The View From Here:Truth? What is that? [Archives:2003/696/Culture]

December 22 2003

By Jamil Abdul Karim*

I was recently at a Canadian-run English Language school here. The topic was the media.
A North Korean student said the media is deceptive. Especially CNN. A Yemeni gal said she prefers the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera News. Someone noted that CNN beats BBC. Then, finally, a question about newspapers.
“How do we know that what's in the Yemen Times is true?”
Ah, truth.
“Well,” I proudly assured everyone, “the Times is independent. So the government doesn't tell us what to say.” Yes sir, free as a bird, not like political organs or state-sponsored papers in Saudi or Oman or around the Arab world or, heck, across town.
I refer to the Yemen Observer, which you likely know as this country's other English paper, one that happens to be headed by a publisher who is the former secretary of Yemen's president. Not that we at the Yemen Times mind the competition.
Indeed, the Times, just 13-years-old, will soon be the only independent paper in Yemen with its own printing press on-site. But what can we say about the recently proposed law that's obviously been cooked up over too much qat?
If it goes through (and we're still fighting that it does not), this law would force all Yemen's media to forfeit some profits, to protect journalists harassed by officials for saying bad things. So, if you pay me, then when I slap you around, there's money's available for your legal defense. The logic is stunning. And Yemen's independent press, reliant on ads rather than free political handouts, becomes more vulnerable.
So my suggestion is that the Times now move into the TV news business. I'd call the network, Yemen's TV Times. For one, viewers won't have to read English. Those ESL students show that once folks here learn English, they just turn to TV anyway.
And the added beauty of this plan is that truth won't matter. That's because TV, in both the free and not-so-free world, is a funny little box that somehow blends fact and fiction into a very smooth froth. That's why Private Jessica Lynch became the Mona Lisa of the Iraq war after news reports of a daring rescue that never was.
Look at “Quiz Show,” a Robert Redford-directed movie, which, like Jessica's story, means it must be more accurate than real-life. The story follows a real professor on a real TV game-show in the 50s, who made a mint by lying and . . . I can't tell more. The important thing is the masses were entertained: both then and now.
Or take “Rules of Engagement.” It shows how an angry mob, with gun-totting grannies and a one-legged girl, storm the U.S. embassy here in Sana'a. Marines blow in to save the day, but have to slaughter 83 Yemeni. Written by a former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, the movie follows the commanding officer's court-martial. Stunned viewers learn the final fate of key characters during the show's endnotes.
The thing is, it never happened. The fictitious script was intended for an unknown Latin-American country, but the studio thought that might p-off 30 million American Latinos. So producers went to Morocco, where they created the worst Arab stereotype, and strangest set, in memory.
Typical was the tiny, hand-painted sign in a dirty Sana'a alley for the Taj Sheba Hotel. Strange thing. I was recently there with Yemen Times' publisher Walid al-Saqqaf, and the five-star hotel seemed swanky as ever. Interestingly, Walid mentioned that he saw the wild movie-portrayal of his homeland while in, of all places, Washington.
So, really, what is truth? This would be the motto of Yemen's TV Times. While others in TV-Land are stuck on fluffy half-truths, we'd report the hard lies. Like, “Little green men have landed in Qatar, and are moving towards the space needle in Dubai, from where they'll take over the world.”
Sure, diehard TV watchers will believe it and jump off of tall buildings. No problem. That's a great newsflash. Then a movie. With our shiny new printing press, the Times will still have a newspaper – hopefully – to set everything straight. And we'll still bury the Observer.

Jamil Abdul Karim comments on Arab and western issues. Email: [email protected]