What The Shoe Throwing "Hero" Tells Us About Our Own Media
I’m a little confused. Earlier this week an Iraqi journalist did what most American journalists wish they could do. At a press conference in Baghdad the reporter, Muntazer al-Zaidi of the Cairo-based Al-Baghdadia, first hurled insults, then threw his shoes at president Bush. The American news media immediately canonized the fellow and reported that he was a hero in the Arab world and a spokesman for the Arab street.
Imagine that. By throwing his shoes, this one man becomes the voice for the entire Arab world. Meanwhile, according to the French equivalent of our Associated Press, AFP, the other reporters at the press conference apologized to President Bush for their colleague’s behavior. But they are not the voices of the Arab world.
This becomes especially confusing because immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when television cameras captured countless Arabs dancing in the streets, celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center and the devastation at the Pentagon, this same mainstream media mob made a special effort to inform us that we should not draw inferences about the entire Muslim world from the public displays we saw on our television screens.
One man throwing shoes speaks for the entire Arab world, yet tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or more, are not representative of the Arab world.
How does the mainstream media draw these distinctions? How can it be that reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi is anointed as a hero of the people for throwing shoes?
The difference is that Muntazer al-Zaidi’s behavior conformed to the narrative preferred by the media. For flinging his footwear, Muntazer al-Zaidi was adopted to serve as the media’s sock puppet, expressing the opinions they are professionally forbidden to utter. The reporters who apologized were not conforming to the narrative and their politeness was not deemed reflective of the “Arab street.”
Sock puppets perform an essential role in slanting the news we read and hear. How often have you watched a news program on television and heard testimonies from ‘ordinary people” whose experiences and opinions lend support to the reporter’s account? Do you really believe that those were the only people interviewed for the piece? It’s likely that dozens of people were interviewed and only those people whose testimonies gave the greatest weight to the reporter’s account were shown.
A few years ago, there was the embarrassing revelation of Greg Packer, an ordinary man-on-the-street who showed up everywhere. An editor for the Associated Press noticed that one man was recurring as a “randomly” selected man-on-the-street. In fact, AP editor Kristin Gazlay found that Greg Packer of Huntington, New York had been randomly chosen to give testimony on dozens of occasions. His popularity among the media apparently derived from his instinct for predicting precisely what the reporter wanted to hear. His nose for mainstream conventional wisdom was flawless and his testimonies conformed perfectly to the narrative. And so his usefulness made his selection as a good interview not quite random. His career as an ordinary man-on-the-street ended in 2003 when Ms. Gazlay directed that he was not to be quoted in the future.
Sock puppetry is not restricted to the media. Politicians frequently use dead icons to give greater weight to their own opinions. Expect to hear Democrats ventriloquizing Franklin Roosevelt as they push a massive expansion of government to address the nation’s financial difficulties. John Kennedy and Harry Truman are frequently exploited as sock puppets for both Republicans and Democrats. Even Jesus Christ finds himself speaking out on issues he apparently neglected to cover during his ministry on Earth. A few years ago, environmentalists borrowed the phrase “What would Jesus do?” They corrupted it to read, “What would Jesus drive?” As though Christ would concern himself with matters as inconsequential as fuel economy.
And so, it’s hardly surprising that our mainstream media would adopt as their sock puppet a journalist who shouts, “It is the farewell kiss, you dog,” at our president before throwing his shoes at him. The soles of shoes are somehow the ultimate insult in the Arab world.
But if such an act as throwing a shoe at a head of state elevates its perpetrator to heroic status, it says much about the intellectual poverty and the spiritual coarseness of the culture that celebrates it, whether it be the Arab street or the mainstream media.
Condi Rice had a bit to say about this too.