July 19, 2019 | 93° F

UZUMCU: Journalism spreads misinformation by failing to trace history

Opinions Column: Fahrenheit 250


There is something compelling about the act of witnessing. To locate oneself at the center and retell events through experienced snapshots gives one not only attention, but credibility. In that moment, we value the witnessing as a kind of truth-telling. In a court of law, there are particular criteria to qualify as a witness on the stand versus as an expert, for example. To conflate the witness with the expert would be an egregious error on behalf of any council to make, and yet as a society we seem to okay it as if these two terms can be synonymously exchanged. 

Such a callous misreading is unfortunately irredeemably apparent in journalism. Witness turned experts of the "Muslim world,” problematic in and of itself, appear from the shadows in the aftermath of the coup attempt on July 15 in Ankara, Turkey. Before the dust even settled on the Turkish capital city after military tanks rolled through the streets, Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian American Muslim activist, somehow became qualified to now make all commentary on the "Muslim world" on MSNBC. Meanwhile, a volatile situation was still in the midst of a highly unpredictable future. Embodying certain kinds of attributes in the form of religious background or ethnic makeup cannot and should not qualify one as an expert, particularly when academics in Turkey have no idea how to assess the context prior to the dust settling. MSNBC’s expert on Turkey remarked in favor of the counter-coup efforts: “... as an American and someone who stands up for freedom and democracy, we would be remiss to not support the will of the people.” 

The will of the people was not apparent in these precarious times, which we now know played out as a massive usurpation of power on behalf of the Turkish state’s President Erdoğan's purging of nearly 90,000 people from their jobs and detainment of tens upon thousands of citizens without trial. I hope such an expert can at least reassess such statements, in particular the meaning of "democracy" and "will of the people" as they embody hollowed signifiers for cable news to devour whole. Meanwhile, Turkey charges full force into the Syrian war after all possible enemies have been purged from the military, judiciary, media channels and universities. What actually happened in Turkey on the night of the coup? What are the implications? We will never know, at least not until now, state-controlled media sources allow dissenting voices, investigative journalism and free access to social media sites.

There is a simulated imminent crisis playing out as the constant consumption of information, or rather misinformation, reflects the rapid changing machine that is our reality. As consumers of news, with situations feeling more immediate than ever before, we question such contexts less and less. The silences and ellipses that result in erupted events appear as inexplicable. Every political explosion is a random occurrence of chance. We fail to trace historical and political shifts in contexts that erupt, capturing a perplexed audience only in the moment of chaos. All of a sudden our "experts" appear, qualifying through their strange passion for watching livestream explosions in far away lands.

Looking at the Turkish example, reporting practices silence the past failed revolution’s festering remnants from the summer of 2013 in our narrations of the failed coup attempt. The Gezi Park protests are forgotten in much of our tracing of the Turkish state violence we see today, unexplained. Gezi’s revolutionary rhetoric has been traded in, appropriated by the state in the form of "post-coup democracy" rhetoric. 

A failure to investigate and weed out root causes rather than merely report the effects seems to only pinpoint a fraction of the problem. Although its mention may be equivalent to beating a dead horse, anti-intellectualism and sensationalism in entertainment news is another notable element in how witnessing violent media via live news streams of the coup attempt produce a kind of truth in their viewership. As a collective whole, the fact that we can consume images to then occupy an omnipotent role is a telling kind of positioning of our Western bodies in the realm of the world. We are the center of this crisis, without context. Though some laugh at French Senator’s Jean-Pierre Chevenement’s recent comments, “I know the Muslim world well. I’ve been to Cairo, Algiers, 40 or 50 years ago,” it displays not only a clear orientalizing arrogance, but reveals an acceptable form of knowing. The media operates on such similar ludicrous notions on a constant basis, specifically within its coverage on the failed Turkish coup attempt. In the age of (mis)information, there is a new form of knowledge production and consumption, a dangerous one that works to undo the work in how we assess a context without tracing political or historical complexities. We can categorize it as orientalist practices in news reporting, clickbait news or the digital age of information, but I prefer to call it the dark ages of constant misinformation.

Meryem Uzumcu is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in planning and public policy, Middle Eastern studies and women’s and gender studies. Her column, “Fahrenheit 250,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Meryem Uzumcu

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