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Media Propaganda and its Influence on US Muslim thought: A Response

Ali  HasanainThis article has tried to deemphasize Brother Rizvi’s characterization of the media bias as media propaganda. I have done this in part out of a fear that we sometimes gravitate towards a siege mentality, and disengage at exactly the time when we should be most engaged in our surroundings.

Ali HasanainI had planned on writing about media bias for this week, and so I read with interest Brother Shaan Rizvi’s recent article on the influence of Western media on Muslims. The article was thought-provoking and covered some very important points accurately. However, I am in disagreement with the overall thesis and attempt here to show why.

Propaganda and Alternate Explanations

First, Br. Rizvi is right and, if anything, understates the importance of military propaganda: there is a lot of mainstream evidence that the CIA has influenced US media sources in the past, and in the absence of information about its current activities, it is not unreasonable to expect it to be continuing to do so. The White House in 2004 spent $88 million on PR firms and actively recruited columnists to propagate its message. Clearly, there is propaganda in modern Western media. It is also true that Western media is often uncharitable in its portrayal of Muslims.

However, Br. Rizvi seems to suggest that the principal reason for this negative portrayal is the force of propaganda, and it is hear that I disagree strongly with him. My disagreement is not based on extra factual knowledge about trends in propaganda in the US but on the fact that there are many alternative explanations for why US media portrays Muslims negatively. In particular, I would argue that biases in public perceptions, biases in journalist perceptions, and cultural misunderstandings may play a big role in explaining much of the negative portrayal.

Pandering to the Masses

In an article titled “Media Bias and Reputation”, economists Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago explain a theory of how, when a newspaper story confirms existing beliefs, the credibility of the newspaper goes up in the eyes of the reader. If newspapers know this, they have an interest in making their reports biased towards their audience’s liking. In another paper, “What drives Media Bias?”, the same authors show empirically that in its reports about domestic politics, the media is biased towards the Right or Left depending on whether the region is considered Republican or Democrat.

What this academic work suggests is that journalists pander to their client audience. Now consider evidence that Americans in general don’t think highly of Muslims. In a 2002 poll, less than one in four Americans reported thinking of Muslim countries positively. If this perception still exists, our theory suggests that it is simply self-interest, not propaganda, which leads to the negative bias of the western media towards Muslims.

Being able to explain why the media may be skewed does not absolve it of fault. In “The Elements of Journalism”, journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel report on a lengthy discourse of journalists held under the auspices of the Committee of Concerned Journalists which sought to boil down ten essential Elements of Journalism. The first two were:

  • Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  • Its first loyalty is to citizens.

These suggest that inasmuch as the tilt towards anti-Muslim reporting is due to a desire to tell the masses what the masses want to hear, the responsible journalists are in violation of their implicit covenant with their readers.

Journalists’ Personal Biases and Personal Cultural Distance

There is another explanation. If three out of four Americans don’t have a favorable perception of Muslim countries, it is likely that many journalists reporting today don’t think highly of Muslims. If this is so, their personal biases and prior beliefs will tilt their reports towards being unfair to Muslims, even if the journalists are trying to be conscientious. There may be little relief from such biases, although journalists would do well to recall the third Element of Journalism:

  • Its essence is a discipline of verification.

A third explanation is subtly different. It may be that the reporting journalist does not feel negatively about Muslims, but is instead neutral towards them. However, in reporting on news from a culturally and physically distant land, the journalist will be prone to inaccuracies in reporting and may naturally fixate on what are to him the most striking stories (e.g. punishment through lashings). A good journalist will try to retain context and a sense of proportion in this case, but to manage this will be difficult.

So What?

In delineating these alternate explanations, I wanted to show that the negative biases Muslims suffer in mainstream media are not necessarily the result of sinister forces like propaganda (though these cannot be ruled out). In particular, if public biases, journalist biases and cultural distances are behind the negative skew in American media, the response by the Muslim community must be radically different from the response to Propaganda, which brings me to the final Element of Journalism:

  • Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

The response cannot simply be to educate ourselves about Islam and to read about alternate accounts of the news.

The response must include both efforts to correct the negative biases of the Western public towards Muslims, which will help both indirectly, in decreasing the demand for anti-Muslim news, and directly, by making it more likely that journalists will correct some of their negative perceptions.

In addition, Muslims must retain the belief that their voices can be heard in press rooms. At the individual level, they can read local coverage about Muslim-related news and give feedback to their media. At the institutional level, there is room for a watchdog organization with the explicit goal to monitor mainstream media for inaccuracies in reporting and to bring this to the attention of the news corporation.

Final Words

This article has tried to deemphasize Brother Rizvi’s characterization of the media bias as media propaganda. I have done this in part out of a fear that we sometimes gravitate towards a siege mentality, and disengage at exactly the time when we should be most engaged in our surroundings.

However, this essay would be incomplete without noting some areas of agreement also. I agree with Br. Rizvi that the characterization of Muslims as “moderate” or “fundamentalist” is naïve at best and dangerously disingenuous at worst. Also, given the existence of media biases (whatever the underlying cause), Muslims must actively seek to verify news reports and commentary through independent sources.

About Ali Hasnain

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  • Interested Brother

    Salaam alaikum Br. Ali,

    I think you made some very strong points in this article. It seems not so much that you and Br. Shaan are disagreeing with each other, but instead that your theses compliment each other. First, I think Br. Shaan’s main argument was that media propaganda has had an adverse effect on the thinking of Muslims living in America. I don’t think you directly dispute this claim in your article. Instead, your piece seems to be more about WHY the media has been so negative in its portrayal of Islam, and you suggest pandering to the masses and cultural differences as two main explanatory factors. I think your analysis here was on point, especially since it was supported by empirical evidence.

    Additionally, although Br. Shaan did not make this explicit in his article, I think both you and him would agree that anti-Muslim media bias is the result of many factors, only one of which is the force of sinister anti-Islam propaganda. With that said, there are clearly other factors to take into account, as you mention in your article.

    With best wishes for your continued success as a writer.