Story on Tiny Country A Giant Failure

60 Minutes whiffs on recent story about Qatar

A recent 60 Minutes segment on the nation of Qatar was the most imprecise piece of journalism I can remember in the more than 20 years I’ve been watching the show.

Bob Simon, who was assigned to the story, couldn’t even pronounce the name of the country correctly. When pronounced ka-taar, the word is close to the Modern Standard Arabic noun for “train,” and also nears the colloquial word for “guitar.” The name of the country that Simon was supposedly reporting useful information on is pronounced “cutter,” with a British enunciation of the t’s and a rolled r, not like “rudder.” Simon mispronounced the country at least 11 times during the segment. Many online commenters addressed Simon’s mispronunciation of Qatar, and CBS addressed the failure online with a potato/po-totto dismissal. “[S]ome of us have been pronouncing it ‘kuh-TAR,’” 60 Minutes noted, while “others have said something closer to ‘cutter.’” In this case, “others” refers to those who bother to correctly pronounce the country’s name.

A sizeable portion of the Qatar story focused on Al Jazeera, the nation’s news powerhouse, and Simon introduced the network in a way that is both false and deeply insulting to journalists in Arab countries. “It’s called Al Jazeera,” he said, “and it does something unprecedented in the Arab world. It covers the news.” While Simon was on his posh junket in sunny Qatar, Arab journalists were risking life and limb in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. I hope they’re spared Simon’s ignorant potshot. Reporters at The Daily News Egypt, the Al Ghad newspaper in Jordan, and news organizations in Kuwait are also doing courageous journalism at great personal risk, to name just a few.

More than once, Simon suggests Al Jazeera caused the Arab uprisings, calling it “the engine of the Arab spring.” The engine. I thought it was Twitter. No? Facebook? Thomas Jefferson? I was in the Middle East during the early weeks and months of the Arab spring. To flatly claim there was a single, technological cause for the Arab awakening is at best not testable, at worst a bald fabrication. Simon repeated his conclusion that Al Jazeera caused Arab regime change to Qatar’s ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who was skeptical. Al Jazeera “got [Arab dictators] overthrown,” Simon said. “I’m not sure if Al Jazeera was behind this,” the emir said.

“There have been no protests, no calls for democracy” in Qatar, Simon reported. This is half true. No, Qatar hasn’t been rocked by protests as have some other Arab states. But it’s inaccurate to suggest that all Qataris are satisfied with life in their small country, and that no bloggers, activists, or women’s rights advocates are calling for more political legitimacy. When discussing media and politics with the emir, an unelected dictator, Simon didn’t bother to ask him about laws that criminalize political dissent. Criticizing the emir or any of his divinely special relatives is a ticket to prison.

Simon, who has covered the Middle East for decades, must have known that Al Jazeera is forbidden to challenge the dictator who sat perched before him. Al Jazeera is known for its tough coverage of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but gives its own government either fairy tale coverage or little at all. The Qatari press is permitted to challenge the legitimacy of any dictatorship but its own. There is a “[g]laring…gap between the courageous tone of Al Jazeera journalists on international news and the restraint, even self-censorship, shown by the channel’s journalists and those of other national media in relation to Qatari issues,” argues Reporters Without Borders.

The network is not, then, fully independent, as Simon announced in his report. “This was the first and the only network in the Arab world that was independent,” he said. “Everyone else was just doing what their government told them to do.”

The goal of creating a 13-minute segment on a small country for a general-interest audience is a good one; a 60 Minutes story on Qatar wasn’t necessarily doomed from the beginning. No one is saying the story has to be as detailed as Wendell Steavenson’s letters from Cairo in The New Yorker.

Still, brevity is no excuse for lack of nuance. Simon’s 60 Minutes bio calls him “the most honored journalist in international reporting,” and whether this is true or not, he can do better. The 60 Minutes story on Qatar could have fulfilled its purpose without neglecting Al Jazeera’s emir-imposed limitations, insulting Arab journalists, and mispronouncing the country of interest. There’s so much imprecise Western reporting on the Middle East; it’s important for places like 60 Minutes to hold themselves to a higher standard.

What the world has in Qatar is a classic rentier state in which a populace accepts certain setbacks (political stagnation, speech limitations, and tardiness of women’s rights) for the payoffs of the state’s sale of natural wealth: free education, guaranteed employment, little or no taxes, and state-funded health care. Journalistic exploration of Qatar should introduce it as the latest country in the rentier model, spending at least as much time dissecting the system’s perils as toasting its bling.

Some of the blame for the failures of this story belongs to 60 Minutes producer Harry Radliffe, who put the story together. Still, Bob Simon is a grown man who decides whether or not to speak on camera. When Radliffe showed him the crackpot script, Simon should have said, “Are you kidding? I’m not reading this shit.”

I once heard someone float a possible book title for a tome on American foreign policy in the Middle East: Bumbling White Men in the Sand. That title fits the 60 Minutes story well.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,