What I Do Not Argue

I want to clarify a few points before we move on.

I use the terms “European” and “Western” as a set of cultural, historical, and political assumptions. They do not refer to geography or location. “The West has become a vast moral project,” Talal Asad argues, “an intimidating claim to write and speak for the world, and an unending politicization of power” [Talal Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization,” in Christine Gailey, (ed.), Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, Vol 1, Civilization In Crisis, University of Florida Press, 1992:340]. It also has a powerful hold over those in the global south that Talal Asad called the “conscripts of Western civilization”–those who adopt the “standards of the more potent society in order to survive as individuals” [Stanley Diamond, Quoted in Talal Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization,” in Christine Gailey, (ed.), Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, Vol 1, Civilization In Crisis, University of Florida Press, 1992:333]. I use the term “America” and “American” quite often to suggest the USA whereas this actually refers to the continent itself. Hopefully this will be forgiven only because it is also how most Americans use the term. I am sure Trump’s call to “Make American Great Again” did not include Mexico.

[Aside: This “vast moral project” is of course lies in tatters. In the aftermath of Israel’s genocidal campaign that began in October 2023, the West’s pretentions as the home of human rights, law, justice and democracy are dead. With the willful and excited participation of most every Western nationn in Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians, it is impossible to see  how this project can ever recover. However, I suspect that this death will be a slow one, and it will be one that the West will desperately attempt to resuscitate with some strongly planned and promoted propaganda. We will have to wait and see if the rest of the world is prepared to fall the charade once again.]

Thus, Eurocentricity is a world view, one not limited to a specific ethnicity, nationality, class, or race. It is a “normal” and “universal” idea of history, progress, and modernist development that most Europeans, and most non-Europeans, learn about the world. As Tony Fry put it, “The world of the South has in large part been an ontological designing consequence of the Eurocentric world of the North” [Tony Fry, “Design for/by the Global South,” Design Philosophy Papers 15(1): 3–37. 2017]. Eurocentricity is an “implicit positioning, rather than a conscious political stance” [Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge Press, 1994].

In (post)coloniality, the conventional geographical conception of the West, or even of the USA, is no longer valid. “In postmodern electronic capitalism, even the United States, conceived homogeneously, cannot be specified as the place of the self that causes the other.” Spivak reminds us. “The self that runs the other machine has become so diversified that you can hardly give it the name of a continent or a country” [Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Double Bing Starts to Kick In,” In Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education In The Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, 2012:100]. The North-South divide, ideas of the self and the other, can no longer be confidently determined. The West and the Rest just does not hold.

These essays are about institutional practices, representation methods, and epistemic presumptions that inform US and Western journalism. Are there exceptions to these practices? Of course, there are. Even moral individuals can still end up giving rise to an immoral institution and unethical practices. James Baldwin addressed this critique when speaking with Paul Weiss on the Dick Cavett show back in 1969. Baldwin argued that life for the Black man in the USA was a form of “social terror,” one which was “a real social danger, visible in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody” [A transcript of Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show on 13 June 1968 can be found online here https://speakola.com/ideas/james-baldwin-i-am-not-your-negro-dick-cavett-show (last accessed April 2021)]. Weiss repeatedly challenged Baldwin to prove his assertions and, at one point, smugly leaned back and commented: “So, everybody, no matter who, no matter what his attitude, is bigoted?” To which Baldwin, in sheer exasperation, offers one of the great polemics against white liberal erasure ever offered; “I did not say that! You asking me to do the impossible…you are asking me to take the will for the deed…I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions!” [Ibid.].

I offer examples using the works of various journalists and photojournalists to illustrate and support my arguments. However, these examples should not be seen as a critique of the individual. I am well aware that individuals work within social, corporate, and political worlds that inform and influence their choices. Our choices are not endogenous.

Furthermore, this book is not in defense of some alternative–centrism. I am not advocating the supplanting of a Eurocentric worldview with an Afrocentric or Islamo–centric or some other equally invalid, ethnically particularist perspective. As I argued above, we are all Western. The West is not a geography, but an onto-epistemic relation to the world and to ways of being. Many journalists from the Global South rely on well-worn Eurocentric, Western imperialist, and neoliberal capitalist frames to write their articles, photo stories, and projects. These “local” or “native” photographers have become accustomed to–through education, life experiences, career requirements, and other influences–seeing the world through the eyes and agency of the West. There is no real outside of Western epistemologies.

The principal focus of these essays is the US media. As an American, I believe I must critique US institutions first before pointing fingers elsewhere. Furthermore, the US media reports on the social, political, economic, military, and imperial concerns of one of the most powerful nations globally and thus influence media priorities and coverage beyond its national borders. The discourses that emanate from the pages of US publications resonate across the globe. Journalism’s credibility relies on the myth of objectivity and its role as the Fourth Estate in our civic democracy. Despite almost constant evidence to the contrary, this myth has persisted because it is fundamental to the fantsy of the West as the home of liberty, gender equality, democracy, justice, tolerance, and free speech. The “fantastical” West’s actual history of domestic repression, gender discrimination, xenophobia, racism, political despotism, colonial violence, and slavery never manages to displace these myths [Partha Chatterjee, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy, Columbia University Press, 2011:3–4].

Journalism, too, has retained its myth of an objective and professional discipline despite decades of scandals, failures of judgment, misinformation, fake news, collusions with political power, and collaborations with corporate interests. Liberalism needs to believe that it is the home of a free press, and so it imagines that it is the home of a free press. The myth of a liberal West needs the myth of a liberal media, and they feed off each other, each keeping the other alive. A serious critique of US journalism’s onto-epistemic assumptions necessarily bleeds over into an analysis of the society it emerges from and speaks to. Stuart Hall has addressed this issue rather well, so I will keep my discussions to journalism [Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” In Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe & Paul Willis, Culture, Media, Language, Routledge, 2005(1980)].

But these essays are not just about journalism but also the dialectical relationship between journalism and its community. That is, we get the journalism we deserve.

And although I focus primarily on the US media, the arguments presented are relevant beyond the US borders. Media privatization and corporate ownership have also impacted the media landscape in India, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Italy, Sweden, and other countries. Journalism’s close relationship with political and military interests and its willingness to act as spokespersons for power is also a trend we see in places as diverse as Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, France, and more. The exact reasons for such trends may differ, and regional specificity is essential to understanding and speaking about any regional media industry, but the patterns are similar. For example, in France, billionaire Vincent Bolloré has recently bought up companies such as Vivendi, Editis, and Prisma slashed staff and budgets, and pushed the publications towards “a debased form of journalism that panders to the far right and [has] terrorized newsrooms” [Serge Halimi and Pierre Rimbert, “The Reader Becomes King,” Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2021].

It is all quite familiar as we see these practices across the globe. Privatization, corporate ownership, billionaire bosses, staff cuts, sensationalism as news, pandering to markets, serving corporate advertiser interests, and deeper relations with political power are now common in the European media landscape. I do not speak about media ecologies outside of the US [Media Pluralism Monitor, 2020 Report, The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, available online here: https://cmpf.eui.eu/mpm2020-results/ (last accessed April 2021)].

Nevertheless, I hope that others will take up the arguments I make in this book to analyze other media environments and geographies.

These essays aren’t mine alone. They are based on my experiences, and my own interpretation and understanding of what drives US media to represent the ‘Other’ in such reductive, rascist, shallow and destructive forms. I do, however, owe an incalculable debt to the many who helped me see, question, and understand. The many theoretical and intellectual influences on my thinking appear in this book in the footnotes, references, and quotes. I share them here not just out of necessity but equally to acknowledge my debt to them and hope that they can act as a map for the readers.

I also owe a debt to many friends who have helped me think through many issues and questions, and find ways of understanding them. Madiha Tahir, Saadia Toor, Sarah Belal, Jon Anderson (RIP), Bob Black, Suchitra Vijayan, Nadine Connock, Peter Lagerquist and Ben Chesterton are among those who first come to mind. I will add more names here as I remember them. But to everyone who has patiently dealt with me over the years, I owe you much.

On this day in November 2023, as I open this text to the world, I dedicate it to the people of Palestine, to the people of Gaza. For there has never been a greater source of courage, determination, honor and dignity than the Palestinian. On this day in November I mourn the events unfolding in Gaza, and publish these words with a heavy heart, but always with love for the Palestinian people and their beautiful struggle for liberation.