x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A fresh New York perspective and a dim view of US news

In America, what you learn about the Arab Spring, or about Rupert Murdoch, depends very greatly on which newspaper you read.

After nearly three years at The National, recently I left the newspaper and flew home to New York City. I departed Abu Dhabi with mixed feelings. I was looking forward to my retirement, but I would miss the excitement of the Arab Awakening, and sharing with my Arab colleagues the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and almost anywhere else you look.

For me, the closest parallel was the American civil rights movement. In the summer of 1965, I worked as a volunteer in a voter registration campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Then, as now, the movement was spearheaded by the young, the educated and the fearless. As crowds in Syria march weekly out of their mosques, black Americans in Birmingham gathered at the 16th Street Baptist church to sing and chant and boost their courage to take to the streets. There they were met by batons, police dogs and fire hoses.

At the 16th Street Baptist church, a bomb killed four little girls at a Sunday school rehearsal. But in Syria, the death toll stands at about 2,000. And yet, every Friday, the Syrians keep marching for freedom.

As my Etihad flight rose above the desert, I wondered how people in America were reacting to these heroics.

My arrival at JFK Airport was low slapstick comedy. The night before my departure I had managed to break off the left temple of my ancient spectacles, leaving them dangling precariously off my nose. At the baggage carousel, they kept dropping off my sweaty face to be whisked away by the conveyor belt, with me stumbling desperately in pursuit, bumping into people and tripping over suitcases.

I had no change for a baggage cart and so, lugging two big suitcases, a shoulder bag around my neck, a briefcase and a guitar flailing about sideways, I staggered at last into the terminal where my two daughters who should have been waiting for me were not. Both have an elastic concept of what a clock means. Expecting them to be on time is like expecting cats to goose-step. I waited for an hour.

But lo, there I was back in America, scanning the daily newspapers. The liberal New York Times coverage of Syria was superb, but there wasn't much in the local tabloids The Daily News (right of centre) and The New York Post (right of right).

Three days later, all mention of the Arab world was blown out of the water by the most staggering event in world history: the acquittal in a Florida court of Casey Anthony for the murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee.

The corpse of the child was found, mouth sealed with duct tape, a month after she disappeared. But the hard-partying mother never reported her missing daughter and, when asked by friends, would tell them that Caylee was with her nanny. There was no nanny.

For days there was nothing else on TV screens or front pages. What are Syrian freedom marchers compared to the most hated woman in America ?

Well, that's the nature of the media. The New York Times doggedly kept Syria on its front page, with in-depth reporting inside.

In The New York Post, I began to see an insidious undercurrent. For the right-wing media, there is no such thing as being too pro-Israel. Columnists crowed President Barack Obama's "hostile position on the state of Israel ".

The paper's editorial position on Mr Obama is that, rather than expressing mainstream global policy, he is a lone anti-Israel fanatic. Only in America would this wash.

The next big story, after Casey Anthony disappeared from jail into a safe house, was the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. A dozen editors arrested, Scotland Yard resignations in disgrace, the fall of The News of the World - this is what now grabbed American headlines.

Except at The New York Post. Two days before Mr Murdoch's appearance to give testimony before the British parliament, the paper ran a one-column item about the case on page 38 in the Business section. The day before his testimony, there was nothing; the day of his testimony, nothing and, ever since, nothing.

How very curious. Could this be because Rupert Murdoch owns the newspaper?

Next, I'm off on a car trip to Oklahoma to gauge the opinions of friends in America's heartland about the new Arab world.

 

James Eckardt is an author and former Editorial Writer for The National