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A Syrian game of thrones: infotainment and New York Times’ spectacular coverage

The ‘catchiest’ New York Times’ articles about Syria since 2011, reveal an obsession with the spectacle, a failure in understanding the conflict itself but success in understanding the spectators of the conflict.

Image of the Barmah Research and Development Center in Damascus, Syria before an airstrike by forces from the United States, Great Britain and France on April 14, 2018. Satellite Image 2018 DigitalGlobe via USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. If infotainment, a portmanteau of information and entertainment, is indeed a twenty-first century phenomenon, then one must wonder whether the Syrian war’s world coverage, best championed by the New York Times, follows the rules of good reporting or good storytelling.

If the ascendency of Game of Thrones and other high-concept shows has informed us on anything about our televisual consumption habits, it is that the Netflix Generation loves the spectacle. Expensive. Fast-paced. Full of action. How could old people watch excruciatingly-slow silent movies? 

With our decreasing attention spans, it is no wonder that our entertainment needs leak over our news consumption. This need for sensationalism that is worth one’s time is problematic, especially with regards to Syria, whose conflict must be solved, contrary to television shows, in as few episodes as possible.

My findings, based on a reflective look into the ‘catchiest’ New York Times’ articles about Syria since 2011, reveal an obsession with the spectacle, with the incredible and the extraordinary, all traits true to the infotainment theory. I have ended up with four kinds of spectacles that the New York Times has, wittingly or not, tapped into in their coverage of Syria’s own theatre of war, whether it is the spectacle of plot-twisting alliances in the conflict, the thrilling debates it inspires, its elements of suspense and need for cliffhangers, and finally, its cathartic apocalyptic depictions. Is not the latest episode of Syria perfect before watching The Walking Dead or Westworld, our favorite post-apocalyptic shows?

Spectacle of politics and alliances

“Whom Is Fighting Whom in Syria” asked the New York Times in September 2015 in the headline of their piece. Besides applauding them for the wonderful chiasmus of the title, which, if Syria was indeed a coded novel, would be enthusiastically seen to equate whom with whom, and fighting with Syria, it is the presentation of the article’s content that catches the eye the most. Similar to the way that the first minute of a television show is often dedicated to reminding viewers of previous highlights, the New York Times reserves one block for each country involved in the conflict (United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, etc.), with three identical labels underneath each country’s name; Backs: x, Opposes: y, How It Is Fighting: z.

It is interesting to see the omission of a final label, Why It Is Fighting

Thus, the article becomes an attempt to sketch out the various superpowers involved in the conflict, and it is interesting to see the omission of a final label, Why It Is Fighting. An extra note about the diverging interests around Syria, which can logically be deemed as driving forces of the conflict, is cut out. Perhaps not intentionally, but at least conveniently to also add paragraphs about other countries less involved in the conflict, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, and the United Kingdom.

The emphasis in the article becomes precisely this obsession with producing an exciting trailer of some kind, which, because there is only so much it can portray of the full picture, restricts itself to introducing the audience to as many colorful characters as possible, rather than explaining why these characters are at odds. Number becomes important here, with the age-old rule of ‘the more, the merrier’ perfectly applying.

Also, what is up with calling the Syrian President “Mr. Assad” nine times in the article? Perhaps a title next to his name adds something to his characterization in the story. Too bad he is not a Count or a Lord.

Spectacle of debate 

Besides depicting Syria as a battleground for all the lords of our ring, the New York Times has successfully caught their readers’ attention by focusing a significant amount of their coverage on the moral crisis and need for intervention that the conflict must inspire in them.

These articles, judging from my collection, can be piled into two categories: indirect incitement based on what external parties are saying, with articles titled “Syria Is Using Chemical Weapons Again, Rescue Workers Say,” “U.N. Finds ‘Deliberate’ Destruction of Hospitals in Syria,” “51 U.S. Diplomats Urge Strikes Against Assad in Syria” or direct incitement based on what the media itself seems to be saying, with articles titled “Is an Attack on Syria Justified? – Room for Debate,” “5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now” or straight-to-the-point one “Bomb Syria, Even If It’s Illegal.”

Though the former category’s conservative headline could be regarded as more dangerous than the latter’s zeal precisely because of its suspicious conservatism (since the most dangerous propaganda is the one that does not seem like propaganda), my emphasis in this article about spectacle guides my reflection toward the titles directly inciting us to act. Indeed, “Is an Attack on Syria Justified? – Room for Debate” is interesting because it appears to be a forum for debate, which assesses both the pros and cons of intervening.

Yet the wording of the question, which is not a neutral “Is an Attack on Syria Justified or Unjustified?” somehow answers the question itself, with the standalone word “Justified” standing out the most in the title. It is no surprise that the one-sided debate morphed in the next article with the title “5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria,” which could be perfectly read along with other articles like “Five Reasons to Love Personal Progress,” “Five Reasons to Avoid Going Gluten-Free” or “Five Reasons To Wash Hands” – these are suggestions Google has given me to complete a “Five Reason To” phrase.

Exaggerations aside, one cannot dismiss the use of a “Five Reason To” format that the New York Times has chosen to use to discuss an intervention in Syria that would cause wreckage and collateral damage. It is not used to echo the similarly-worded titles mentioned previously but it does not either distance itself from them. For readership numbers’ sake, the New York Times would rather blend into your timeline and slide smoothly down regardless of your knowledge or impression of Syria. The last thing the media wants you to do is to mark its would-be disturbing “Why Don’t You Care About Syria?” titles as spam, forever lost in the merciless mechanisms of Facebook’s algorithms.

Spectacle of suspense 

The sensational titles and articles I have explored all feed from our desire with memorable catchphrases (bomb Syria!) and interesting plotlines (Saudi Arabia and Israel versus Iran? The enemy of my enemy is your friend?) but it is truly the suspense linking all their articles that create a much bigger impact to their readers.

Evidently, the multiple alliances in the conflict and their diverging interests leave room for perhaps television fans’ favorite hobby after an episode’s cliffhanger – speculation. Indeed, from titles such as “CIA Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Rebels”to “In Shift, Saudis Are Said to Arm Rebels in Syria” one can notice the use of the word said, used usually for hearsay and gossip tabloids. Its use in a context of conflict becomes evidently more dangerous, especially since a giant media outlet like the New York Times has the means to either find confirmation for their claims or reject them altogether. But their choice to cover them nevertheless could be less about their brave attempt to blow the whistle on the subject matter and perhaps more embedded in the exciting nature of the uncertain.

What the New York Times here does successfully is not understanding the conflict itself but understanding the spectators of the conflict

CIA agents with silencers in their suits deployed to Syria? Of course this is exciting. What the New York Times here does successfully is not understanding the conflict itself but understanding the spectators of the conflict, tapping into our own fetishes and fantasies, our own history of our imagination of covert missions so often used in the Cold War, and the Hollywood movies about the Cold War.

Cold war references are not the only tools used to strike our imagination as readers that remember history. Articles such as “Syrian Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War” or “U.N. Links North Korea to Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program” tap even quicker into our collective imaginary, now zealously revisiting a post-9/11 climate and hearing once again another reckless US president drawing for us the axis of evil, sailing from North Korea to Iran and now Syria.

It is these past sensational imagery and speeches that the New York Times, willingly or unwittingly, taps into when it restricts its coverage of Syria to its broader, more spectacular context and the connotations that such a context leaves upon us, consciously or not. One would argue that it is important for the New York Times to cover such ‘coincidentally’ sensational aspects of the conflict.

Are the CIA really in Syria? Is Al Qaeda Still Present? Of course, but there is something to say about the choices that the New York Times makes in its limited possible coverage time of Syria. When it merely dwells upon the spectacular side of such covert activities, rather than condemning them all together, one begins to wonder whether the New York Times becomes excited in the discovery of who is inflicting harm rather than becoming appalled by the harm itself.

We are once again dictated by the laws of television shows and their suspenseful cliffhangers. Suppose the episode ends with a crime. If the victim is a secondary character or an extra, will you even think twice about them? No, because finding out the murderer’s identity is more exciting – so exciting that you will engage your friends on Twitter about it, and get more and more people excited to watch the show… or read the news.

Spectacle of apocalypse 

Plot-twisting rivalries, tough dilemmas, suspenseful plotline… all necessary ingredients for an exciting show. The one missing ingredient, though, is perhaps a classic ingredient – classic in the sense of the true classics, the Ancient Greeks. The true delight of Oedipus Rex, for example, is the sight of Oedipus rushing to his own demise in his search for King Laos’ murderer – the audience knows in advance that he is himself the murderer. It is this unfolding of an impending tragedy, looming apocalypse, that we have been obsessed to find in every story we read or watch.

The stakes must be high or else why bother? A whole kingdom or passionate love affair must be at risk. We need to be at once taught to love our characters and hate to lose them, love how bad events are unfolding and hate if no happy ending magically rises in the end, preferably at the last rolling minute.

We definitely see this key ingredient of successful storytelling in the coverage of Syria by the New York Times. Article titles such as “Syria’s Crumbling Pluralism” in 2012 or “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart” in 2016 both link this idea of apocalypse with a reader’s existing idea of tragedy with regards to the Middle East as a whole: New York Times’ articles contribute to an association between our imaginary of the Middle East from other conflicts with the special case of Syria.

The change of what Syria means to us is driven by the exciting plotline we have been spoon-fed since 2011

This idea of a region doomed to an apocalyptic fate is best exemplified in one of the most dramatic New York Times’ titles: “Syria Is Iraq.” We are back to the famous chiasmus, but what this does here is not only equate Syria’s condition in the second decade of the twenty-first century with Iraq’s state in its first decade, but the headline also draws its power from all the connotations associated with Iraq: destruction, mayhem, apocalypse. Interestingly, this article is dated from 2012, before the explosion of the conflict. How to deem current affairs? By this point, you know who can word things best. I leave you with a final one from 2018. “For 8 Days, Syria Felt More Like World War III.”

Syria. This word, which a decade ago, at most connoted delicious food, now has a different meaning. Complicated. Devastating. Apocalyptic. The change of what Syria means to us is driven by the exciting plotline we have been spoon-fed since 2011, a plot about festive and beloved emperors eyeing that coveted province, a plot about the use of a hidden arsenal to change the turn of events, a plot about secrets and mysterious agents crossing borders, a plot about apocalypse. But what the plot is not, and cannot be about, is dead people. Because dead people cannot act. Because dead people cannot speak. Who else will be moving on our screens? Who else has to take action? Definitely not us. We are spectators after all.

This article was first published by Salon Syria on May 18, 2018. 

About the author

Rayyan Dabbous is the Lebanese author of Bad Men (Arab Scientific Publishers) and writer-director of Up For Grabs America (Medicine Show Theatre). His research at New York University focuses on human rights, media and globalization. He is the founder of Boumerang Foundation.


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