Manufacturing the news: a report on Thomas Friedman
By John Paul Jones
(YellowTimes.org - 30 Nov 2002) – In the transformation of the American economy into a "service economy," there is sometimes a wistful regret in the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector. Maybe it's just a question of misclassification. If the news industry were considered manufacturing, the stats would be better. I recently had some personal insights into how the news is manufactured, and would certainly add the process to Bismarck's famous quip about sausage and foreign policy.
I must confess that I was favorably inclined toward Thomas Friedman's writings ever since I read "From Beirut to Jerusalem," some fifteen years ago. It was quite a while back, but I still recall various sections of the book, one being when he had the guts to get on an Israeli tank outside the Palestinian refugee camp at Sabra, in Lebanon, and point the binoculars into the camp, and ask the tank commander rhetorically: "Tell me you didn't see?" Later in the book, he reported on Jewish fundamentalism (though I believe he still preferred the term "ultra/orthodox"). Though I have since found myself profoundly disagreeing with his columns, still there are those that he writes, as recently as 06 October 02, "Anyone Seen Any Democrats Lately" that I would agree with every word.
In early February of this year, growing increasingly disturbed with events to my north, I had actually written to the New York Times requesting his e-mail address. There was no response, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover, while attending a social event at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh on 14 February, that he was actually here, attending the same social event! I was delighted and hoped that he had come to present a more balanced picture of this country, and rectify the normal quite negative image which the media presents. We talked for 15 minutes or so and I saw myself quoted anonymously in one of his columns: "A U.S. hospital worker said that he was appalled at Saudi co-workers who had celebrated the events of 9/11." Had I said that? Yes, and it is something that I will always find profoundly disturbing. But it was an oh so carefully "cropped" portion of what I had actually said. I also said that numerous Saudi friends had called me to offer their condolences. I also said that I was quite impressed at how the leadership of the hospital had handled the situation, going out of their way to reassure expatriate workers that they were indeed safe here, could leave if so desired, and accommodated their special concerns in numerous ways. In manufacturing the news, those statements were deemed "not newsworthy."
Over the next six weeks or so, we exchanged around twelve e-mails. It became quickly apparent to me that he was only interested in me if I could provide some juicy, negative tidbits about Saudi Arabia to help fill out those columns in which he was urging the country to "reform" this and that; in short, to become more like his model, America. In that exchange, I obtained a stunning insight into Mr. Friedman's priorities and integrity.
During this period, there was an article printed in the Arabic newspaper, al-Riyadh, which stated that Jews used human blood to make their Purim cookies. It was a disgusting piece of racist clap-trap not even worthy of the National Inquirer or Sun. The newspaper did print an apology and it was such a serious and reprehensible incident that, although the original article did not appear in the English language Arab News, the apology was translated into English, and printed there also.
At the same time, Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, which considers itself a leading journal of conservative opinion in the United States, was discussing dropping nuclear bombs on Riyadh, Mecca, and numerous other Middle Eastern cities. Mr. Lowry went on to add Gaza City and Ramallah to the list, but only if the bombs are "clean enough." Aside from affecting myself and my family personally ("one more opportunity to be killed by friendly fire"), I actually have some serious moral concerns for the millions of other innocent human beings who would be killed, and do not consider their lives any less worthy because they have different beliefs than my own. I raised my concerns with Mr. Friedman, and received the following e-mail from him on 27 March 02:
You have been living in Saudi Arabia way too long. 1) The editor of the National Review was forced by public opinion to issue an apology for his remarks. That is what happens in an open and free society. Could you show me the apology by the editor of al-Riyadh newspaper for printing a blood libel that Jews drain the blood of young Muslims and Jews for Purim cookies. 2) You have no idea how many Saudis encouraged me to write this column because they actually care about free speech and democracy in their own country and not about winning some debate over who is worse in the eyes of Americans -- Israelis or Arabs.
Cheers. Tom Friedman
The above represents that classic Friedman "style," exhibiting the smug superiority of someone living in an "open and free society." In addition, besides always feeling free to offer self-improvement advice to the Saudis, he feels free to dispense the same sort of advice to me -- had I become a lesser person for "living in Saudi Arabia way too long?" But it is far more than a question of style or opinion. For a reporter, it should be the most vital of issues; he simply had his facts wrong, dead wrong, and in the case of dropping nuclear weapons, catastrophically wrong. I would have loved to have seen that Friedman sense of indignation directed at those advocating the killing of millions of innocent people. I sent him the following e-mail on 30 March, expecting at least an apology, and correction on his previous statements, and more hopefully, a strong column denouncing the editors of the National Review and perhaps even deeper reflections on what it means to live in such a violence-prone society. Instead, I received nothing. Unlike a good reporter, but like a good lawyer, if the facts are against your case, ignore them, and change the subject. He's good at that.
Dear. Mr. Friedman:
Per request, attached is the scanned article from the Arab News, dated Thursday, 21 March, which states in English what was placed in the al-Riyadh newspaper in Arabic. The file is in jpg format, and if you should experience any problems opening it, please let me know. It is a correction, and an admission that what was published was wrong, and furthermore, that it is wrong to incite hatred against all Jews.
However, if you will recall, Mr. Jonah Goldberg never responded to my e-mail of protest to him about the nuking of Riyadh. My e-mail was neither a "death threat" nor "hate mail." Unsurprisingly, I merely protested that as a non-Muslim resident of Riyadh, I objected to the loose talk of nuking this city. Therefore, with some distaste, I logged onto the National Review website to find his apology. Clearly, he did NOT apologize, and says that he WON'T. So that nothing is taken out of context through cut and paste, below is his entire article from the 18 March issue, in which he again manages to attack Muslims, and uses that most tragic event of the school girls being burned to death as his latest vehicle.
Finally, did Lowry really advocate the nuking of Riyadh? From the 07 March forum in the National Review, one of his more pleasant sentences: "Mecca seems extreme, of course, but then again, few people would die, and it WOULD send a signal." Once again, so nothing is taken out of context, I have enclosed the entire portion of the Forum which deals with this issue...in essence, if some other terrorist event happens in the USA... again, something that could be the work of 20 to 200 individuals.... and we don't know yet who did the Anthrax, and clearly Oklahoma City was not done by a Muslim, we pick seemingly any city in the Muslim world, and nuke it.
Once again, there IS a real story here, a man bites dog story. The al-Riyadh newspaper DID apologize, the National Review did NOT... and the tone of their articles clearly continues to promote discord... and equate terrorism with Muslims.
John Paul Jones
I started this article praising some of the things that Thomas Friedman has written, including one of his columns written in October. Yet it was another column in this same month, "Campus Hypocrisy," in which he again exhibits his intellectual dishonesty, ironically at the same time that he accuses others of doing the same thing.
"The proper response was not a Palestinian intifada and 100 suicide bombers, which are what brought Ariel Sharon to power."
Wasn't it the other way around? It was Ariel Sharon's most provocative, and state-supported walk on the Temple Mount/ Dome of the Rock that precipitated the second intifada, and his brutal suppression of Palestinian aspirations that led to the 100 suicide bombers. As Mr. Friedman does acknowledge, it is the insane policy, by Ariel Sharon and his predecessors, of establishing and expanding the Israeli colonies on the West Bank, largely financed with U.S. government funds, that is the central problem.
Thomas Friedman is a very intelligent man, and he knows better than to confuse cause and effect like this. But it is a measure of the intellectual weakness of his position that he has to brandish the "anti-Semitic" cudgel against those who criticize Israeli policies. He knows the dangers in resorting to this tactic, because many of the same people who are currently supporting Palestinian rights are the same sort of people who would have traditionally supported Jewish rights when they have been threatened, and therefore, he at least goes through a window dressing of qualifying it. Furthermore, he knows that many of his fellow Jews are in the forefront of the efforts to secure Palestinian rights. Mr. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, recently said that Ariel Sharon is a "stain on the Star of David." But he tries the anti-Semitic smear anyhow, and equates the jailing of one democracy advocate in Egypt with the daily murder of Palestinian men, women, and children, and a brutal occupation of a whole people.
He also wants to be a spokesperson for Saudi women. If he had been in the Kingdom more than two weeks and had listened more carefully even during that time, he would find that most Saudi women do not feel they need his advocacy or advice.
In the exchange of e-mails last spring, I specifically asked him, since he is always so ready to trash Yasser Arafat, about Ariel Sharon, an individual whose past and present Friedman much prefers to avoid.
On 20 March I received the following brief response:
Many thanks. But yes, I would trust Ariel Sharon to police my neighborhood. All best.
Thomas Friedman the reporter, or Thomas Friedman the lawyer? Consider what you would have to overlook if you had Ariel Sharon as a client.
[John Paul Jones grew up in Middle America during the Eisenhower years. In the '60s, he received a special governmental invitation to tour South East Asia as a Medical Corpsman. He believes that one war in a lifetime is one too many, as others who missed that earlier war are eagerly pursuing another. In the late '70s, he took his mind off his domestic problems and sought a foreign adventure. In the desert of Saudi Arabia, he found solace, as well as a wife, and has lived there for 20 years. Their two children grew up in the tranquility of the King Fahd years in Saudi Arabia. He has a day job in hospital administration. He now considers it unlikely that he will hike all of the Appalachian Trail in this lifetime, but he still hopes to read all of William Faulkner. He lives in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.]
John Paul Jones encourages your comments: jjoneskfshrc.edu.sa