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Cartoon Controversy Hijacks Cable TV



I saw Wednesday that Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith was preparing to tackle the controversy that filled cable TV news that day -- the ongoing riots and unrest over cartoons satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammed.

Now, we'll see some interesting discourse, I thought. And they flashed to the single guest expected to illuminate this controversy for Fox News viewers in that segment: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.

Kristol, an experienced pundit, was certainly a substantive guest. But as an U.S. magazine editor and passionate advocate for Israel who is also Jewish, he offered a perspective on the issue which should have been balanced by a Muslim and/or an Arab.

But that was the scope of conversation on many cable channels covering the controversy Wednesday, where the subtle nuances of this exploding controversy were often lost as outlets offered up a collection of clashing voices leavened by the host's own barely-informed opinions.

On MSNBC, NBC's chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams offered his opinion that the cartoon controversy was overblown, pressing his Muslim guest on the hidden agendas of extremists who may be encouraging the violence. On CNN, Lou Dobbs offered similar comments, disagreeing with his own employer for choosing not to broadcast images of the cartoons and similarly pressing a Muslim guest, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who tried to explain (and denounce) the violent reaction.

What concerned me most watching these morality plays unfold on TV were two things: the disregard for the opinons of non-violent Muslims who also may find the images offensive, and the inability to talk about the more complex issues at hand.

Of course, Muslims shouldn't be torching embassies and rioting over cartoon images. Of course, extremist Islamic demagogues are using the controversy to press their own agenda. Of course, Muslim newspapers have trafficked in anti-Semetic and anti-American images for decades.

BUT - Islamic militants have found acceptance on the Arab street because they describe a network of anti-Muslim forces which subjugate the common man, from Israeli-friendly Western countries to corrupt, oil-rich authoritarian leaders who align with them. This skewed vision of world politics is only reinforced when Western media marginalizes Muslim voices and declines to provide a nuanced perspective.

Pictures of George Bush sitting next to King Abdullah from Jordan, asking Arab leaders to rein in protests, can look like an awful double standard -- freedom of speech for Muslims, so long as they express opinions America can tolerate. If Western nations cannot convince ordinary Muslims that pro-Western institutions will protect their cultural priorities, then we can expect a spread of Democracy in the Arab world to bring the election of more extremists -- who present themselves as guardians of the Muslim faith, regardless of their true nature.

I'm not seeking to be an apologist for those who have resorted to violence in expressing their opposition to the cartoons. That kind of protest is harmful and only reinforces Western perceptions of Muslims as violently intolerant.

But it is growing more important for journalists and communicators to build bridges of communication with the Arab/Muslim world. Cheerleading for Western values without attempting to understand other perspectives not only produces a predictable, uninteresting story, it reinforces a cultural divide that mass media should be working hard to overcome.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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