I was feeling pretty proud myself the other day when I spoke to a group of 10 women from the Middle East and North Africa who'd come to Raleigh on a tour sponsored by the International Visitors Council of the Research Triangle and the U.S. State Department. The women--lawyers, government and social service leaders from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and the West Bank and Gaza--were here to study U.S. elections. Their schedule was packed with meetings with political candidates, legislators and media representatives, though ours would be the only full-fledged discussion with a reporter.
"What are the restrictions on the U.S. press and its reporting of government officials?" was one of the first questions from the group. I looked down at the issue of The Independent I'd brought with me--at the image of Liddy Dole encased in a red circle with a line through it--and said, smiling, "There are very few restrictions."
The women nodded and smiled back. But then the questions got more complex: What's the role of the media in shaping public opinion? How do biases against one party or another show up in political coverage? Does the press follow up on political promises made by candidates? Women appear frequently as reporters and news anchors, but what are the limits of their status as media producers?
I found myself talking about the lines we walk. The press still views its primary role as that of government watchdog. But that stance doesn't always show itself in our political or daily news coverage. Journalists cling to the ideals of fairness, but our biases often poke through. When they do we frequently fail to acknowledge or use them. And women, while numerous "on the ground," are still rare in corporate board rooms where the goals of the dominant media organizations are set.
I didn't tell the visitors about the limits I was requested to honor when I signed up to meet with them. Program organizers told me not to discuss a U.S. war on Iraq and I promised to steer clear of the subject. I needn't have--the woman from Gaza brought it up. "Does foreign policy play a part in your assessing political candidates for endorsements? Do you ask about issues like the war on Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine?" she asked.
I was also asked to avoid any mention of the role that Liz Cheney, the vice president's daughter, played in setting up this particular exchange. She works for the State Department, by the way, and was "instrumental" in getting the program off the ground, I was told unofficially. (Obviously, I didn't agree to that restriction.)
As our meeting drew to a close, I turned the tables and asked a few questions of my own. "What are the most popular media sources of information in Middle Eastern and North African countries? How powerful are those media in shaping public opinion?"
The answers were revealing: Contrary to our image of people glued to broadcasts by Al Jazeera, the women described a multitude of media sources, including CNN and other foreign news broadcasts, government and party-owned newspapers, independent publications, and the Internet. In their countries, people have a wide variety of media outlets to choose from, and they've learned to be discerning about media messages.
Still, several women described how much influence U.S. news coverage can have over daily life in their communities. "U.S. television coverage is completely biased in favor of the Israelis," said Nevin Mjally Abu Salim, head of the General Union of Palestinian Women in Gaza. By failing to describe how violence is a "reaction against the continued occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel," the American press has failed to give voice to the political aspirations of her community--aspirations that must be understood before a solution to the conflict can be found.
I ended my talk by thanking the women for reminding me that we Americans too often take our press freedoms--and other freedoms, for that matter--for granted. And I vowed to hold the next political candidate I cover accountable for every one of their campaign promises.