When I was a boy in the 1970s, my father would spend hours sitting alongside his shortwave radio. He would turn the dial, tune-in to stations from the US and abroad, and listen to what we today would call "talk radio." Sometimes these programs were in Arabic, sometimes in English; more often than not, they upset him. I didn't understand the source of his agitation, though I had a vague notion that he was keeping up with the situation "back home" (as the senior members of my family called Palestine), and that things there weren't going well. What captured my childish imagination was not what came out of the radio but the object itself: I was transfixed by its shiny silver casing, its warmly glowing amber display, its multitude of knobs and switches.

Today, while communications technology still fascinates me (I'm likely to slip back into boyish delight and wonder when contemplating, say, a Blackberry Pearl or an iPhone), I'm a bit more interested in the contents of news and opinion about the Middle East than in their means of transmission. Now I not only understand but also share my father's past concern over events in this region--though, having been born near Los Angeles instead of Jerusalem and never having been forcibly displaced from my childhood home (unless I count the time my parents decided to move our family from Costa Mesa, CA to Grants Pass, OR), I see things somewhat differently from the way he did.

Still, now that I view the Middle East in close-up rather than long-shot, our perspectives are not as widely separated as they once were. I live within a two-minute walk of the gigantic, extensive, and graffiti-covered concrete structure that the Israelis call the Security Barrier and the Palestinians call the Separation (or Apartheid) Wall. I observe how events on the world stage can shape--and distort--the everyday lives of ordinary people. Most importantly, I witness the resilience and grace with which Bethlehemites confront their many and serious challenges.

And I watch the TV news.

Lately I've been following Condoleezza Rice's visit here, and Madonna's. I've also watched Tony Blair's first efforts to help revive the Palestinian economy--which, in Bethlehem at any rate, is moribund if not yet actually dead. The former prime minster's new job as the Quartet's Mideast liaison is at once appropriate and ironic, given the British government's long involvement and many missteps in Palestine--both of which are detailed in Tom Segev's highly informative and readable history, One Palestine, Complete. (For stories on Blair, the Quartet, and the planned November summit, look here and here; for one on the Palestinian economy, look here. Reports on economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza have recently been issued by the United Nations and the World Bank; for those commissioned by the latter, see 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

Watching the news on TV is, like so many aspects of life here, new to me. Back home--a phrase familiar from the past that carries new meaning in the present--I received my news not from the TV but from podcasts, the Web, and newspapers. Here, I've become a regular consumer of the BBC News and Al Jazeera English, the latter of which is approaching its first birthday. (For more information about Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English, see National Public Radio's On the Media and the documentary Control Room.) These two outlets might appear starkly different: the former venerable, the latter brand-new; the former staid, the latter edgy; the former quintessentially western, the latter just as thoroughly eastern. But in fact they're more alike than different; and what's most striking about comparing them is recognizing how dissimilar they can be from "mainstream" (especially network) American TV news, particularly in their coverage of the Middle East.

During a TV news broadcast in the US, when the heading "Middle East" appears onscreen there's a fairly good chance it will be followed by the word "Violence," or "Unrest," or "Conflict." The BBC News, in contrast, covers not only tensions in the region but also walking in the West Bank, preparing for Succot (a Jewish holiday), and Saudi women's lobbying for the right to drive. Likewise, Al Jazeera English features stories on an Egyptian workers' strike, the upcoming presidential elections in Lebanon, and an inquiry into a real-estate deal made by the Israeli prime minister.

Two caveats and an explanation are in order. First, while I did edit my high-school newspaper and graduate from college with degrees in both English and communications, I'm certainly not an authority in either broadcast communications or journalism. I'm writing from personal experience and observation, not from scholarly expertise. Second, I wouldn't claim that TV news in the US never covers non-violent aspects of life in the Middle East--though I would contend that such coverage is relatively rare. Third, I'm writing about this topic not because I've been watching too much TV news, but because a number of the people here have expressed to me their concerns about how their lives are (mis)represented in the US media. At issue is education: what we're learning about them, and what they're learning about us.

Speaking of the latter, I believe that in general Arabs and Israelis understand a great deal more about Americans than we do about them, and that all of us would be better off if our understanding were more mutual. That said, misconceptions do exist on their side as well as on ours. For instance, a substantial minority of Arabs (including one well-educated man with whom I spoke last week) believe that the September 11 attacks were caused not by Islamist radicals but by the US and Israeli governments; and, unfortunately, recent research indicates that such misinformation is not easily corrected.

While 9/11 conspiracy theories are among the most dramatic instances of the knowledge gap between the West and the Middle East, more subtle but equally pernicious misunderstandings might be generated or exacerbated by the broadcast media--even within the West. Consider, for instance, a story that the BBC News aired shortly after I arrived in Bethlehem. The piece focused on the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech, and as an American I found it startling. Following a report describing the Virginia governor's response to the massacre, the anchor addressed the questions apparently at the forefront of her (foreign) viewers' minds: why do Americans shoot one another with such alarming frequency, and how could such awful violence possibly occur at, of all unlikely places, a school?

I considered how alien US gun culture must be to the British, and how they would view the Virginia Tech tragedy--to say nothing of the one at Columbine. A few days later, I investigated the BBC News website and discovered an eye-opening question-and-answer session related to the Virginia Tech story that begins, "Why are shootings at educational institutions so common in the US?"

So common?

Caricatures of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as gun-toting cowboys, together with shoot-outs from countless American movies broadcast worldwide, sprang to mind. Suddenly I understood.

The Brits believe we're gun-crazy.

I wondered whether the Palestinians thought likewise. Surely these people--who, after all, have been known to shoot rifles into the air not in anger but in celebration--would understand the American affection for guns. The few I asked, however, were as baffled as the British by the events in Virginia and Columbine.

Food for thought, especially the next time you turn on the TV news and (again) see something on fire or being blown up in the Middle East.


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