It doesnâ€™t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.
This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed meâ€”and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a â€œbalanced media diet.â€
The story concerned the recent violence in Iraqâ€™s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.
The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.
This nagging sense didnâ€™t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australiaâ€™s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmedâ€™s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.
That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.
Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.
Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even â€œgood guysâ€ and â€œbad guys.â€ Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forcesâ€™ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.
Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. Itâ€™s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda â€œthe bad guys,â€ of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuancedâ€”and perhaps less boldly optimisticâ€”than the NewsHour guests described it.
The point here is not so much to sort out the â€œreal storyâ€ in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the â€œbalanced media dietâ€: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.
Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we donâ€™t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosityâ€”and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.
Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.