Fit to print: Review

9 November 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

On the September 2, 1945, Wilfred Burchett stepped off the train in Hiroshima armed with a typewriter, seven packets of K ratios and a Colt revolver. The opening sentence on the front page of the Daily Express three days later read: “I write this as a warning to the world…” Not only did these words place Burchett among the greatest war correspondents of the century, but they confirmed the myth of the foreign correspondent as a fearless crusader for the truth, an adrenaline-fuelled rebel of compromised sanity to whom we owe our understanding of the exotic places beyond our borders.

One of the last frontiers in a changing media landscape where cynicism seems to prevail, war correspondence still carries with it a sense of irrefutable realism. But just when you thought the outlook for our profession could not get much bleaker, Dutch foreign correspondent Joris Luyendijk delivers his own warning to the world. But Fit to Print – misrepresenting the Middle East is not a warning of the horrors of war, but of the media’s failure to explain them.

Luyendijk has never aimed to be a foreign correspondent, or even a journalist. He was recruited to report from the Middle East for Dutch media at the age of 26, while studying at university in Cairo. “My editors found it more important that I could be reached in the place itself than that I knew what was going on,” he writes.

Between 1998 and 2003 Luyendijk was based in some of the world’s most media concentrated areas, writing and broadcasting from Lebanon, the West Bank and Baghdad, through the aftermath of 9/11 and to the backdrop of yet another breakdown in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. A basic understanding of the culture and language of the region should have put Luyendijk in a better position than most journalists to answer the world’s questions about the ‘Arab world’. But he soon realised that not only do the structures of today’s news media work to oversimplify the state of affairs in the Middle East, but that journalists have become pawns in the media war that, in some places, is fought harder and with higher stakes, than the military conflicts on which they attempt to report.

The book’s Dutch title, Het zijn net mensen (‘They’re just like human beings’) is arguably closer to Luyendijk’s main argument; that the West’s image of the Middle East and Islam is not a reflection of the truth but a creation of the mainstream media. Luyendijk becomes increasingly disenchanted by the huge contrast he sees between the everyday life in the streets of Jerusalem, where people go about their day, shopping for groceries and walking their children to school, and the images of chaos and fanaticism broadcasted on Western television. “If you are told only about the exceptions, you’ll think that they are the rule,” he writes.  He begins to understand the media not as a window to the conflicts but as the stage on which they are fought. The revelations of the level of theatrical performance are shocking to the most hardened of cynics.

The woman was crying out ‘My children!’ while, two feet away from her, a muscular bloke was trying to angle his camera so that the raised hands didn’t get in the way of the close up of her face. There was a microphone dangling two feet above the crying woman’s head, and around her there’d be an interviewer, his interpreter, and often a gathering – camera teams draw people like bread draw ducks…It is likely that an interviewer had chosen the woman from a small group; that there’d been a bit of a chat while the light was being measured; that she’d been positioned so the sun didn’t produce any backlighting, and the rubble was visible but not dominating; that the neighbourhood rascals had been persuaded to be quiet; and that, after a gesture from the soundman, the interviewer had asked, via the interpreter, ‘What happened to your children?’

The absurdity of this theatre is that there is no shortage of genuine pain and suffering to show, but audiences have come to expect a performance that is emotional but not offensive. “If the Western mass media had done their job during the [Iraq] war,” he writes, “viewers would have sat in front of their television sets crying and vomiting.”

Fit to Print owes its existence to Luyendijk’s lack of both aspirations and official training in journalism. The stories he tells are by no means exceptional but unlike many books written by retired foreign corresponds, this is not a tale of romanticised reminiscing and the reader that expects another Dispatches will be disappointed. Luyendijk is no Michael Herr, partly because the Middle East is not Vietnam, and modern war reporting is reduced to rewriting media releases from a press centre or, if you are lucky, an embedded spot in a heavily guarded base far from the frontline.

The childlike naivette with which Luyendijk enters the media, and with which he still, one could argue, reflects on the experience, is one of idealism that, while irresistibly charming, makes you wonder how he has survived in the industry. Luyendijk is as much a philosopher as he is a reporter and intentionally or not, Fit to Print goes beyond criticising the coverage of war to question the fundamental structure of news reporting.

Considering the Israel/Palestine conflict, Luyendijk uses the universal analogy of soccer to present some rather controversial ideas of how journalists can go beyond reporting the result to explain how the “players had come to see themselves as divided into two teams and what could be done about it.” He goes on to suggest that the so-called ‘objectivity’ of two sided reporting is fuelling a status quo and that we should turn to the peace movement, rather than Hamas, for commentary. And violent incidents should “be set, not against another violent one but … against an inspiring story about the 99.99 per cent of Palestinians and Israelis who hadn’t committed any violence that day.”

Few journalists would dispute this. Yet putting complex issues in context and producing “inspiring” copy is unfortunately not expected by either editors or audiences, and the question of how to put this utopian theory into practice is one that Luyendijk unfortunately leaves unanswered. But recognising the weaknesses of his own arguments, he concludes that “if I wanted to change the world instead of showing it, I should hand in my notice and become an activist”.

One occasionally cringes at statements like: “Fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but so can hope and trust”, but unlike the legendary war correspondents of the previous century, Luyendijk is not enthralled enough by the experience to produce A Farewell to Arms or co-write, as Herr did, scripts to epic war films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Some would say that suggests he’s in the wrong ball game.

At times the book reads like a debriefing session where the honesty of the confessions and the openness with which Luyendijk speaks of his own shortcomings compromises the focus his arguments. This has not prevented his former colleagues from reacting rather fiercely to the commercial success of Fit to Print.

“They have tried to drive me out,” he told ABC radio’s The World Today in September this year. “Journalists are very often machos and they like to pretend that it was wildly heroic to make it to Baghdad even though they just hopped on the GMC vehicle with five other journalists and all they had to do was sit, get out at the studio and climb the roof.”

Fit to Print is a brave exposure and good journalism should be nothing but. Like Burchett, Luyendijk is vilified for fighting the only war that needs to be fought – the one to restore the blemished reputation of our profession.

Fit to Print – misepresenting the Middle East in published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe, 2009.  $29.95

Hanna Jacobsen is an emerging journalist who is completing a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University. Her previous piece on upstart was a review of the Australian film, Cedar Boys.

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