In the United States media were focused on the film’s impact overseas, where it appeared thousands of demonstrators were taking to the streets across many parts of the Islamic world. Of much less interest was the local angle – the story of how the film was made, its quality, who was responsible and the intentions behind its production.
Certainly, the foreign story was full of promise. In Pakistan, for example, members of various government agencies at the local, state and national levels denounced the film, saying it denigrated Islam and equating it with blasphemy.
The Pakistani cabinet declared a national holiday and appeared to openly encourage street protests.
Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said, “I intend that a message should go to the world that the federal cabinet of Pakistan strongly condemns this sacrilegious film.” He directed the Ministry of Information Technology to demand that YouTube remove the video.
Pakistan’s Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilfour went further, offering
a bounty to the person who kills the filmmaker, saying, “I announce today that this blasphemer who has abused the holy prophet, if somebody will kill him, I will give that person a prize of $100,000.”
Although the government and Bilfour’s own secular party, the Awami National Party, were quick to separate them- selves from his proposal, the events provided ample scope for United States journalists to see the story defined by events unfolding beyond its borders.
CNN described the Pakistani government’s call for a national holiday as official backing for protest and while several demonstrations in urban centres rightly made headlines (see the Pakistan section of this report) much of the story was told by United States media without context, particularly the failure of media to report on alternative and moderate Muslim opinion.
For example, few, if any, American media reported on the joint Muslim-Christian peaceful protests against the film in the city of Samundri, Pakistan.(6) Peaceful demonstrations in Kashmir and Swat, which are both regions where religious violence has been prevalent, were not mentioned by major American media.
Some effort to put the protests in a different context was made by National Public Radio, which in reporting live from Pakistan on September 21st included this telling exchange between NPR Anchor Steve Inskeep and reporter Jackie Northam:
• Inskeep: I’ve been following the Pakistani press and there are other voices out there. Here’s a quote from an article by a man named Raza Rumi, writing in the Express Tribune in Pakistan. He argues, quote: “The quality of the film is so pathetic that it should’ve been allowed to die a natural death. However, trust some Muslims to be swayed by brazen provocation… All you have is a faux narrative of Islam versus the West.” Are there a lot of people, basically saying, what’s going on here? What’s the point?
• Northam: You know, there are voices of reason here, certainly.
And on the morning shows on TV, the anchors were appealing for calm and saying violence just won’t do anything, it’ll make Muslims look bad in the eyes of the world. People I’ve talked to over the past week have expressed the same sentiment. A lot of people, just don’t understand why everybody has reacted so violently to such a stupid film – like your columnist said. But a lot of people did want to use this public holiday as an opportunity to express their disappointment and anger, and really, hurt, about the anti-Islam video.
But what you see are crowds of young men just wantonly destroying buildings and cheering when they break a security cordon. Unfortunately – those are the pictures that the world’s going to see.(7)
This failure to provide context – that is the other side of a predictable story of violent protest – was the major problem according to Javed Ali founder and editor of ILLUME media, an American award-winning, multi-media website devoted to coverage of the American Muslim community.
“I think we have to be careful before we say that certain media organisations in the West are being sensationalist,” he cautions. “There is so much pressure on media to get the story out and to be first and journalism is suffering. But the mainstream media needs to be critical and sensitive in providing more space for differing viewpoints. This is not to minimize or condone the violence. The violence is real. But there is a historical and socio- political context missing in the coverage. That part is critical.”
The American media watchdog organisation Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) supported Ali’s call for context in reporting. They argue that US media coverage of events in Muslim majority countries is a “carnival of distortion, double standards and bigotry.”(8)
FAIR criticised coverage of the film by both Time and Newsweek and were particularly critical of the pictures and headlines on the cover pages. They had no problem with the reporting of Time, but they condemned the sensationalism of the front cover headline – ‘The Agents of Outrage.’
They were especially critical of News- week, whose front cover – ‘Muslim Rage: How I Survived It, How We Can End it’ – caused widespread consternation and also of the article inside by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. FAIR described her as an Islamophobe who was “repurposing her standard take on the depravity of Islam with a few new details from current events.”
They claimed the article wrongly suggests such protests are supported by the mainstream public in these countries, as described by Hirsi Ali who wrote, “The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support – whether actively or passively – the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”
FAIR retorted, “Mainstream? Hardly. Just a tiny fraction of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims took to the streets in the alleged explosion of anger.” Building on that theme, columnist Jeff Sybertz writes, “Due to the media’s desire for a simple story with clearly defined protagonists and antagonists that follows the pro-American narrative, coverage has focused more on the video itself instead of uncovering why a trashy video made by an independent individual could instigate so much hatred and anger in so many people toward an entire nation.”(9)
At the same time people inside the media community began to voice concern that journalists were not adequately explaining the full back- ground to the events with little distinction being made between those who participate because they believe in the cause and those who show up just to cause problems.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in Paris issued a joint statement which said in part: “Western media coverage of the protests has been intense, focusing on violence, anti-American statements and on security measures taken at the embassies. There appears to have been less coverage of protests by people in Muslim countries, who were condemning the attacks”.(10)
They recommended that coverage could improve. “Western media can also better explain the reaction in the Arab world by, distinguishing between who is calling for demonstrations, and who is hoping for (or involved in) violent attacks and looting… and it demonstrates the kind of misinformation that the media should seek to address.”
The frustration over media coverage was expressed succinctly by one reader writing in the Baltimore Sun on September 20th who said:
“Protests were exacerbated around the Muslim world by inaccurate, incomplete and unverified media reports. Hoodlums with weaponry had become engaged as well as everyday outraged Muslims.”
Part of the problem according to political scientist Hoda Salah is that media coverage of Islam and the Innocence of Muslim film in particular was one-dimensional. She took issue with framing of the protests as “mass” demonstrations, asking “What do 3,000 demonstrators in a city of 20 million like Cairo amount to? Do they represent a majority of the country’s Muslims? The reports often demonstrate no sense of pro- portion.”(11)
Hoda also noted that, like the analysis of radical Muslims, media failed to provide detail that would put the story in a better context. “Both the Western mainstream media and the radical Islamists generalise where they should differentiate – and thus contribute towards the escalation.”
This lack of context leads media to reduce the complexity of Muslim and Arab society and the variety of their people to their religious identity. “They ignore the global, economic and political causes of alarming outbreaks of violence in the region,” she says.
But not all journalism failed the test. One media outlet that distinguished itself was Bloomberg which on the day of the major protests provided some of the most comprehensive journalism, not just in terms of scope of coverage, but also in adding con- text to a larger socio-political story behind the so-called “Muslim rage.”
Reporters quoted leaders throughout the region, many who called on the US to be firm against the film- maker, yet also calling for peaceful demonstrations. Furthermore, the Bloomberg coverage also tackled the issue of context, for example, explaining the growing anti-American sentiment resulting from increasing drone strikes.12
A Bloomberg news producer based in the United States admits that many reporters did not give the proper context to the events around the film but says this is more likely to be as a result of lack of access to reliable and credible sources in the Muslim community. “I refuse to believe that there is an evil conspiracy within newsrooms in the West to bring on a clash of civilizations,” he says. It is, he says, a problem of media structure rather than internal news planning. He wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of this report.
Like other mainstream news outlets CNN provided wide-ranging coverage of protests over the film. They included news and editorial updates including a perceptive piece from Aazadi Fateh Muhammad, a professor of mass communication at Federal Urdu University in Karachi, who suggested media should high- light the calls for moderation by Islamic leaders and scholars and that there should be less coverage given to hard-line political parties and leaders.(13)
However, these recommendations were rarely followed, even by CNN, although the network did produce one article which provided good background and context to the demonstrations, and even interviewing several American Muslim leaders. “There should have been no blood- shed,” said Muslim leader Maher Hathout. “As a matter of fact, there should have been no reaction to such an insignificant production.” Zainab Al-Suwaij, of the American Islamic Congress, added the telling point that those behind the protests have “a lot of other political goals” and are using the film as “just an excuse.”(14)