October 17, 2006
Debating the merits of MEMRI, chez Clive Davis
There has been a flurry of email in the wake of Clive Davis's thoughts on MEMRI spin. Clive has posted updates to add reader opinions, but I'm collecting the correspondence here to engage our own peanut gallery (and perhaps lure Clive's readers over here for a wee discussion).
First, a brief summary of events: After Clive's initial post, some emails were exchanged between Meph and a couple of uninformed wankers, which he dutifully recorded in a follow up entry, More on MEMRI. A few more emails have since been sent from our side, including a signature Lounsbury response.
From Fog of War & Peace (Clive Davis, Oct 16):
A response from a reader who has a particular interest in Middle Eastern politics:I haven't seen any comments or analysis on the MEMRI site - just translations (their accuracy, as far as I know, hasn't been successfully challenged; the best George Galloway could come up with a few months ago on Radio 4's 'Any Questions?' was "It is an Israeli site!").
They don't select their sources at random (who does?), but the claim that MEMRI pushes for "Clash of Civilizations"by exposing odious views of Mid Eastern mullahs and politicians (some of whom take a totally different tone when speaking for a Western audience) is grotesque.
From More on MEMRI (Clive Davis, Oct 17):
A reader comes to the monitoring group’s defence:Would we be better off not knowing that Hezbollah is broadcasting films portraying Jews killing children to make matzoh from their blood? I, for one, am grateful to know this. If they [MEMRI] are selective, show me anyone on the Left who is not also choosy.
The fact remains, they are not making this stuff up. If there are more conciliatory messages that MEMRI is ignoring I would be grateful to anyone who translates them and makes them available. I have read translations of conciliatory things from MEMRI. There is no shortage of media outlets spinning things to put Israel in a bad light
And an e-mail from Meph, one of the contributors to ‘Aqoul [sent Oct 16]:Just in response to one of your commentators regarding MEMRI's translation, you will find that it is not actually blatant misrepresentation of which MEMRI is accused but truncations and severe editing. Aqoul's translation of the Wafa Sultan Aljazeera transcript [link] I think illustrates the nuances.
A later update to the same entry captures more reader disagreement:
[link] shows that the MEMRI excerpts are essentially accurate. So Meph is overstating his case. The main difference between the 'Aqoul transcript and the MEMRI excerpts is that the MEMRI excerpts fail to convey the full flavour of the interview (obviously) and in particular the attitudes of the host towards Sultan. Also the word that MEMRI renders as "heretic is translated by Aqoul as "atheist".
Hardly an indictment of MEMRI's reliablity.
This was followed by an email from Meph (Oct 17):
This is ridiculous since my original point was that skewed editing is what makes MEMRI unreliable. Surely when one is translating a debate, the whole context is crucial? In addition, the word "heretic" is central to claims that Sultan was tagged an infidel and therefore automatically a fatwa hung over her head. One cannot trivialise these matters, one cannot be a little inaccurate or a little pregnant. Such nuances and lack of bigger picture representations - especially when not only words but death threats are being "translated" - lie at the very heart of discrediting MEMRI's integrity.
And then Lounsbury (Oct 17):
As for the replies, well Clive's commentators are pro-MEMRI ignorant gits, but the problem is of course that unless you have a sense of the original Arabic and it is bloody hard to really grasp what one is getting at. Like trying to explain what a foreign language is like to monolingual provincials.
I'm also personally disgusted with the sub-literate ideological hack whanking that renders this as a "Left" versus "Right" issue. I'm no bloody drooling economically illiterate idiot of a Leftist, and I bloody well find as someone actually literate in Arabic and having a long term exposure to the Arabic media MEMRI's translations skewed (not wrong generally in an obvious way, but the skew is always towards the negative image of Muslims; excepting of course the ostentatiously secular who ignoramus provincials in the West feel represent "safe Muslims.").
Not finding selective quotation and clear bias in the translation a problem merely indicates one has ideological blinders on. The question posed on that page re "if" (if?!?) there are "conciliatory messages" that MEMRI is ignoring merely highlights the very problem of MEMRIs selection bias.
Seleting marginal publications and consistently highlighting the worst discourse is no better than the Neo Salafi nutters who selectively quote from Western media to give an impression of an impending Xian Jihad against the Muslims and grotesque corruption and debauchery in the West. Both are wrong, both are biases and both are god-awful sources of information re getting a right balanced picture of the other.
Aziz Poonwalla had a nice term from someone I forget (Dean Esmay?) regarding this habit: Nut Picking [see here], finding the worst discourse of "the others" and highlighting as "Example" of "The Right" (or Islam or etc etc etc). That's called AgitProp. I have no more patience for it from the Bolsheviks than the Islamophobes than the Neo-Salafi Nutters.
Pox on them all and the idiots who want to lap up MEMRI's agitprop (which is well done by the way) can bloody well go ahead, I have as much respect for them as the Leftist fools who lapped up COMINTERN spin like the stupid drooling gits or gullible fools they were.
Peanuts, please discuss.
Posted by eerie at October 17, 2006 07:54 PM
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I can't add much to The Lounsbury's, err, colorful account, but I've always felt like one of MEMRI's biggest problems is its relationship to blogospheric stupid-storms (they should really look into insurance against stupid-storms - does a horde of ideological wingnuts descending onto your blog count as a force majeure?)
I guess all I'm getting at is that MEMRI is plugged in to a pretty big echo-chamber, which is very favorably disposed to a certain kind of story, such as, ohh, muslims behaving badly or Courageous Reformist Arab-Muslim Personalities (CRAMPs) mouthing off to some Islamist (never mind that the latter is not uncommon; to the echo-chamber in question, that's just not the point). Because of how quickly a given incident can ricochet around the blogosphere, MEMRI's bad habit of showing off the worst discourses and subtly making them look more representative than they are can create the effect of an endless, high-profile parade of provocations and Muslims Behaving Badly. I won't claim that MEMRI is trying to exaggerate the prominence of the nutters, but it's certainly what happens. As The Lounsbury mentioned, it reminds me very strongly of the information networks and hysterical reactions of professional Muslim offenderati. Same bad habit that would be merely annoying, were it not plugged into the kind of networks that can feed interested parties a steady diet of stupid storms, which has the effect of making all that clash of civilizations business look even worse than it already is.
(incidentally, I still haven't found much logic to which particular MEMRI stories become stupid-storms and which don't - probably has something to do with popular bloggers going out of their way to pimp them)
Posted by: homais at October 17, 2006 11:10 PM
I won't claim that MEMRI is trying to exaggerate the prominence of the nutters,
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 17, 2006 11:28 PM
I suppose this is a matter of faith, or at least a matter of basic assumptions. In general, I tend to think that ideological interest groups have already drunk their own kool-aid. I don't think they believe they need to exaggerate anything. I just don't see people getting involved in something like MEMRI for the express purpose of distorting. More likely, they view 'non-tame' Muslims as being precisely as dangerous as MEMRI portrays them - and others would surely agree if they just got some more information. And of course, if you already believe that, then information that confirms your beliefs will seem more prominent and representative. This is hardly limited to MEMRI - people seem to consistently overestimate the representativeness and relevance of jarring statements from 'the other side', often because it confirms for us what we already thought 'those people' believed, but wouldn't admit to it publically.
But that was a digression. The only main point I'm making is that I doubt if MEMRI sees themselves as distorting or over-emphasizing, so much as giving more daylight to what they see as the correct view of just how dangerous Islam is.
Posted by: homais at October 17, 2006 11:51 PM
The stupid-storm theory makes me think of the Slashdot effect.
Of course, now that MEMRI is advertising on the Pajamas Media blogad network, they're certainly aware of how easily they can whip up stupid-storms in Right Blogloonistan. In fact, LGF is pimping them outright:
MEMRI, by the way, is an absolutely indispensable resource, doing a job that no other Western media source will do, and their viewership has been growing rapidly. In 2004, MEMRITV received less than 1 million views. In 2005, the number grew to over 6 million. So far this year, MEMRITV has received more than 13 million views and transferred more than 65 Terabytes of streaming video.
They’ve also been extremely gracious about allowing me to post their videos at LGF—and now they could use a little help. If you think MEMRI is as essential as I do, you can make a donation to their work here: Memri Donation Page.
Posted by: eerie at October 17, 2006 11:55 PM
I don't think they believe they need to exaggerate anything.
Exactly, because since mass media report only bad things, evidence is easy to find.
'...and the little kitten played with the ball of wool all evening. In other news...'
Posted by: Klaus at October 18, 2006 12:21 AM
The only main point I'm making is that I doubt if MEMRI sees themselves as distorting or over-emphasizing, so much as giving more daylight to what they see as the correct view of just how dangerous Islam is.Homais: Of course they don't see themselves as wanker ideolgogues. No racist does.
MEMRI reminds me precisely of the Aipac hordes here in the U.S. Those uber-Israel nutters (and believe it or not I say this as a supporter--albeit a dovish one--of Israel) really believe that Israel is in imminent danger of sinking under a sea of Arab terrorists. They really believe that Palestinians are savage, lying brutes. They really see themselves, on the other hand, as saviors of Zion and western civilization.
Just because they see themselves as sincere does that mean we give them brownie points? No, sometimes people who are sincere in their ignorant beliefs are MORE dangerous than those who know what they say or believe is a lie.
BTW, Clive has posted another follow-up: Fact & Fiction about the Middle East, in which he cites L's letter and an article by an Iraqi asserting that Arab intellectuals are duplicitous in their engagement with domestic vs. international audiences.
Posted by: eerie at October 18, 2006 12:16 PM
I don't follow his argument. Is he saying MEMRI is not manipulative if Arab 'intellectuals' are fork-tongued?
I believe the contrast is re how are we to know what is being said if the al-Maaly circles are two faced.
He inquired in an email about this, my response was:
Re al-Maaly, well there is certainly the very
Mediterranean and Arab precept that "family business stays in the family." Try talking, as an outsider, to Greek Cypriots for example about the nasty role of their corrupt Church....
al-Maaly travels in Lefty "academic" literary circles, so I would suspect he runs into this kind of mealy mouthed two-facedness even more, as Arab
"intellectuals" / academics are every bit as bad as Western ones.
I don't really find it in the business communities, speaking as someone who speaks the language, I notice.
You do get people speaking out of frustration, e.g. my lawyer in Jordan who is generally pro Western becoming so disgusted w Iraq as to tell me he was becoming happy when he saw American soldiers die. This was betwen friends, he and I, and I understood. [ADDED: I cited this in my livejournal at the time]
Two facedness exists, but it strikes me as an
overplayed theme by the critics.
I suppose I am less impressed by the "two faced" accusation (which does indeed have some truth to it) because I know Arabic and so am not groping in the dark or left with the sensation I might only have half the story.
Of course, I also don't pay much attention to "Arab Intellectuals" since I consider them largely wastes of human flesh.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 18, 2006 02:55 PM
It's just a different discussion, I can't see how Arab 'intellectuals' lying would make MEMRI a more honest translator.
Maybe I wasn't clear enough in my post, but one of MEMRI's goals seems to be to illustrate the perceived gap between what Arab spokesmen tell the world and what they tell their own societies.
Posted by: Clive Davis at October 19, 2006 12:49 PM
Let's refashion this statement:
"to illustrate the perceived gap between what . . . spokesmen tell the world and what they tell their own [groups]."
Welcome to the human race.
Everygroup self-censors so as not to reveal the ugly side; in English we say don't air one's dirty linen; in Yiddish it was dont make a schanda fur die goyim, etc.
It's not some mysterious oriental thing, though the intensity varies by contemporary circumstances, feelings of being under threat, cultural communications traditions, etc.
In the specific article, I saw little to indicate inconsistency, most were lefty anti-west or anti-American partisans and seemed to act consistently in all forums.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 19, 2006 12:59 PM
It strikes me as perfectly valid to point out inconsistencies, etc. (provided they are material, rather than mere nit-picking).
What does not seem valid to me is "Nut Picking" - deliberately seeking out a skewed selection of commentators and news sources to paint the worst picture possible. That's selectivity to engage in AgitProp, to paint the picture, subtly to be sure, of the Evil Hun. In my view, MEMRI clearly does that. Now, it doesn't appear to generally fabricate, although the recent Apple Cube item seems to have been a particularly flagrant bit of Nut Picking bordering on fabrication. When one sees such abusive standars, a rationale observer has to ask, what value is this AgitProp to me?
As to the inconsistency, re the arty, well, as I said in the email, the German Iraqi author seems to have his nose out of joint about the idiocies of the Academic Left and similar commentators. I expect little else from them, and am not sure the author actually even made his point.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 19, 2006 01:21 PM
Clive posted another entry, Debating the Middle East & MEMRI. It begins with Lounsbury's email (above) and adds some new reader comments:
Among the latest dozen or so video entries on MEMRI site are: Al-Jazeera (4), Iranian TV (5), Lebanese TV (3), Al-Majd (Saudi Arabia) and Dubai TV (http://memritv.org/Search.asp?ACT=S6).
I don't see how these and other channels, watched by millions in the Middle East and beyond, can be described as 'marginal'. I also doubt that MEMRI deliberately ignores what doesn't fit into 'the worst discourse': has Lounsbury seen any pro-Israel programmes on Al-Manar or anti-nukes debates on Iranian TV? Gogol comes to mind: "Why pick on the mirror, if you don't like what you see?
Another reader comment:
'Aqoul is basically a site whose purpose is to prove that the people of the ME are lot like Americans and Brits, they just dress differently. That's bullshit. [Ahem, what?]
Regarding anti-Semitism in the official Arab media, MEMRI once ran an interview that Norman Finkelstein gave to a major Lebanese channel. I'm sorry, I forget exactly which one, but it was the big one, not the Hizbollah one. The interview was preceded by an introduction about the Holocaust that was, shall we say, awful neutral about whether the Holocaust had ever happened. Just asking some reasonable questions, you know. Mel Gibson's father would have approved.
Really wish Clive would turn on comments.
Posted by: eerie at October 20, 2006 05:04 PM
The replies rather prove the point.
Besides not showing terribly coherent logic; e.g. in re critiquing MEMRI neither I nor any of the balanced critics like Abu Aardvark, etc have said MEMRI only publishes marginal publications, rather we have opined that it overweights frankly marginal sources and certainly shows distinct bias.
The anti-Nukes or pro-Israel comment is simply, well confused. The writer either is retarded, or flailing about trying to avoid actually thinking about the actual criticism (which is not that MEMRI mischaracteises say Al Manar, but in the aggregate mischaracterises the body of Arabic language media, giving an impression that it is worse than it is (although I am of course forced to note for the sub-literate that critiqing MEMRI for distortion that is a disservice and tending to induce panic and bigotry is not the same as claiming the Arab media collectively is all sunshine and roses. Quite the contrary, but then here at Aqoul we've pointed out such things as idiotically bigotted mosque preaching, so I would think that readers with an ordinary level of basic literacy and reading comprehension would grasp, if only dimly, that it is possible to be critical of the region and of distorted attacks/critiques of the region.... Somewhat like being able to hold more than one thought in one's head.)
The straw-man response really is incoherent (as for the mirror, well, I access Arabic media directly so I don't need a fun-house mirror like MEMRI, although obviously there are people who seek out such, as evidenced by the commentators).
The second comment is equally bizarre, although as I note supra, it's in keeping with those
I have no idea what the anti-Semitism/Israeli item is on about, although someone unable to differentiate between al Manar and LBC doesn't exactly induce confidence as a rapporteur. Regardless, again, it seems there is sadly large number of individuals out there who are unable to rise about a comic-book level of understanding of situations, that is things are for them "All Bad" or "All Good" and seem to lack the intellectual probity to comprehend the ability to be simultaneously critical.
Well, Qixotic this all is. The reflexive MEMRI fan shall seek out his confirmation that the people of the Middle East are in fact blood drinking baby killers and terrorists all who leaven their falafels with the blood of Jews regardless of any sane or balanced input.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 20, 2006 10:19 PM
I have tried running comments before, but was overwhelmed by blowhards who made a point of not reading the posts properly. They seem to get some strange pleasure from that. If you look at Ann Althouse's Rachel Corrie post today,you can see how easy it is for noisy types to hijack the conversation. So in the meantime I'm just going to stick to quoting blogs like 'Aqoul to see if that works any better!
Posted by: Clive Davis at October 22, 2006 08:46 AM
Nah, mate, I agree with you.
Only reason we don't have the same problem is I am mean.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 22, 2006 08:56 AM
Here's Gullible Sullivan finding anti-semitism:
Sullivan: Virtually the entire conservative movement is now disowning this administration and this Congress. I welcome every single one. Here's the latest bunch of right-wingers urging a vote for the Democrats:
Buchanan: "Faced on Sept. 11, 2001 with a great challenge, President Bush made little effort to understand who had attacked us and why—thus ignoring the prerequisite for crafting an effective response. He seemingly did not want to find out, and he had staffed his national-security team with people who either did not want to know or were committed to a prefabricated answer.
As a consequence, he rushed America into a war against Iraq, a war we are now losing and cannot win, one that has done far more to strengthen Islamist terrorists than anything they could possibly have done for themselves. Bush's decision to seize Iraq will almost surely leave behind a broken state divided into warring ethnic enclaves, with hundreds of thousands killed and maimed and thousands more thirsting for revenge against the country that crossed the ocean to attack them. The invasion failed at every level: if securing Israel was part of the administration's calculation—as the record suggests it was for several of his top aides—the result is also clear: the strengthening of Iran’s hand in the Persian Gulf, with a reach up to Israel’s northern border, and the elimination of the most powerful Arab state that might stem Iranian regional hegemony.
The war will continue as long as Bush is in office, for no other reason than the feckless president can't face the embarrassment of admitting defeat. The chain of events is not complete: Bush, having learned little from his mistakes, may yet seek to embroil America in new wars against Iran and Syria.
Meanwhile, America's image in the world, its capacity to persuade others that its interests are common interests, is lower than it has been in memory."
Sullivan: Yes, there's the usual anti-Semitic undertow here. It's Buchanan's posse.
Where exactly? Suggesting USA did this in part to help Israel is anti-semitic?
Posted by: Klaus at November 6, 2006 08:00 AM