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Ten Years After 9/11, The MSM Still Doesn’t Understand Pakistan

It’s a tragic failure that, after a decade of close U.S. diplomatic engagement with South and Central Asia, the media does not provide better coverage of a country of such pivotal importance. “Yes, Pakistan reality is complex,” Anatol Lieven writes in Foreign Policy, but “Western news outlets and academics must examine yet again their chronic tendency to analyze developments in other countries according to simplistic Western frameworks and then assign the titles of ‘Goody’ or ‘Baddy’ to the participants.”

Lieven points to the Pakistani judiciary, which is not all that it seems to the American observer. When the “Lawyer’s Movement” rose to prominence in 2007, the media lauded Pakistan’s middle-class lawyers and judges for attacking the country’s corrupt civilian leadership and military dictators. But the would-be heroes have their own priorities:

Most shocking was the public support of many lawyers for the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who in January 2011 was murdered by one of his own bodyguards for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has been repeatedly misused in private feuds and the persecution of religious minorities. A previous chief justice of the Lahore High Court himself justified this murder to me in an interview last year on the grounds that “the laws of God take precedence over the laws of man.”

Pakistani courts have also repeatedly failed to convict terrorism suspects, even when the cases against them seemed clear-cut. They overturned both a ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa—the public face of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—and a detention order against its leader, Hafiz Saeed. In a recent case, they acquitted four Pakistani Taliban activists accused of an attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Lahore. As many Pakistanis have told them, this kind of verdict not only undermines the entire struggle against terrorism in Pakistan, but also encourages extrajudicial executions by the police and Army. In this case, all four men were promptly detained by the ISI under special anti-terrorism laws. And within a few weeks, all were dead under very suspicious circumstances. . . .

Lower levels of the judicial system are even worse. During two out of my three recent visits to Lahore, lawyers in that city have been filmed beating up policemen who have testified against their clients in court—and have then beaten up the television crews who dared to film them!

The jejune media coverage isn’t limited to Pakistan. Veteran Africa journalist Laura Seay writes that foreign correspondents too often rely heavily on sources who agree with them or speak their language. The result is stories like “Land of Mangoes and Joseph Kony” that are rife with cliches and stereotypes.

Some of this is due to a lack of the necessary funding to produce accurate stories; catering to the short attention span of the average American reader doesn’t help either. As both Seay and Lieven conclude, we can do better. Journalists owe it to the people they write about to be accurate and thoughtful, and the editors and media executives owe it to their audiences to present foreign places in all their particular complexity.

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  • Anthony

    The cultural mainstream reporting by and large WRM is an empty street; that is, it is full of, as you say, simplistic Western frameworks designed to fit a conventional narrative (good v. bad, democracy v. absolutism, light v. dark, etc.). Overall, such presentation misleads an uninformed public to country’s detriment.

    I have been told that mass cultural communications is a basic industry, as basic as oil, transportation, and IT, in its own way. Point being that control of the “cultural apparatus” (media message) via correspondents, reporters, journalist, et al avails coverage pursuant to an interest…

    Whoever controls the cultural apparatus also controls the destiny….

  • thibaud

    Every country has its blind spots, but American blind spots about other nations’ complexities are an order of magnitude larger than those of less powerful peoples that long ago learned the importance of seeking to understand others first, before you run your mouth.

    European coverage of America has its flaws, but even middlebrow European journals tend to contain fewer inaccuracies and outright whoppers than more highbrow American ones.

    It’s a pity we don’t have more citizen-to-citizen exchanges of the sort we had during the Cold War, when US students, journalists, labor leaders, artists and writers and professors were encouraged to travel to and interact with their peers in western Europe.

    The state of Americans’ knowledge about how other economies and polities actually function, while never terribly deep, appears to be much worse today than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Back when everyone read Time magazine and watched the major networks, there was much greater attention to foreign affairs and a greater and broader recognition of our European cultural heritage. No question that foreign bureaus were much better staffed and funded during that era. We’ve lost a great deal.

    Add to this superior foreign news coverage the fact that our parents’ generation actually had first hand experience of Europe and Asia, and you can see why they were able to develop a more balanced and accurate view of where America is exceptionally strong and also where it’s weak and failing.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I understand Pakistan now. It is a failed state run by a Pashtun Military controlled by an Islamist ideology. The steps we need to take are: first) to get their hostages (i.e. our soldiers, diplomats, and ngo employees) out of Afghanistan with as few casualties as possible and as soon as possible, and second) to do the nation of India the favor we owe them by destroying as much of the military hardware that we have transferred to the Pakistani Military as we can with out putting boots on the ground in that horrid place. If, in that process we can destroy nuclear weapons that they may have, we must do so. We must also destroy their nuclear weapons production capabilities.

    Plow the ground, sow it with salt.

  • Corlyss

    Frankly, there’s not world enough or time to list all the really important subjects that the MSM doesN’T get. I read Economist religiously, have for years, and am still astonished about their capacity to spiel off endless Lib/Prog tropes whose market price long go dropped to junk bond status.

  • Brendan Doran

    You may add that most reporters aren’t very smart, trade in gossip, and are usually lazy.

  • “It’s a tragic failure that, after a decade of close U.S. diplomatic engagement with South and Central Asia, the media does not provide better coverage of a country of such pivotal importance.”

    I no longer believe it has pivotal importance. If it had nuclear weapons then yeah. But I don’t believe they have them. Does this look real.

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