism, the Arab Spring unraveling, the clash of civilizations. Most infamously, Newsweek magazine published a cover featured bearded male protestors, in traditional Islamic garb, screaming and jostling one another below the words, “MUSLIM RAGE” in big block latters. In a series of posts at ForeignPolicy.com, Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and informal advisor to the Obama campaign, argues that most of the coverage got the story exactly backwards.
MARC LYNCH: I don’t think any of us will forget the images of American embassies on fire or of Ambassador Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi. Those were horrible images, and it’s obvious why those led every media outlet.
But the really important thing to understand about what happened was how small those protests actually were, compared to say, the millions of people in Tahrir Square a year and a half earlier or even the protests which you would see on almost a weekly basis over the course of last year on issues related to the economy or politics or police abuse or all the other things that Egyptians get worked up about.
BOB GARFIELD: So at that point, all of the question headlines, and you know what I’m talking about, on cable news, where the crawl promotes a coming story and it says, “Failure of the Arab Spring?” - question mark. In fact, you say, a new spirit of democracy was evident in the aftermath of this attack.
MARC LYNCH: It really is significant that those protests, after all the storm and anger, just how quickly they faded away and how other groups responded. So, for example, in Tunisia the president, democratically elected, real legitimacy, immediately goes out of his way to declare the people who carried out the attacks on the embassy to be radical extremists, promises to crack down, even promises to pay for the damages to the American school which, given the state of Tunisia’s economy, I certainly hope they don’t.
In Benghazi, in Libya, you saw something almost unprecedented. Thirty thousand people come out into the streets to denounce extremism, to denounce the killing of the American ambassador and to demand the disarming of the militias. This is something which deserved a lot more coverage than it got, but it didn’t fit the story, it didn’t fit the script.
BOB GARFIELD: On the verge of being charitable towards the press, because in the heat of a breaking news story they report the facts and the facts feed a certain narrative. There is not really an appetite for a whole lot of context and nuance. But absent the context, isn’t there a grave danger of doing real harm?
MARC LYNCH: I, I think you’re right. These narratives of Muslim Rage or the Islamic Winter are so easy and so convenient, and people will believe them, and it’s missing things which are so important about these changing societies in the Arab world. They’ll report the bearded men with torches at the embassy and then completely ignore the civil society activists who are demanding an end to corruption or the protestors demanding a living wage. And I do think that’s a major problem which I had thought that Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring would have ended.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve had conversations with reporters who are on the ground in the Middle East, who indicated to you that they absolutely understand that the pockets of violence are isolated and that the dynamics are extremely nuanced, and yet, laughed because they trotted out that very narrative that began our conversation.
MARC LYNCH: It’s simply impossible to ignore the imagery of a burning embassy. No journalist could have or should have. But then it falls almost immediately into a certain script. This was the Danish cartoons crisis, the clash of civilizations. And once you’re in that script, editors expect a certain thing, viewers expect a certain thing. And I think the journalists, if they come back with a story that basically says well, yes there was a mob outside the American embassy but let’s talk about the Tunisian economy, I’m fairly sure the story will get sent back for re-editing.
BOB GARFIELD: You noted that social media in the wake of the Newsweek headline did not get all riled up about Islam, it got all riled up [LAUGHS] about Newsweek.
MARC LYNCH: There was plenty of anger against Muslims for their rage out there in social media, but there was a very unusual and, I think, important development, and that was the appropriation of the #MuslimRage hashtag which Newsweek coined in order to spark a discussion about its incendiary cover. And almost immediately what happened was Muslims and others appropriated that hashtag and began turning it into a joke. My favorite was “My son is named Jihad and I can’t yell at him in the airport. #MuslimRage.”
Or, you know, “I’m having a good hair day and nobody knows it because of my hijab. #MuslimRage.” You know, this is funny, it’s trivial, but it also speaks to the ability of people to speak back now. They don’t have to accept the narratives that the media is offering them. And many of the journalists who are writing the stories and the editors who are commissioning the stories are on Twitter, they’re following that hashtag, and they quickly realize that their storyline is becoming a joke. And so, I do think that at some small level, that probably changed the way the coverage went.
Is that enough to break this prevailing script? I don’t know. But it’s certainly changed the way it was received, at least among the attentive public and, you know, these policy people who are engaged heavily on these social networks.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’re right that social media gets a chance to talk back and chasten the western press to call it on laziness and simplistic narratives, you know, is there any evidence at this point that it’s having an effect?
MARC LYNCH: If you have some kind of virtual relationship with journalists over Twitter and they’ve come to trust your judgment over repeated interactions, I think you can actually have an influence now. The ability of people to push back against such narratives is growing. So the days of that might soon end, or not.
[BOB & MARC LAUGH]
BOB GARFIELD: Indeed. Marc, as always, thank you.
MARC LYNCH: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is author of “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East.”