Teasing readers about propaganda

alqaedaLife is like a night in a second-class hotel. It contains hints of beauty and glory with little of the reality. This is more than a paraphrase of a quote from St. Teresa of Avila. It serves as an analogy for the coverage of religion in The Washington Post's two-part series about propaganda in the U.S. war against Islamic terrorism. Reporter Craig Whitlock tantalized his readers with great quotes about the influence of religion in the battle. Yet he never examined or elaborated on it. I was left frustrated, feeling as if I were allowed to look at the dessert tray but not order from it.

Early on in the first article, Whitlock described the journalistic missteps of al-Hurra, the U.S.-funded Arabic language television network. His examples included the following:

One news anchor greeted the station's predominantly Muslim audience on Easter by declaring, "Jesus is risen today!" After al-Hurra covered a December 2006 Holocaust-denial conference in Iran and aired, unedited, an hour-long speech by the leader of Hezbollah, Congress convened hearings and threatened to cut the station's budget.

These are two fine examples of religious and political ignorance. Yet Whitlock did not analyze or elaborate upon their implications. Did Middle-Eastern audiences, most of whom presumably are Islamic, know or sense that the network's anchors are Christian? Were network executives unaware that some Islamic speakers would be anti-Semitic or Holocaust deniers?

Both questions are relevant. Later on in the first story, Whitlock reports that the news staff idid not mirror its audience:

None of the team members spoke Arabic. For that, they relied on Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese journalist hired as al-Hurra's first news director. ad_icon

According to former al-Hurra staffers, Harb filled the newsroom with Lebanese employees, many of whom had thin journalistic credentials. Anchors spoke in heavy Lebanese dialects, turning off viewers from other countries. On-air reporting errors were common.

"He hired his friends -- this was the problem -- and they didn't have any experience," said Magdi Khalil, a former producer who clashed with Harb. "I told him, 'We need to improve the quality.' He said, 'No, no -- we need to fill the air.' He had no idea what being a news station means."

In a telephone interview from Beirut, Harb said it wasn't easy to persuade leading Arab journalists to come to Washington to work for a station funded by the U.S. government. He denied that his anchors and news-show hosts spoke in dialects but acknowledged that the staff was top-heavy with Lebanese.

You gotta wonder if religious differences also turned off viewers. Nearly two-fifths of Lebanon is Christian. Did Middle-Eastern viewers see al-Hurrah as not only the American channel, but also the Christian and Jewish one? It's a real question. At the end of the story, Whitlock quotes one ordinary Middle-Eastern citizen saying the following:

On a busy shopping street in Cairo one recent evening, it was difficult to turn up loyal al-Hurra viewers. Most people said they had not heard of the station or had only a passing familiarity with it.

"I've watched it a couple of times, but I mostly watch al-Jazeera," said Hayam Saad, 35, a homemaker. "There are just too many channels on the satellite dish, and people want something they can relate to."

Other people cited al-Hurra's strange mix of programming: old documentaries with Arabic subtitles, a program about a Jewish singing group on tour in Australia, a show on the history of bluejeans.

It's too bad. Whitlock wrote a well-reported, interesting story. But the article's failure to explore the role of religion made the story incomplete.

The same problem bedeviled his article about al-Qaeda's successful use of the Internet. Just like in the first story, Whitlock began on a promising note:

Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret police. "Are they committing unbelief?" he tapped on his keyboard. "And is it permissible to kill them?"

A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, Zawahiri replied, because they are "infidels, each and every one of them."

This graph suggested a lot: al-Qaeda fighters are theologically curious, if blood thirsty; dependent on a wise man for theological and spiritual guidance; view religion as central to their being.

Yet Whitlock did not explore any of these angles. Instead, he wrote about al-Qaeda's technological sophistication and power, as well as the success of a native Californian at making recruiting videos. Don't get me wrong; each is a key part of the story. But isn't the apparently religious-inspired enthusiasm of al-Qaeda's members?

Sure, reporters have explored al-Qaeda's religious beliefs before. But this story needed more religious context. Is their commitment to their brand of Islam their sole motivation? Do al-Qaeda fighters take all of their marching orders from figures such as al-Zawahiri or al-Zawahiri himself?

I'm not asking for much -- a sentence here, a paragraph there. A little bit of religion coverage could have gone a long way.

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