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Journalist Robert Fisk criticizes shallow news coverage of Middle East

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“There is, I think, among journalists today and particularly in the United States, an osmotic-parasitic relationship between journalism and power,” said Robert Fisk, a world-renowned Middle East correspondent, to a crowd of approximately 1,000 people who attended his lecture at St. Andrew-Wesley’s Church on February 2.

He proceeded to pull out copies of articles on the Middle East published in the Boston Globe and the Globe and Mail. Both stories had been reported from Washington D.C.

“It’s written by Marc Hosenball in Washington. Again, a great place to write about Algeria from,” Fisk said sarcastically of the Globe and Mail Article, headlined “U.S. on alert over Canadians in Algeria” and published on February 1. He criticized the lack of reporting from within Algeria and its uncritical reliance on government sources, especially U.S. officials.

Fisk enumerated the sources quoted in the story:

“'U.S. intelligence officials said.' […] And then it continued, 'the senior U.S. intelligence officials said.' […] 'The intelligence officials said'[...]'The officials acknowledged.' 'US officials fear'.”

“Ladies and gentleman, if this is journalism, I don’t have a job,” Fisk said to resounding applause.

50/50 journalism softens conflict

During the course of the lecture, during which Fisk discussed the Arab Awakening, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the politics of the region, he was deeply critical of“50/50 journalism” in which “you’ve got to be fair to everybody in equal amounts.”

“We must be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer,” Fisk asserted to more applause from the crowd.

“Look, for example, would we give equal time to the stories of the slaves and their stories of those slaves thrown overboard with the slave ship captain and interview him for fifty per cent of the report?”

“Our job is to have a moral conscience when we are reporting,” Fisk continued. “The occupier and the occupied should not necessarily have an even playing field.”

Fisk said that the Israel-Palestine conflict has been “softened” by many Western journalists who report on it. He gave the example of the wall between Israel and the West Bank, which he described as “monstrous” and “longer and bigger than the Berlin wall”, but which many journalists refer to as a “barrier” or a “security fence” – “like you might have at the bottom of a garden to stop the sheep coming in.”

He was also critical of journalistic references to parts of Palestine as “disputed” – “like it is something you could solve over a cup of tea,” he noted – rather than “occupied”.

Audience gets more than a sound bite

“Here you have a journalist who is giving his own impression of somewhere he’s been for a long time. He’s giving us more than a sound bite,” said Anna Loducer, a Canadian who lived in Korea for 15 years.

While there, she found that the reality on the ground in a foreign country was often different from the Western media’s “tunnel-like” coverage. She came to see Fisk because he was providing a deeper perspective on the Middle East.

On the other hand, Nada Salem, an Egyptian who recently finished her PhD at UBC said that, while the talk was interesting, she felt somewhat unsatisfied.

“The topic was ‘are we hearing the truth about the Arab Awakening?’” she explained. “I was expecting that he would tell me something that hadn’t been uncovered, something different. I wanted to know what is next for the Arab Awakening, but he didn’t cover that.”

Vancouverite Stewart Seidel said it was “an honour” to listen to Fisk's talk.

However, he said he was discouraged to learn that Fisk considered the one-state solution to be non-viable for Israel and Palestine. He concluded that a journalist’s job is not to provide solutions, but to observe and ask questions.

With regards to the journalist's duty, Fisk described the job of a foreign correspondent using a definition relayed to him by Amira Hass, an acclaimed Israeli journalist for Ha'aretz who writes frequent on-the-ground reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“Our role is to monitor the centres of power, especially when they go to war and especially when they use lies to do it.”

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