Across the Bay

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why the Western Press Corps Botched Lebanon's Elections

Here's my piece for NOW Lebanon critiquing the Western press corps' coverage of the Lebanese elections.

There are several reasons that explain the overall mediocrity. I highlight laziness and tendentiousness -- enthrallment with a romanticized idea of Hezbollah and Aoun. This sentiment was best expressed in a post-election blog post by the Charlottesville siren, who, after trashing the March 14 majority as "anti-democratic," expressed her disappointment at the election result -– something very palpably shared by those writers who were enthusiastically heralding a Hezbollah victory –- and managed to verbalize what was undoubtedly a common premise among many Western reporters in Beirut.

“Aoun,” she wrote, “offered a clear alternative to [Lebanon’s] system.” Similarly, she added, “Hizbullah … also supports a ‘de-confessionalized,’ one-person-one-vote system in Lebanon.” And, for those reasons, she concluded, “I wanted their alliance to win.”

One could find numerous incidents to support this, some of which are noted in the article. Or, just read any random posting by the crown jewel of the foreign press corps in Beirut, the incomparable Andrew Lee Butters.

Another factor in the overall mediocrity is ignorance. For example, and I'm not sure whether to classify the reliance and uncritical reproduction of partisan polls as an instance of ignorance or a conscious participation in disinformation, there were numerous other polls, none of which were cited. One poll, by Ijma' on May 25, came very close to accurately calling what ended up being the official result. It gave March 14 a 68-60 win. Of course, March 8 performed even poorer, winning only 57 seats.

Not only were such polls not cited, but to add insult to injury, the other, blatantly partisan polls by pro-Hezbollah types like Abdo Saad, were accompanied by reinforcing commentary from pro-Hezbollah "academics," like Saad's daughter, Hezbollah groupie Amal Saad-Ghorayeb! It was really a freak show.

A perfect example of pure ignorance, however, can only come from said Butters. Having decided to embark on the adventure of trying to understand the electoral billboard campaigns, Butters fell upon a challenge: a billboard that read, "Achrafiyeh is Not for Pussies."

After scratching his head real hard, Time's Wunderkind squeezes out the essence of his penetrating insight and understanding of all things Lebanese: "I thought this was amusing because chi-chi Frenchified Achrafiyeh, which happens to be home to Time Magazine's Beirut bureau and many a lady who lunches, is definitely for p#%%$*s."

That's the best this guy could come up with: Taking an oh-so-original swipe at the residents of Ashrafiyeh, without having the slightest clue what the reference in the billboard was all about (and he's been living in Beirut, presumably covering the country's political life). What this anecdote reveals is that Butters had no idea that an Aoun-supported candidate running for a Maronite seat in Ashrafiyeh is named Massoud "Poussy" Ashqar. And so, Ashrafiyeh is not for "Poussies," just as reporting is not for clueless buffoons -- at least in principle.

This is but one example. One could go on and on. And, I should note, this kind of subpar quality of reporting was not restricted to Western journalists, but extended to clownish hired pens of the Syrian regime, like the King of Comedy, Sami Moubayed. Witness this genius comment, e.g.:

The Hezbollah-led opposition, which had been expected to take the majority, emerged with only 50 seats, although eight seats are still to be announced in the Metn region. Early results show that of these eight seats, only two were taken by March 14 coalition candidates - Michel al-Murr and Sami Gemayel - while the remaining six went to Hezbollah.

Mmmm, yeeess. Apparently Hezbollah was fielding candidates in the Metn and none of us heard about it! The lazy, idiotic ignorance doesn't stop there. The King of Comedy proceeds: "There were no surprises in this regard on Sunday. Hezbollah and Amal candidates captured all 27 seats allocated to the Shi'ites." Right. I guess Okab Sakr, Ghazy Yousef and Amin Wehbe really are not Shiites. And so on and so forth.

Now that March 14 won, many Western analysts, "experts" and reporters are putting out a truly sinister line in relation to the upcoming cabinet formation, preemptively placing the onus of any Hezbollah or Syrian terrorist violence on the shoulders of March 14. Taking the lead from Muhammad Raad's threat, the tone was set by none other than Hezbollah's "academic," Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, in a piece by Massoud Derhally about how March 14 "must" give Hezbollah veto power... or else:

“If the pro-Western coalition is intransigent about not giving veto power to Hezbollah and its allies then we will witness a renewed political crisis, and a return to the period before the Qatar agreement,” Saad-Ghorayeb said.

This repulsive, not even veiled threat of violence (by an "academic," mind you; not to be confused with "Hezbollah flack") was shamefully repeated by Mona Yacoubian:

Should the March 14th coalition remain steadfast in its refusal to allow a blocking veto, Lebanon will once again find itself in the throes of a dangerous political stalemate that could easily spiral into violence.

Marvel at the modality in both quotes. The only active subject and verb are March 14 remaining "steadfast" and "intransigent" in refusing to hand over an unconstitutional device to those who have lost the elections. The rest of the sentence is completely in the passive voice, with the perpetrators of the potential violence not even named! And yet, Hezbollah is still dubbed a "political" (nay, reformist!) party that has "evolved" over the years -- but which of course reserves the right to use terrorist violence whenever it sees fit! Needless to say, the responsibility is laid at the feet of the recipients of the violence.

In other words, these people have totally internalized the Assad regime's and Hezbollah's thuggish style of issuing threats and blaming it on those who will be subjected to it (who were "stubborn" and thus, got their comeuppance). The Syrians are the masters of this type of thuggery. Recall Walid Moallem and Farouq Sharaa. The perfect wording for it came from that quintessential embodiment of all the ugliness of the Syrian system, Imad Shoueibi (emphasis mine):

If some attempt to hold on to their opinion in the framework of forming a government with a majority and minority, in the democratic representative sense, then they would be heading towards a major crisis in Lebanon.

فإن حاول البعض التمسك برأيه في إطار تشكيل حكومة بالأكثرية والأقلية بالمعنى الديمقراطي التمثيلي فإنه يذهب باتجاه أزمة كبيرة في لبنان

The Orwellian nature of this comment needs no elaboration.

In the end, it speaks volumes about the moral center of the people propagating this insidious line, or those who present a violent Islamist militia, who only last year stormed civilian neighborhoods by force of arms, as a democratic force of reform. As if that weren’t enough, some went on to explain the “unexpected” March 14 victory as being in part a result of campaign “scare tactics” – as though the violence wrought on the Lebanese by Hezbollah and Syria is a product of sinister March 14 propaganda.

I cannot think of a better example of depravity than what was and continues to be on display in the journalistic and policy analysis literature on Lebanon. And all this with Hezbollah having lost. Just imagine the nauseous nonsense that would have been written had they won.