Differences in Syria Media Coverage Reflect Politics

Reading newspapers in English, French, German and Russian has become part of Professor of Sociology George Derlugyan’s routine as the crisis in Syria ...

Reading newspapers in English, French, German and Russian has become part of Professor of Sociology George Derlugyan’s routine as the crisis in Syria has come to dominate the front page of publications around the world.
Like Derlugyan, NYU Abu Dhabi assistant professor of political science Adam Ramey has been following both U.S. and Russian media coverage of the ongoing Syrian crisis. Ramey saw the need to read alternative news sources since the U.S. media coverage seemed affected by deep political divides and moral ideals.
“There is a media civil war [in the U.S. coverage],” said Ramey.
Western coverage of the Syrian crisis has recently been criticized by a range of spectators. Speaking from Beirut, CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta commented earlier this month that U.S. news sources have failed to report on the condition of Syrian refugees. At press time, data collected by the U.N. Human Rights Commission indicated that 752,120 Syrian refugees had fled to Lebanon, where the population is about 4.1 million.
Foreign editors of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post alluded to the difficulty of placing journalists in Damascus due to safety concerns and obstacles in cooperating with the Syrian government. Last month, The New York Times published the story of a U.S. American photographer who was kidnapped and held in Aleppo, Syria, for seven months by jihadi rebels.
According to Ramey, it was difficult to identify a focused pattern in the U.S. American media response. Comparing it with the response to the Iraq War, Ramey saw more diversity of views in the case of Syria, though President Bashar al-Assad was unanimously portrayed as the bad guy by media and legislators.
“The big news networks have certainly given airtime to those in favor of the rebels, and those in favor of a [UN] strike,” said Ramey.
Derlugyan, who is teaching social science analysis of global news this semester at NYUAD, similarly pointed to the U.S. media’s tendency to portray conflicts in oversimplified polarizations.
“[U.S.] coverage in general tends to be in terms of good and evil,” said Derlugyan. “Questions about the use of chemical weapons [lead to assertions that] Assad is just bad, presides over a criminal regime [and associated with] human rights violations.”
Derlugyan said that these media portrayals come from the U.S.’s strong moral traditions and self-identification as what he termed “a country of goodness.” News sources such as Fox News and CNN are privately-owned and aim to sell stories that appeal to the moral reader.
Senior Stephen Underwood similarly said that U.S. news sources, as private businesses trying to sell advertisements, can insulate the public from views counter to popular political beliefs.
“[Some U.S. news sources] are trying to essentially perpetuate confirmation bias … it’s a domestic political slant toward what they believe,” said Underwood.
The U.S. tendency to view rebels against Assad’s regime positively was exposed to weakness when rebels committed human rights violations, as reported in a piece by The New York Times earlier this month, “Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in the West.” Video footage of Syrian rebels brutally killing Syrian soldiers confused the divide between the good guys versus the bad guy narrative.
Both Ramey and Derlugyan also viewed that U.S. media perspective of conflicts in the Middle East are taken in terms of a domestic political divide.
“[Underlying this divide is] a huge groundswell among legislators and activists, [in both political camps], against [the United States] intervening in Syria and unhealed civil wounds since their most recent military involvements in the Middle East,” said Ramey.
Derlugyan looked at the question of international intervention in Syria through the differences between the U.S. and Russian perspectives. Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution to intervene in Syria in early 2012, and Russia has continued to maintain its position of non-intervention despite U.S. efforts.
Earlier this month, President of Russia Vladimir Putin wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times. Putin argued against a U.N. strike on Syria, citing that the call for international  intervention perpetuates the American perspective: “you’re either with us or against us.” Putin criticized the idea of “[U.S.] exceptionalism,” which drove the United States to such mistakes as intervention in Afghanistan and Libya.
Derlugyan cited historical tensions as a root of U.S. and Russian disagreements about international intervention in Syria. As a result of the Cold War, which ended in about 1991, Derlugyan said that U.S. media has also portrayed Putin in antagonizing terms.
Underwood almost did not read Putin’s opinion piece for The New York Times because he suspected it was ghost-written. Once Underwood had read the piece, however, he was surprised that Putin wrote about the U.S. and Russia alliance after WWII and deemphasized tensions caused by the Cold War.
“I think it was interesting for him to say [the United States and Russia] were allies 80 years ago,” said Underwood. “From a sense of nationalistic pride, [the opinion piece] was moderately offensive, especially as it was published in The New York Times.”
Senior Oleg Shenderyuk, however, was not surprised by Putin’s piece. Shenderyuk said that many Russians agree with Putin’s ideas about U.S. exceptionalism. According to Shenderyuk, the piece was domestically perceived as a move to help Putin assert political legitimacy for himself.
“It’s great P.R.” said Shenderyuk. “[Putin] didn’t say anything we didn’t already know.”
Shenderyuk followed Russian coverage of the Syrian crisis as a contributing writer for Terra America, which he described as a “Moscow-based political agenda web-portal.”
”If you look at different Russian newspapers, either pro-government, opposition or independent — not related to anyone — most of them are empathic with the government of Syria,” said Shenderyuk.
He said that Russian news sources tend to publish stories that empathize with Assad’s regime because it is generally viewed as a legitimate government. The rebels, on the other hand, are associated with terrorist groups and funded by international actors using the conflict as a proxy war against Iran, Shenderyuk said.
”The so-called revolution was perceived by Russians as not really a civil initiative but more of a foreign one,” said Shenderyuk.
Russia Today, which was recommended by Derlugyan as an insight into the Russian perspective, reported attacks on Christian villages sympathetic to the Assad regime. Derlugyan suggested that these events are not given equal attention by U.S. news sources because they represent interests unique to the Russian public.
Underwood, however, mentioned that contrary to his frequent portrayal as a bad guy in U.S. media, Assad has worked to protect minority Christian groups during the Syrian crisis. Within both pro-government groups and the opposition, there is a wide polarization with rebel forces that are pro-democratic as well as anti-democratic. Underwood did not rely on U.S. coverage alone, but also read BBC World News, Gulf News and Al Jazeera English.
Derlugyan recommended that to understand the spectrum of coverage on Syria, students should cross-check American National Public Radio, International Herald Tribune, The National, The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera English, and
“You can't just believe that truth is somewhere in the middle,” said Derlugyan. “Somebody is closer to the truth than others, but what are the specific political and cultural contexts from which the interpretations emerge?“
Joey Bui is news editor. Oliver Hugemark is a contributing writer. Email them at
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