The first hint that something was wrong came from a friend’s Facebook post, sharing another friend’s status. The gist of the post was this: A splinter group had broken through the security blocks that prohibited web traffic, and they wanted to world to know that terrible things were happening and being hidden, covered up. “People in the West have no idea what is really going on in Syria.”
I read and re-read the post. I searched for other stories and found nothing. I waited for a couple of days for news to break, for something big. But nothing followed, and I soon forgot about it.
It was 2009.
In March 2011 I was reading a magazine while getting my hair done, which at the time meant cut and colored, which at the time meant spending two hours in the salon, most of it with my hair wrapped in pieces of foil so that I looked like a radio transmission device.
This is the picture I want you to keep in mind, of me – clueless, to-do-list-driven American – sitting in a hair-dryer chair, that oasis from life’s mundane preoccupations, hair wrapped Medusa-style in shiny silver foil, reading Vogue and drinking bottled water in the safety of a chic salon.
The story I read that day, titled “A Rose in the Desert,” was a profile of a smart, beautiful, elegant woman of Middle Eastern descent who had been born and raised in London, attended King’s College and achieved great success in the banking world. Like Queen Noor, I remember thinking, this smart, beautiful, elegant, well-educated, modern woman had married Arab-world royalty. Now, here on the glossy pages of Vogue was her story, complete with beautiful pictures of her beautiful family and her beautiful house and her plans to help children in her beautiful country, Syria.
I remember thinking how wonderful and how lucky. This woman represented a new era, a beacon of hope.
My hair color finished developing; the stylist cut and dried it; I left the salon. There was trouble at work. There was trouble at home. I had things to do.
During my next trip to the salon, where I sat in the same hair-dryer chair, sporting the same radio transmission appearance, reading current issues of the same magazine titles, one of the letters to the editor in Vogue caught my eye. It was a scathing criticism of Vogue‘s March issue profile of Asma al-Assad, the article I’d read in March. The letter, I learned later, was one of scores of angry reactions to the piece. In response, Vogue removed the article from its website.
I left the salon remembering what I’d read in 2009, starting to understand, finally, that there was trouble in Syria, and wondering how I’d missed it.
I am an early riser, which means I also turn in early, which means I’m almost never awake to watch late night TV, even if I were a TV watcher. So I watch snippets of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver on YouTube, where is where I found Oliver’s bit on the state of journalism. As a friend – a journalist – said: watch it and laugh, and then cry.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, the year after Vogue published the Assad profile, newspaper staffing was down 30% compared to the year 2000, the year Bashar al-Assad took office in Syria. Photographers were down by 43%. Replacing real journalists were the new brigade of “citizen journalists” (the real view of the world from the untrained “man on the street”) and writers willing to write for HuffPo and be paid only in the exposure of wide, online distribution.
In August 2012, after continued onslaught of criticism over the Vogue article (this review from The Times of Israel is a good summation) and after losing her job at Vogue, Joan Juliet Buck told her side of the story about her interview with Asma al-Assad in The New York Times. She confessed to recognizing signs that it was a PR set-up; she wrote the profile anyway, in order to keep her job. The job she then lost, as have so many, many other journalists, across the full spectrum from hard news to fashion.
By the time 2016 numbers are released, we’ll likely see that America’s newsrooms have, as Ken Doctor predicted, been cut in half since 1990. As Dale Maharidge put it:
…the tale of today’s discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes.
It is important to note that as the number of people trained as journalists has declined, the army of promotion-oriented content creators has increased. In 1990 the ratio of PR professionals to journalists was approximately 2:1. There were two people pushing a story for every one journalist investigating and writing it. In 2014 the ratio in the U.S. was 4.6:1 In 2010-11 President Assad and his wife paid $5,000 per month to a PR firm.
Last week, amid the thrilling pictures from of the Olympics, an image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy captured the world’s attention. The boy was pulled from the rubble of his home after his home in Aleppo was destroyed by a bomb. Most of the comments I read were of the same general theme: “How can this be happening?” “Why are we not doing something?” “This is a child! We have to stop this!”
Yes, we do have to do something. We have to start paying journalists to investigate what’s happening in the world and tell us, before it’s too late, again. And we must hope, because hope is all most of us have, that the good caretakers continue to take good care of Omran Daqneesh after the world has moved on to other things – which, unfortunately, it already has.
Food | Week of August 22, 2016