Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #5: The Wire

Wire agencies like AFP, AP, and Reuters have been around for a long time and still work off the old-school, no-contradictions-here creed of ‘objectivity.’ Writers must bury their opinions, or at least appear to do so. They don't always get the byline, even if it's all their work. They never write 'I saw' or 'She told me' and they would definitely never, ever write 'I felt' or 'I assumed.' As a result, I have to bury the identity of the friend I interviewed about working at a wire agency. Throughout our conversationafter I received begrudging permission to put it ‘on the record'this journalist would say every few minutes, ‘Now you can’t print that detail, because that will give me away.’ I’ll call this reporter Ahmed, the most common Egyptian male name.

As wire services have expanded from brief clips about wars, protests, and politics, they’ve gone towards features. To write a feature, you need a narrative, and to write a narrative, you have to exercise creativity, making choices about quotes, about the lead, about the angle. To exercise this kind of creativity, do you need an opinion? Ahmed has much to say on this subject.

After falling into journalism by accident a few years ago (“My resume fell into the wrong pile at a job fair”), Ahmed covered all sorts of political and economic stories leading up the revolution. He started to notice that the wire agencies, which often have the first write-up of any major event ('The first draft of history,' goes the old saying), subtly influence the narrative taken by the rest of the press. 

One night while Ahmed was on call, villagers attacked a church hundreds of miles from Cairo. The agency sent Ahmed to cover it.
Everyone, including his editors, assumed that Muslims had attacked Christians in a good old-fashioned episode of 'sectarianism.' It was an old dynamic, more famously played out in Lebanon and Iraq, but uncorked in Egypt by the revolution (The Coptic leadership made a devil's bargain with the largely secular Mubarak, goes the narrative, and now they're stranded). 

Ahmed was not so sure. He thought the dispute which led to the attack might have to do with inter-family rivalries, surely propelled by religious differences, but not totally produced by them; sectarian tension, maybe, but not sectarian war, not strife. He talked to Muslim families, in addition to the Christians, and wrote what he felt like amounted to the nuanced, he-said-she-said-but-its-been-going-on-so-long-nobody-really-knows reality. It was a small town, Ahmed realized, where people have been fighting for so long that nobody knows who to blame. In addition, the problem had been exacerbated by a lack of clarity in the laws regarding church licenses, brought about by decades of bureaucratic malaise in the rural fringes. 

The editors weren’t pleased. It was too complex. How could an international audience come to understand this village’s inter-family honor battles in a few hundred, even a thousand words? Wouldn’t it be easier, clearer, and cleaner to call it ‘Muslims vs. Christians’?

“This sounds like persecution to me,” one editor said to Ahmed, who by the end of line edit after line edit was ready to quit, stranded out there in the desert at midnight in a cheap hotel after forty eight hours of reporting. They were jumping to conclusions, painting Egypt as a country descending into sectarianism, into Muslims vs. Christians, and Ahmed wanted no part. He was Egyptian, after all, and the editors were not. He had a stake in the way his country was represented.

 In the months that followed, other news outlets covered the story as Muslims vs. Christians. Coptic organizations in the U.S. decried persecution even if the evidence was thin. Ahmed expected this. What surprised him was how his own agency’s stories about sectarian tensions in small villages would always add a few words between commas, something to the effect of ‘issues sometimes fueled by tribal or inter-family disputes.’ Ahmed’s framing of the story had made its way into the stock phrases repeated in other articles. It might be subtle, but he had undoubtedly impacted the first draft of Egypt's history.

More on Journalism in Egypt

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