Mis-Information on TV News

CBS Sunday Morning (a show I used to work on, and maybe the best news show on TV) ran a piece this morning in which CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward endeavored to explain the differences between Shia and Sunni.

The fact that the US has been embroiled in a series of wars in that region for the past 14 years makes this perhaps too little too late, but hey, better than nothing.

Or almost.

The 'report' was peppered with historical errors and vast over-simplifications. But, as this is Television, I suppose Ms. Ward and CBS News can be forgiven.

Yet they have had so much time to learn the history of the region and 'teach' (and this is no bad thing) some important facts to Americans, (who are dying in these lands for quite some time now).

We have been embroiled, one way or the other, in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf States, Syria and so on for more than a decade. Every night, pretty much the same people tune into the evening news (or the morning news) every day or night. Now, instead of thinking of the news as 'breaking news', but rather as a kind of national classroom, where knowledge is imparted and you build on yesterday's lesson (so to speak), then if (are you with me on this?) if say CBS News devoted 3 minutes a day to an ongoing 'lesson' on The Middle East for the past 14 years, that would have been 15,330 minutes devoted to educating Americans about The Middle East. That would equate to 255.5 classroom 'hours' on one subject. That would not only have given every viewer the equivalent of a PhD in Middle Eastern History, but made every viewer fluent in Arabic.

How much better we as a nation would be prepared to deal with what is coming.

In 1979, as a graduate student myself in Middle Eastern History, I needed money.

I signed up with a temp company - Career Blazers, to work as a typist at $5 an hour. They sent me to banks, law firms, insurance agencies and then, one day, to ABC News. I had never been in a TV newsroom (or any TV facility) before in my life. My job was to transcribe interviews, which I was happy to do.

On my third or fourth day at work, all hell broke loose.

People were running around, screaming and yelling. Phones were ringing. I turned to the person next to me.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"The Iranians just seized our embassy in Teheran."

I kept typing. This was not my problem.

At that moment, the Executive Producer for the show burst into the newsroom. He began giving out orders like General Patton. "You call the White House. You call the American Embassy. You call the Secretary of State." His finger pointed at me. "You, call the Islamic Center in Washington DC."

Well, $5 and hour is $5 an hour. So I took off the headphones and dialed up the Islamic Center. I thought this would be a good time to practice my Arabic.

"Salam Aleikum," I said. "Ana min al-Good Morning America..."

I never got past that.

The Executive Producer grabbed me by the scruff of my neck.

"You speak Arabic!" he said.

I nodded I did.

"Where did you learn?" he demanded.

It was one of those moments when you throw caution to the wind.

"When I lived in Iran," I said.

Now, they don't speak Arabic in Iran, they speak Farsi. But this was ABC News. What did they know?

"You lived in Iran?" he said, his eyes as wide as saucers.

I had been in Iran and I had been alive, so I said "yep".

"Get this guy a desk and a typewriter," (I already had both).

And that was how I got my first full time job as a 'middle east expert' at ABC News.

A few minutes later, we all trooped into a big conference room, where a Vice President of ABC News spent (I kid you not) a good five minutes looking for Iran on a world map.

Like I said, a bit of education tied to the 'news' would be no bad thing.