Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reports from and of the Echo Chamber

Max Rodenbeck's piece in The New York Review on Robin Wright's new book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, provides a helpful reminder that the Washington Echo Chamber is still with us. Recall that it was Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson that seemed to have coined the "Washington echo chamber" phrase in a piece that prompted me to accuse him of demonstrating the echo chamber effect rather than transcending it. I therefore find it relevant that Rodenbeck begins his review by introducing Wright to us as "The Washington Post's chief diplomatic correspondent." He also makes it a point to inform us that she takes her work "into the field," rather that working strictly from her desk with the aid of an Internet-based "window on the world."

There is therefore an almost poignant sense of irony in the conclusion of Rodenbeck's article, which basically faults Wright for being as susceptible to the Washington Echo Chamber as I accused Robinson of being:

In many ways Dreams and Shadows is an admirable book. Yet despite Wright's determination to be objective and her skill at her craft, there is something unsatisfying about the approach to journalism that she represents here. Perhaps it is a symptom of listening to the world from Washington, where the rumble of think tanks, the clatter of talk shows, and the whine of politicians synthesize into an agenda that often clashes with the sounds of the Middle Eastern jungle. Wright does try to challenge that agenda, yet does not really escape being informed by it.

She takes pride, for instance, in relying on local sources rather than distant "experts." Yet many of her local informants are famed talking heads, working in institutions that are furrowed pitstops for foreign correspondents. Often, too, the sort of questions they are asked reflect priorities set elsewhere. At one point, for instance, Wright describes three vital issues that Middle Eastern governments must address in order to accommodate pressure for change: political prisoners, womens' rights, and political Islam. Perhaps, but that sounds closer to concerns in Washington than to the more mundane things, such as jobs, the corruption of local officials, and the soaring cost of marriage, that actually exercise many Middle Easterners.

Dictators are ugly, and democracy is, most likely, the least bad way of being governed. But demagogues can be better than democrats at keeping fragile polities together. The Arabs say warily that one day of fitna, schism, is worse than thirty years of tyranny. A quaint and anachronistic notion, maybe, but also the product of a historical experience far longer than most other peoples'. One cannot help wondering whether some of the wishful thinking that has proved so injurious when translated into American foreign policy has been influenced by the finely turned but subtly distorting prism of honest and talented reporters such as Wright, reflecting their ultimate faith that one day the rest of the world, and even the benighted Middle East, will come to embrace the American way.

While in most statistical analysis two data points almost never provide grounds for generalization, there may still be a lesson in this alignment of mentalities across two different Post desks. To some extent we read the Post because of its "proximity to the source;" just as we have long read The Wall Street Journal for the same reason. Nevertheless, Rupert Murdoch is still planning to move the Journal "off of Wall Street;" and this has prompted some interesting discussion. Perhaps the Post may be facing the problem of being too close to the source, which is why the echo chamber syndrome surfaced in the first place.

Rodenbeck is as much as accusing Wright of writing about international affairs from the Washington Echo Chamber. If one follows the hyperlink I attached to Rodenbeck's name, one will see that he holds a similar position for The Economist; but his desk is in Cairo! Some may take his review to be an instance of collegial rivalry, but it is clear from the overall tone of his article that he does hold Wright in high esteem. Therefore, I prefer to take it as a statement of method at a time when the very concept of a "foreign desk" is becoming more and more alien to the reporting of news, even when that news may be crisis-related.

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