US: Interview with Janet Steele, media critic and Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs, GWU

Janet Steele, media critic and Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University, recently visited Bangladesh and exchanged her thoughts on western and local media with journalists both in Dhaka and Chittagong

The Daily Star
Monday, June 7, 2004

DS: What kind of role did the US media play in the run up to the invasion of Iraq and during the invasion?

JS: Until the political elite in the US started disagreeing, coverage tended to be sort of, not one-sided, but slightly biased. If you remember, at the very beginning of the war, when Congress passed a resolution overwhelmingly giving President Bush the support, there was no American elite who was against the war. But as time went by, more and more began to raise questions. Since sources make the news and there are more and more opposition voices out there now, I think the American press has become more critical.

Of course initially, it was the opposite. For example, when Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who is widely respected in the country, made that speech at the United Nations, people believed him. Most of the American media did accept the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction and that was the main goal of the military action. Of course, some of us had our doubts. But again as I said earlier, sources make the news, until the policy makers started raising questions about the motive behind the war, the press couldn't report it. It wasn't the journalists' job to make up the news.

DS: But why couldn't the media itself, using their own sources, make an effort to find the real truth? Why did the media simply believe whatever the Bush administration was saying?

JS: Remember, it wasn't just US intelligence that said Saddam Hussein had WMDs, all the sources from other countries were basically saying the same thing. Again journalists tend to go to people they trust and since public officials were saying that there were WMDs, the media reported that.

DS: Did the feeling of being nationalistic play any role among the journalists during that time?

JS: Yes it did to a certain extent. Don't forget the attacks on 9/11 changed the way a lot of Americans viewed themselves vis- -vis the rest of the world. After a shocking and traumatic event like that people always tend to be more supportive of the government in whatever actions they take. I think it's not unique only in the US, it would have been the same in any other country.

My personal opinion would be a lot of people in the Bush administration was misled by the Iraqi refugees living in the US for years and may be did not know the real situation there. The American journalists did not have access to alternative voices or sources inside Iraq either, which now they do. For example, the Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid, who won a Pulitzer prize for his reports from Baghdad. He could speak Arabic, he heard different voices and that's really important.

DS: Were their stories on the plight and hardship of the Iraqi people who were being bombed and killed every day?

JS: Not in the beginning. I personally was very critical about it. I felt that there were lot of coverage on American casualties, but very little coverage on Iraqi casualties, not just military even civilian casualties. May be it was natural, because in any kind of war situation, the media of one nation would be more interested in the casualties of that side, but it was obvious that the focus was more on American military action, technology than the actual effects of using that technology.

DS: Was it because that's something the readers wanted to read or was it a conscious decision by the newspapers?

JS: I think one connected the other -- probably most of the newspapers thought that their readers were more interested in learning about the American forces.

DS: One can be cynical and say that since it's getting difficult to conceal the truth any longer, the media in the US has no other options but to move from their earlier stand?

JS: Of course, one could say that. I would like to think that they have actually want to tell the truth now. One thing that I would emphasise is that it was the journalists who discovered the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison. We got to know about it only because of good journalism. You cannot really underestimate the power of journalism to bring about a change in world politics.

DS: Would you agree that the mainstream media, mainly the newspapers, are more critical of a Democrat government than a Republican one? Bush seems to get away with everything very lightly as compared to say Clinton?

JS: This is a very interesting and complicated question. In the beginning of the war I thought so too, but that's not the case now. In my hometown, I get the Washington Post. I followed it very closely over the time and I think its news coverage has become far more critical. Also Bush administration has not been overly open to the press and the press has been complaining about that. The White House has kind of closed access to the president, whereas the White House during Clinton was far more accessible which allowed journalists to be lot more critical.

A lot of Americans believe that the US media is too politically liberal and the journalists are also too politically liberal. May be they are as individuals, but the organisations they work for are not. Journalists who have strong professional ideology of trying to cover both sides of a story, trying to be fair, balanced; those who have strong liberal views become the most outspoken critics of a Democratic president and I think that actually happened in the case of Clinton. So part of it could have been because journalists who were personally and politically liberal overcompensated for their own private views. It happens quite often. Journalists who try very hard to keep their own bias out of their reports and end up overcompensating.

DS: Doesn't that give out a wrong signal about the media?

JS: I think there is still this mythology left over from the war in Vietnam that journalists are not patriotic enough, that they are anti-war. There is this perception that if you don't support the war, you are not patriotic. Journalists had to be careful too about these accusations. It was a very complicated situation.

DS: How do the US journalists keep their own bias separate from their reports?

JS: It's extremely hard for any journalist in any country. I am a strong supporter of cultural exchanges -- once you get outside your own cultural environment you start to notice things that you normally wouldn't in your own compound. You start learning that your assumption may not be the same as the other. That being said I think that American journalists tend to share some of the biases or cultural assumptions with the American people and it's extremely hard to find people who would look or think outside their "goldfish bowl."

DS: What's the relationship like between the media owners and the media itself?

JS: There are two basic facts about the US media -- first the American government has no control over the media, none whatsoever. It has complete freedom of expression. The problem in the news media tends to come from the media itself. Secondly, American media is totally commercial. It's paid for by advertisers and owned by companies who want to earn money. They don't have any fixed agenda as such, their main agenda is to make money and make lots of it. So sometimes the goals of business and goals of journalism are at odds. If you want to do good journalism, it takes both time and money. And that's why it's the bottom line issue that needs to be addressed. You can't have a correspondent in Delhi reporting on Dhaka. It doesn't work. That's probably because people in Bangladesh feel they are not properly represented in the western media.

DS: That brings me to the next point -- why does news from Bangladesh or for that matter any developing countries always fall into a certain category with pre-conceived notions?

JS: Good news tends to be catastrophic events -- fire at factories, floods, overturned ferries, grenades or bomb explosions etc. That brings us to the question as what is news or why is it news. Why always a dramatic event or an event out of the ordinary becomes primary news than other kind of news -- it is something the journalists should ask themselves. It could be because of limited budget or if there is a story from Bangladesh or India, it would be about the most dramatic event. For example, the recent attack on the British High Commissioner was big news here in Bangladesh too.

DS: Could it be because the western readers have a mental block about news from the developing world?

JS: They might. But this is something we as media critics often raise that why always only a certain type of news is focussed on when it comes to news from a country like Bangladesh. I remember there was a story about garbage problem in Cairo. And I had an Egyptian student who was so angry and said that Cairo was a beautiful city, why do you have to focus on the garbage? That's a legitimate criticism. Such discrimination does happen and we, as journalists have to be conscious of stereotyping and make sure that not just the garbage problem, we also report on the good things of the city. More and more people are actually beginning to criticise the media. We are trying to change the perception.

DS: What really struck you about the Bangladeshi media while going through them?

JS: Well I could only read the English newspapers. One thing I quite liked was that the press here has a very good watchdog function and certainly monitors those in power, no questions about that. I think journalists have a very important function of service of serving citizens and in democracy, public officials should be accountable to the people. But it frustrates me sometimes as an outsider trying to understand the term "anonymous sources." Now I have to come to realise that Bangladeshi readers know who that source is, but it's kind of mystifying for those who are not in the know. I think the journalists could be bit more transparent about who those sources are.

DS: What's been your experience like while sharing thoughts with the journalists here?

JS: Well, it makes me a little sad to see that the reporters here are also polarised along party lines. Often they will tell you something in private, but not in public forum. My senses are that there are concerns from ruling party that by having open discussions on the problems might tarnish the image of Bangladesh. That is unfortunate, because I believe public discussion is necessary. Everybody wants a better democratic future for Bangladesh, but how can you have that if you are afraid of tarnishing the national image. Take the case of the United States now -- as you know we are having many discussions about the atrocities by the American soldiers. Maybe it's tarnishing the image of the country, but in the long run things will get better. This is how democracy works. You have to be able to talk about unpleasant realities.

This is only based on my experience for eight days here, I think the feeling is that looking in the dark side of the society is somehow damaging the national image. But it's the journalists' job to shine the light of publicity in that dark corner. That's how you will get a better future, build a better nation.

DS: Thank you for talking to The Daily Star.

JS: Thank you. I hope to come back soon for a much longer period.