Two and a half cheers for the Mainstream Media

A smart policeman?

A Romanian joke I learned long years past went:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Snow White, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are all eating Chinese food. Who eats the most?

A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are mythical.

Intelligence isn’t something I associate with uniforms.

Still, we now know that New York cops, though gorged to immobility on Krispy Kremes and bribery, have run one of the biggest intelligence — as in spying — operations that’s stained American life since Vietnam.  We know this because of  the work four Associated Press reporters did to dig up the scandal.

AP investigative reporters Chris Hawley, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan , Matt Apuzzo.

And I say: hooray for journalism schools, hooray for training reporters to tell facts from lies and rumor, hooray for fact-checkers who do their jobs, hooray for the Associated Press for throwing itself behind this story, hooray for the money it makes to support the work, hooray for the staff it can hire down to the guys who run the Xerox machines and fill the staplers. This is the kind of thing we need a mainstream media for: big institutions that can make sure a story carries weight because it’s verifiable and verified, who can afford to shell out, however inadequately, for months of painstaking research. It’s the kind of story that bloggers, whatever their virtues, could never have unearthed or proven. Serious investigative reporting in the US is going the way of the dead-tree press, into archeological desuetude.  We’ll all end up lamenting it. The voicemail-hacking horrors that are dissolving Rupert Murdoch’s power seem in a weird parodic way like the death throes of real reporting, a snake’s tail flailing with its cerebral cortex cut away. After all, you have to have some information to amuse you.  But when one of Brangelina’s four legs can conquer a whole 24 hours in the blogosphere, the contents of Hugh Grant‘s inbox will seem more important than the contents of an intelligence agency’s files. The last real investigative reporters out there are also the last people struggling to restore a sense of proportion.

That’s one cheer for the mainstream media. Another is: more and more we need people who are smart, knowledgeable, and trained, to sort through the avalanche of facts and fiction falling on us daily, like Pandora’s box or Fibber McGee’s closet swollen to planetary scale.  Wikileaks is now releasing five million emails purloined from Stratfor, the sinister security-analysis firm which Julian Assange calls a ‘private intelligence Enron” (though it seems a bit more like Tom Clancy with a Lexis-Nexis account).   FIVE MILLION emails.  Seventy bloggers with seven hundred Macs could toil for half a year and not get a seventieth of the way through them. You need some folks who know what they’re doing, armed with the right search terms, to figure out where the scandals are. Wikileaks performs an in-many-ways inestimable service; but it’s not to be confused with journalism. The e-mail dump is just the raw material. The journalists are the ones who wade through the cesspool and parse the cc: lists.

(Oh, yes, my favorite revelation so far: Twenty years after the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, Dow Chemical hired Stratfor to spy on Indian activists demanding justice.)

Anti-Dow protest in Bhopal, 2011

My last cheer comes in part from reading this moving article, a reflection on the dangers journalists face in contemporary combat reporting.   The “embedded” journalist, such a repellent fixture of America’s two Gulf wars, seems to be a thing of the past, however recent. “Correspondents no longer get hilltop seats alongside generals as the lines of battle form, break and re-form in the valleys below them.” The killing of Marie Colvin and the death of Anthony Shadid, each heroic in a different way, are harbingers of new exposure. It’s not just revulsion at the compromised and corrupted integrity that embedding left behind. Part of it is the sped-up news cycle, the demand for instant information, which compels reporters onto front lines and even out of foxholes to capture image or experience. (The article features three photographs that war photographer Joao Silva took in 2010 in Afghanistan, just after his legs had been blown off by a land mine.)

Parthian shot: Photographs Silva continued to take although critically wounded

And part of it is that in the last spate of conflicts, there’s nobody to embed with even if you wanted to. The Syrian Army or Qaddafi’s forces won’t have you. The rebels provide only scant protection. In civil war — and, as I wrote below, all our wars now are becoming civil wars — there’s no civility. Nobody is safe.

So brave people die to bring us information, to force it on us in our wired and bit-infested security. If it’s only half a cheer I offer here, it’s not because I slight their courage or importance: it’s because there are other people outside the Mainstream Media and the mainstreams of the prevailing politics, who don’t have the wealth or power of the AP or the Times behind them, who suffer and die to shed a little bit of light as well.   As the article acknowledges:

[A]ll these countries remain infinitely more dangerous for the reporters, photojournalists, citizen journalists, translators and fixers of those countries who, unlike foreign correspondents, cannot jump into a taxi or aircraft when it gets too hot and do not have the protection of a foreign passport or an embassy when at the mercy of their own governments.

Bloggers in Syria, operating outside the inculcated and inherited restraints felt by traditional Syrian reporters in the state press, are in many ways the key people finding the facts about what’s going on in the mayhem of the revolution. As with the Twitterers during Egypt’s unfinished revolution or Iran’s aborted one, their on-the-ground views have their limitations. In the thick of things, the mayhem can overtake you.  The feel of the moment is not the same as knowledge.  There is something to be said for the synoptic perspective that alienness can bring. (The great historian Richard Cobb wrote beautifully about the odd and elusive things that can only be learned by a foreigner in a strange country, or by an investigator confronting a tradition not her own.)

The two can complement each other. All respect to those who choose not to run away. But my biggest and final cheer is reserved for those who, because they are rooted in the place they find themselves and part of its history, simply can’t.

Syria: A new massacre in Homs?

The Guardian reports growing concern that Syrian army units surrounding the rebellious city of Homs are planning a masive attack and massacre.  It quotes, for instance, Syrian blogger @Maysaloon:

I think we’re either going to see a massacre in Homs, or a war involving #Syria at some point. This situation cannot last for long.

Here, also from the Guardian, is an informative map sketching where and when protests in Homs have taken place during the revolution:

Meanwhile, the NYTimes points to severe splits between the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, a rebel force operating from across and around the Turkish border.

FREEDOM FOR RAZAN GHAZZAWI: Statement by human rights activists and defenders

Link to statement in Arabic

Authorities in Syria arrested Syrian blogger, feminist, and activist for free expression Razan Ghazzawi on December 4, 2011. She was at the Jordanian border, traveling  to attend a conference on media freedom in the Arab world. She was representing the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), where she works as a coordinator.

Razan, a poet and critic as well as an activist, studied English literature at Damascus University and comparative  literature at Balamand University in Lebanon. Since 2009, she has blogged on human rights, international solidarity, and Syrian politics at She is one of very few bloggers in Syria who writes under her own name; and she has consistently spoken out for women, for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and for all victims of discrimination or abuse.

For many of us in Egypt, in the region, and around the world, Razan is a mentor, an ally, and a personal friend.  Her principled commitment to human rights has been an example to us. Her courage and her willingness to face danger head-on have been an inspiration.

In one of her last blog posts before she was arrested, Razan wrote: “I do not believe in a ‘national consciousness,’ I don’t believe in nationality …Once we drop hyphenations, we become as one.” In that spirit, we say: Razan’s struggle is our struggle. The Syrian people’s battle for freedom is our battle. Now we ask you for your solidarity and support.

What can you do?

1) Contact Syrian diplomatic representatives in your countries immediately.  In faxes or phone calls, urge:

  • that Razan Ghazzawi be released unconditionally;
  • that she be protected from torture or ill-treatment  while she remains in detention;
  • that all political prisoners in Syria be released;
  • that Syria end  arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and  violence  against protesters and opposition members.

A list of addresses and phone numbers for Syrian embassies and consulates can be found here, or here.

2) Organize peaceful vigils or demonstrations at Syrian embassies or consulates calling for the release of Razan Ghazzawi and all political prisoners in Syria.

Below you will find statements (translated from the Arabic) a) by Syrian bloggers and friends of Razan, and b) by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Additional resources:

This statement is signed by:

  • Ahmad Ragheb – Human rights activist-Executive   director (Hisham Mubarak Law Center)
  • Dalia Abd El Hameed – Human rights activist – Gender officer (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights)
  • Mona Seif – Human rights activist  (No to Military Trials)
  • Mozn Hassan – Feminist, human rights activist- Executive  director (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Scott Long – Human rights activist  (Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School)
  • Tarek Moustafa – Feminist, human rights activist  (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Yara Sallam – Feminist, human rights activist   (Nazra for Feminist Studies)


We hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief after our friend Hussein Ghreir was set free, before the choke of rage and sadness reminded our hearts once more of our reality: oppression, suppression, and worshipping the silence that we live within. This took place when we learned that our friend Razan Ghazzawi was arrested. Razan is a devoted Syrian blogger. She is a Syrian by her passionate work for the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian refugees in social media in both Arabic and English.  Razan is a Syrian by her commitment to the causes of progress, social justice, and equality. She is a Syrian by standing for all free souls in their struggles for freedom and dignity.

Razan’s is a voice that only the enemies of rights, dignity, justice,  and freedom want to silence.

We demand that the Syrian authorities set Razan free immediately, along with all prisoners of conscience and dignity. We also hold them responsible for any harm to which she may be exposed. We also demand that the Syrian authorities stop the policy of terrorist oppression that they are practicing against the Syrian people.

We ask all those who support justice and freedom to show solidarity with Razan Ghazzawi, with us, and with Syria.

We hope that all our friends will help publishing this statement on blogs, pages and social media platforms. #FreeRazan


Syrian blogger and activist  Razan Ghazzawi has been arrested this afternoon at the Syrian-Jordanian border, where she was heading to Amman to attend a conference for defenders of media freedom in the Arab world. There, Razan was scheduled to represent our organization.

Razan works as a media coordinator in the Center: she is a graduate of the English literature department of Damascus University, and also holds a Master’s degree in comparative  literature  from Lebanon. Razan’s Master’s thesis focused on the short stories of Shamoun Ballas, an author living in Paris and Palestine; she discussed how colonial occupation affects the process of creating an identity in the post-independence modern state. Razan has published many articles on literature .She also started her own blog. Razaniyat, in 2009 .

Razan was a member of the cultural committee  “A Place for Everyone,” 2005-2007. She also won second prize in a poetry contest at a Lebanese university.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression gravely denounces the detention of our friend, blogger Razan Ghazzawi. Arresting her is another way to restrict and eliminate  civil society in Syria—and a desperate attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Syria.

The Center also urges Syrian authorities to stop the systematic crackdown on Syrian bloggers and journalists, and to free Razan unconditionally— along with  all other dissidents detained and arrested in Syria. Syria should respect its international commitments,  based on the international agreements Syria has signed. The Center also warns the Syrian authorities  that they will be held responsible for any physical or psychological harm that the blogger Razan Ghazzawi may endure.

Leave it to the bloodthirsty dictators and Beaver

photo courtesy of Sultan al-Qassemi, Yousef Kayyali, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson

From left to right: Bashar al-Assad, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (complete with hair), Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad, getting ready to go out on the lawn and make some Smores.

Damn your soul, Hafez!

On the subject of danceable revolutionary songs, this Syrian protest tune — complete with singalong by demonstrators in the devastated city of Homs — has a nice rockabilly sway. It takes true courage amid the slaughter there to keep one’s heart, and carry a tune.  Complete with subtitles.