It’s the nature of journalism to turn news into stories. Sometimes the media more or less agree on the shape of a story; sometimes they don’t.
There’s a competition going on in American media, a contest to explain what’s happening in Egypt. As you simply flip the channels you will hear different narratives about what is taking place there.
Jeff Halverson is one of the authors of “Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism.” It’s a book that describes a set of core stories that animate the likes of al Qaeda.
But Halverson said we all rely on narratives to help us make sense of the world, even if they don’t tell anything like the whole story.
“Narratives function as a shorthand, where you play on existing structures, characters and archetypes that are readily understood.”
And right now, Egypt is getting the narrative treatment. First, there’s the Egyptian’s story, the one that’s purely about freedom and democracy.
Bud Goodall, a professor of communications at Arizona State University, said it’s not surprising that that narrative resonates with Americans.
Democracy is part of our national story, he said.
“It’s grounded in the pilgrims coming here for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, economic opportunity — so when we see democracy being called for by people in Egypt, we cheer.”
Just like we did in 1989, for instance, when the people of Berlin joined hands across a broken wall.
But there’s another narrative being used to explain Egypt.
“This is not about freedom-loving people just wanting to be free; this is a complex story. You’ve heard the protestors — not all of them — but many of them hate America. They don’t want to be like us, they want to kill us,” said Glenn Beck of Fox News.
This narrative depends on the idea that instability and unrest in the Middle East can mean nothing but trouble for Americans who remember September 11th all too clearly.
Bud Goodall said, “Every time they hear something about a group, some sort of revolutionary group — that it’s one that’s going to be violent, it’s going to be extreme and it’s going to be hating the United States.”
There is a supporting example from history available: the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979.
A BBC reporter on the scene said this:
“There was nothing but sheer delight on the faces of the demonstrators who took to the streets of the capital in their thousands to celebrate the departure of the man they have hated for so long.”
That popular revolution did not turn out well for American interests which, in that part of the world, often coincide with Israeli interests. Few would argue that the most democratic nation in the region – Israel — is right to fear out-and-out chaos among its neighbors.
The trouble is that those two story-lines — democracy good, chaos bad–don’t fit together very well.
Neither is nuanced enough to accommodate the other. Both narratives are powerful because they’re simple. And both have found a home in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The square presents a manageable, neatly-defined stage on which to project the story-line of choice — freedom-loving protestors or anti-American hordes. Tahrir Square has also become a stage for media personalities.
“Watching TV last week I wasn’t sure who I wanted to see leave more: Mubarak or Anderson Cooper,” said Howard Rosenberg, the former TV critic of the Los Angeles Times. He applauds much of CNNs reporting from Egypt, and the bravery of all reporters who withstood assault by pro-Mubarak supporters.
But still, Rosenberg said that when other TV reporters had found ways to report without theatrics, even after finding it too dangerous to report from the square, “Anderson and his team telecast live while hunkered down in what he called an undisclosed location. In fact CNN even ran a slide underneath it: undisclosed location as if to advertise it as some kind of TV drama.”
Rosenberg said this is another kind of narrative, a story that places a premium on high stakes drama. And it’s available to news organizations even if they’re unwilling pick a side in the choice between narratives of democracy and chaos.
In recent weeks, some Americans have turned to a news source from beyond these shores, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English. You can watch it online or on TV in just a handful of places across the country.
In recent days Al Jazeera has in turn been casting an eye on American coverage of Egypt.
One report ran like this:
“Egypt is suddenly big news in the US, but while the message of the Egyptian youth may have been given some attention on the American networks, do they understand what they are saying? The young protesters’ call for the removal of Mubarak and his regime was upstaged by concern for US interest and the possible repercussions for Israel.”
Al Jazeera English presents an alternative set of narratives to those told by American media. Its treatment of Islam, for instance, is very different. Its coverage of Israel and the occupied territories is very different.
And, perhaps importantly, America is not at the center of the story.
That’s not to say Al Jazeera’s narratives are more true or false than any other, only that they’re different. It all makes it harder for Americans to figure out how to be on the so-called right side of history.
A poll by the Pew Research Center today suggested Americans aren’t sure what to make of Egypt: some think the effects of the protests on the US will be positive; more think it will be negative.
For the past 30 years, the United States has helped write Egypt’s story. That story is over.
And right now people don’t know what the new one will be.
(Photo: Al Jazeera English)
The Egypt protests on twitter