PARIS, France — The civil unrest that is sweeping through the Arab world has produced some of the most dramatic journalism since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But there are disturbing parallels between the way the American media covered these two important stories.
The reporting in Iraq was a case of what you see is not what you get. The invasion was not a "liberation." It toppled Iraq into a bloody civil war that is still being played out.
Fast forward, and the American media are now hailing the eruptions of civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa as "revolutions." But once again, what you see in the news may not be what is really happening. The so-called "Arab spring" may turn out to be something less revolutionary, more like a rearrangement of the furniture than a complete makeover of the Arab world. The media may be missing the point again.
The problem is the same in both cases. American news organizations have fired so many foreign correspondents since the end of the Cold War that they no longer have enough qualified and experienced journalists to interpret and explain what is happening in a vital but under-reported part of the world.
In the Iraq invasion, there were not enough experienced American war correspondents capable of seeing through the military's spin, and too few Middle East old hands to warn why it might all go wrong.
Now, once again, the American mainstream media have been caught short. Few of the journalists who were parachuted into Cairo had extensive experience in reporting from the Middle East, let alone even a basic knowledge of Arabic.
Network anchors were showcased being jostled by the crowds in Tahrir Square or interviewing English-speaking Egyptians, but were whisked back to the United States when it looked as if things would turn nasty. There were some notable exceptions of course. The New York Times had Anthony Shadad, who has a background of reporting from Cairo. CNN had several Arabic-speaking correspondents including Ben Wedeman who has lived and worked in Cairo for years. Among the foreign networks, Al Jazeera English had the advantage of a corps of correspondents throughout the Middle East. All of these experienced journalists did good jobs of reporting what they could see and learn. It was heady stuff — Egyptians dancing in the square, youngsters unleashing the power of Facebook and Twitter. But that was only half the story.
Most of what went on behind the scenes, where the key decisions were being made, went unreported. To find out what was really going on in Egypt, you had to turn to the web and read the comments of experts from non-governmental organizations and think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment or expensive subscription services like Stratfor.
This is what really happened: The armed forces, which have been calling the shots in Egypt since they threw out King Farouk in 1952, have now taken over direct and complete control of the country. And they appear to be doing so in a way that could allow them — if they wish — to manipulate the promised elections to produce a new government and president who will be acceptable to the military and allow them to continue their cozy and profitable arrangement with government.
It is too early to tell whether the military will grant Egypt real democracy. But the choice is theirs. This is not a revolution. It is not even a military coup, since they are taking over a country they have already been running for years behind the scenes.
Egypt's ruling military clique is an opaque organization — at least to Western observers. But it seems clear that the military have used the unrest sparked by the Tunisian uprising to get rid of an Egyptian problem. President Hosni Mubarak was trying to have his son Gamal elected as his successor. The military would prefer a frontman friendly to them as president, not a dynastic succession.
In some of the other Arab countries now in the headlines, there is also more to the story than meets the eyes. Behind the scenes of civil unrest in Algeria, there is another power struggle between the president who wants his brother to succeed him and the intelligence minister who thinks that is a bad idea. The riots in Yemen were also linked to a president's plans to have his son succeed him.
This is not to say that all these waves of unrest do not reflect real and legitimate grievances felt by hard-pressed Arab populations. But very little of the reporting we have seen seeks to examine who may be manipulating these protests, and for what ends.
The dramatic television and headlines the American media have been giving us these past few weeks are exciting stuff. But they are not the whole story.