Journal Entry #47

1. Sharmine Narwani and American media.

NORFOLK, CONN., MAY 7—I recently published one of my long, two-part Q&A exchanges, this one with Sharmine Narwani, a correspondent residing in Beirut and one of the very few to cover the Syrian conflict on the ground—walking the Syrian sands, sitting in Syrian villages talking with Syrians, in ministries talking with ministers. Most others contented themselves to file from Beirut or Istanbul. They could not, of course, move among the “moderate rebels” they incessantly cited: Had they gone anywhere near these people they’d’ve had their heads or hands or both chopped off. The simple tools of empire.

   Part 1 of our conversation is here. Part 2 is here.

    I had admired Narwani’s work for some time, and so was not surprised that our conversation was informative. She has an unflagging appetite for the telling detail one finds only with diligent reporting, and along with this a honed gift for observation. What surprised me was the response to these pieces. I have never known what counts as “viral,” but maybe my conversation with Narwani qualified. To judge by the social media, they attracted many, many readers; they seem still to be making their way around. There are now translations in Farsi, Portuguese, and Finnish. I would like to see one in Arabic, where it might do the most good. There is a problem with the fee: A reader in Ramallah offered to do the translation work, but for a fee of $1,100.

    With a few nasty exceptions, which appeared to emanate from right wing circles in Israel, the two parts of our exchange were greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm. Anyone who follows my Twitter account via @thefloutist can see this for him– or herself. This is Cú Chulainn’s point today. Syria was a media war, among the many other things one can call it. And Western media suffered a decisive defeat. The Celtic warrior thinks this may well prove as fateful a setback as Washington’s failure to pry Assad out of office, so pushing through another of its coups via shameful alliances with extremists.

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WHAT I READ in readers’ responses to my talk with Narwani comes down to two quite striking facts. They are closely related. One, a sizable proportion of paying-attention people—one cannot put a figure on it, but “sizable” seems fair—were quite aware that they were not being told the truth about Syria once the Western powers, America in the lead per usual, began covertly intervening at the very start of protests in the early spring of 2011. Two, in consequence of “one,” readers were eager to read the truth, at long last. Sharmine was concerned at one point in our exchange that what she had to say would shock many readers. There would be disbelief. Nothing of the kind: Apart from the above-noted exceptions, they knew they were reading a true, well-supported account of events as they actually occurred.

    Narwani, often handy with a pithy phrase, calls the Western press corps “media combatants.” Had she not said this on the record (in Part 1 of the published exchange), I’d’ve stolen the expression. It captures perfectly the place Western correspondents took and the role they played in the Syrian war. Narwani unrolls this well enough in her responses to my queries. Looking ahead now, I do not think there is any easy route back to credibility for the Western press. They are plainly revealed as beholden to late-imperial power. This is why I think the disgracefully corrupt performance of nearly all Western journalists—with a handful of noteworthy exceptions—could prove a turning point. “We had… alternative media punching holes in Washington’s storyline ever day,” Narwani remarks. “You can’t keep up an act for eight years. People catch on.”

    So they seem to have done.

   Here I must reiterate a point I have made severally in past columns. There is no such thing as “alternative media.” Maybe there was once, during the flowering of alternative newspapers in the late–1960s. Anyone remember The East Village Other (in New York), The Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta), Harry (Baltimore)? The names alone are redolent of the time. O.K., but that was then. The media universe is changed, changed utterly from that time. “Alternative” now seems to me a self-diminishing identity. There are only media, in my view, some better-endowed materially than others, some professional and ethical, some not, some cravenly serving political power, others free of it, some the captives of nationalist ideologies, others publishing precisely against such ideologies. This means what we ought not call “alternative media” any longer now assume a very considerable responsibility, far outsized to their resources.  

   Sharmine Narwani just proved this point, in Cú Chulainn’s view. It is my hope that our conversation, as now published, will stand as a document, a testimony of sorts. To take a phrase from Beckett, she has left “a stain upon the silence.”  

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