Why newspapers make you stupid

Published: November 5, 2010

Some want the Wikileaks founder arrested, others want him to win a Nobel Prize.

The maze of documents and media observations on the recent release of 400,000 classified Iraq war documents on Wikileaks ignites so many questions. But one can’t help but notice the many subtle and not-so-subtle diverging perspectives within the media agencies reporting the story.

The British media (Guardian, Independent, BBC, etc.) came down quite hard on the atrocities reported therein and cited un-reported torture stories, civilian murders and children shot dead. However, the US headline story in New York Times was “Wikileaks founder is on the run,” completely sidelining the subject of war-logs and harping upon the personal life and daily routine of the Wikileaks founder. Why the disparity? Why are some people entitled to more truth than others? And what is the truth anyway?

It’s also a stark reminder of what transpired during the August 2010 floods in Pakistan. While the Pakistani media was reporting on the devastation wreaked by floods, displaced people and economic losses, the western media reported threats of hard-line Islamist organizations filling a void and gaining the sympathy of the masses. Why the disparity again?

Theoretically, the large divide between interpretations of the same news items mainly reflects biases, fears, political motivations and national sentiments. It’s not even funny how selective journalism comes creeping into our lives, snuggles besides us quietly and seriously influences our thoughts, views and opinions. The motives behind this divide are sometimes based on reality, but viewed differently, while sometimes, facts are selectively exploited to achieve a certain goal. It will always depend on who is writing history.

Winston Churchill once said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. What an ironic statement this is! Relying on so little for so much is surely tricky and hazardous.

To explain the matter further I provide two examples.

Case One: The Mongols

The middle-eastern and the western versions paint Mongols as barbaric murderers, laying waste to human civilisation and cultures.  Historians narrate explicit and haunting stories of burnt-down libraries in Baghdad, the cold-blooded murder of thousands in Caucasus and knee deep rivers of blood in Eastern Europe. But slide a little eastward on the world map and stories about the same Mongols drastically change and start to echo the values of secularism, freedom of religion, superior military strategy, rule of merit, etc. For some people in the eastern part of the world, the great Mongol Genghis Khan is a prophet, a man sent from heaven and they continue to believe that he will rise once again to lead his people.

Case Two: Muhammad bin Qasim

We have all read the story of the famous seventeen-year-old military general from Persia who was sent by his paternal uncle, Hajjaj bin Yusuf, to liberate (read: remove trade hurdles) Sindh in 712 AD, from the clutches of the allegedly evil Raja Dahir. He is also very well known for his peaceful execution of his military campaigns and his tolerance towards local religions. But few of us know that when Hajjaj Bin Yusuf died, the new Khalifa (a political enemy of Hajjaj) recalled and imprisoned Qasim in Mosul, where he died at age 20. The way Qasim is revered in our books does not share the complete story, which almost always (not by coincidence) remains untold in our part of the world.

Is it fair to dissect history to arrive at our own version of a story?

Can we make knowledgeable decisions if we lack enough understanding of what came to pass? I’m not sure and I’m still searching for the answer.

Today, there are calls by some people to put the Wikileaks founder on trial and by others to give him the Nobel Peace Prize. What would you do?

My guess is most would say give him the Nobel Peace Prize, considering how Pakistanis feel about United States policies. But what if Wikileaks had blamed it all on the ISI or Pakistan army? Would you still vote to give him the Nobel Prize with the same level of conviction?

My guess is that the answer to knowing the difference lies in reading and understanding world history in as much detail as possible, thus arriving at an independent opinion. History can help us understand how societies have operated in the past and thus refine our moral education.  Whether we learn from it or not is a separate matter.

To be absolutely fair, independent, unbiased and relentlessly pursuing this belief is not the path for the faint-hearted, but it is surely the right thing to pursue. A good judgment has a lot to do with wisdom accumulated through experience and it is primarily knowledge of what transpired in the past that can help us form a better view of our days to come. The only way we can have the clarity of mind to walk a chosen path is if we understand the truth and history behind any given subject. But this process shouldn’t take place by reading the news only; in fact, it should originate in reading real books. Same subject, different books, different authors is my recipe to gain insight and understanding.

Thomas Jefferson said:

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

This post was originally published here


Omar Yousaf

A management accountant currently based in Hong Kong working for a multinational corporation.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.