Journalists speak on Middle East: Robert Fisk and David Barsamian visit Fresno State


Ana Mendoza / The Collegian

Fresno State hosted two acclaimed journalists who discussed the media’s effect on the misconceptions Americans have of the Middle East.

Robert Fisk & David Barsamian spoke during the event called “Middle East Fantasies and Myths,” held at the Alice Peters Auditorium.

Fisk is a British best-selling author and journalist who’s lived in Beirut for three decades, serving as a Middle East correspondent for “The Independent,” a British newspaper. He has received more British and International journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent.

Barsamian is an American radio producer, journalist, author and lecturer, and holds the 2003 ACLU Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism.

“Another decade has passed where peace is still elusive,” opened Barsamian. A roadmap is in place for peace, he said, but as far as results, there have been little. In his introduction to Fisk, he emphasized the first-hand experience Fisk has had in his career.

“There are very few correspondents [like Fisk] in this age of drive-by-journalism.”

“As journalists, we have failed you,” said Fisk, referring to the insensitivity and inaccuracy of the media’s coverage of Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly with the U.S.

Fisk mentioned several words that are common among media writers in war-related stories that are structured to slant an issue that favors their own side regardless of facts or what actually occurred.

A spike is a term used to characterize violence that increases for a moment and drops back down again, and it’s quick to be used even when it’s not the case, said Fisk. A surge, however, is typically used when that particular side is weakened and needs reinforcements.

“[These are] reheated Vietnam phrases and you lost in Vietnam. [And] we are losing the war in Afghanistan.”

When a Palestinian is throwing a stone in response to his land or country being threatened, that makes sense in context, he said. But Fisk, a self-proclaimed pacifist, said that when journalists phrase their news stories in a way that simplifies an individual’s struggles, a stereotypically violent Palestinian is created in their writings.

“[Journalists are] using words deliberately designed by their originators to mislead us and you.”

Many readers are blinded, he said, and not given the full picture of what war really is. It’s even more of a problem on broadcast television, where stricter rules are in place regarding violence.

“They like that sense of journalistic responsibility because then we can present war as a bloodless sandpit,” Fisk said.

Fisk has been living in Beirut for decades and has covered major breaking news events, reporting on the bloodshed and hardships in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. He’s also interviewed many well-known figures like Osama Bin Laden before the September 11 attacks.

During the discussion at Fresno State, he criticized figures who have stepped into roles of authority regarding the Middle East like Tony Blair, a man that Fisk said has not experienced the inner workings of the region.

America is an intelligent nation, he said, and despite the recession, there remains a “treasure-house” of information in American universities compared to many European institutions. Many universities he’s visited in the U.S. have had Middle East, Islamic, Arabic and Hebrew studies.

Khan Shadid, a fourth-year Fresno State student and entrepreneurship major, said it’s important for America to change its image and how other nations perceive us.

“We need to work on getting day-to-day people’s perspectives,” he said. If only we could speak to people in the Middle East first-hand about the war and its violence, he said, there would be a lot more clarity.

Despite the plethora of information available, Fisk said the administration in this country, including the president, are largely inept at understanding it.
Our military has a lot to do with this in their desire for power, he said. If it weren’t for this, the American people might be more informed about the realities of Pakistan, Iran and the surrounding nations.

“We’re not shown any footage,” said Allisen Casares, second year mass communication and journalism student who attended the event. “It’s not a reality for us because we don’t have to live through it. We need to start having more media coverage in the Middle East.”

According to Fisk, the U.S. is kept in the dark, but the Middle East is just as uniformed about the Western world, but for different reasons, he suggested.

“There are only two universities in the entire Arab Middle East which have a department of American studies. One is American Institute of Beirut and the other, the Christian-dominated University of the North.”

Barsamian cited Barack Obama’s Aug. 30 speech when he discussed his plans for an end to combat in Iraq and that our country would continue to have the finest military force in the world.

The president should have said something else, Barsamian said, like striving for the finest health care system or the finest education system.

Instead of spending gigantic amounts on the armada of aircraft carriers, we should be focusing on things that build our culture and our future, he said.

Fisk and Barsamian had a short question and answer with the audience where students and other attendees could voice their response to their talk and ask about general principles of journalism.

Helen Maka, a third year student and plant science major, enjoyed the objectivity of the two speakers.

“My grandfather is more liberal and my immediate family are conservative, so it’s good to see both sides [here at this event],” Maka said.

“We need to do our own research,” said Casares. “I don’t really believe a lot of what I hear [in the media] anymore because there are a lot of sides [to an issue] I don’t know about.”

Directly following the discussion, there was a film screening in McLane Hall. Fisk screened video footage of some of his coverage of the Lebanese prime minister murdered in a vehicle by a large explosion. Footage from Gaza back in 1993 was also shown where a Palestinian man was lying on a hospital bed with a gunshot wound to his head caused by Israeli fire.

When a student asked him if there were ever any moments when he’s been so emotionally upset that he couldn’t go on reporting, his answer was simple.

“No, it’s not my job to be emotionally overwhelmed. The Israelis and Palestinians are having enough trouble already and you’ve got to take the sticks and stones.”

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