Melting the pot

Print edition : May 17, 2013

Police and members of the media stand in front of the home of Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, in Montgomery village, Maryland, on April 19. Photo: Joshua Roberts /REUTERS

Immigrants stand during a naturalisation ceremony to become U.S. citizens, at Boston College in Massachusetts on March 21. Photo: Brian Snyder /REUTERS

THE melting pot may have ceased to be an apposite, or politically proper, metaphor for the integration of diverse immigrant communities into the way of life and the value system of the United States of America. The identities and particularities of the various strands that make up this demographic arabesque were, it was felt somewhere along the way, not to be submerged in the process of assimilation into a uniform cosmopolitan Americanism; they must retain and celebrate their individual characteristics. But in the systemic responses to threats and crises—and that includes that of the mainstream news media—these differences become loaded and coded with ethnic and colour stereotypes, allusions and insinuations.

It is not as if the media establishment is not aware of this intrinsic prejudice. To be fair to it, to the extent that one can be fair to prejudice, it shifts gear into a stretch of self-introspection and self-chastisement after it has jumped the gun and jumped to (wrong) conclusions each time. But it somehow cannot seem to help this reflex action, as the media scramble after the Boston bombings again sharply reminds us. CNN, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, New York Post, all got it wrong at one time or the other of the unfolding story, on one count or the other; as did, more egregiously, the social media sites Reddit and Twitter. After the dust has settled on the hunt for the bombers, we are left pondering the media goof-ups: CNN’s baseless report of the arrest of a “dark-skinned male”; the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post’s Saudi suspect who turned out, instead, to be a victim of the bombing in the Boston hospital; again, New York Post’s front page photo featuring two young men with bags whom, the story suggested, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were searching for, but who turned out to be just two young men, a Moroccan high school student and his friend, with backpacks who had turned up to witness the Boston marathon; Reddit circulating the reckless hypothesis that a student of Brown University, Sunil Tripathi, who, to the imaginable concern of his family, had been missing for weeks, might be one of the suspects. Even those who goofed up must feel partially vindicated that their premise that there was an Islamic angle to the perpetrators of the crime turned out right, even if the skin colour kind of let them down.

It would seem that it was finally the FBI that did the honourable thing in the circumstances. Bedevilled by the media guesswork and hampered in its work by the parallel media hunt (including in large part the social media), the agency decided to release the pictures of the two real suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, which it must have been keeping close to its chest earlier on for strategic reasons. That finally put an end to the media game of fishing for suspects.

There were other misleads the media kept harping on like the robbery of a 7-Eleven store by the duo, when in fact it was by someone else, and the freewheeling analyses of its implications: this meant that the perpetrators were amateurs, were not funded by any organisation or terrorist group and were probably self-radicalised individuals acting on their own, and so on. Some parts of this interpretation may have turned out to be right, but (like the Islamic connection) only fortuitously, because they were, to begin with, based on false information. More serious was New York Post’s exclusive blunder that 12 people, not three, were killed in the blasts at the marathon.

Much of the media mess-up was, no doubt, because of the chase for exclusive titbits within the developing story, about which John Stuart, the popular host of the television show “The Daily Show”, expostulated in colourful language: “There was a very good reason why this was exclusive… it’s exclusive because it was completely f---ing wrong. That’s why it was exclusive.” There was also the occupational hazard of incremental coverage where, as Gideon Lichfield, the news editor of the digital news platform Quartz put it in his post-mortem of the Boston bombing coverage, “all media are now competing in the same giant area for ever-smaller crumbs”.

Demands of live 24x7 TV

The tendency to make much of the part one has managed to grab at the risk of losing sight of the whole has become an intrinsic feature of the new journalism propelled by the pace and demands of live 24x7 television and the even more instant social media. At a recent workshop on television news in Kerala, the editor of a regional language channel provided a fascinating instance of how this bit-by-bit or byte-by-byte approach becomes irresistible, even if not best, practice in television reporting. A public figure says something unsavoury about another public figure. Journalistic ethics and norms would dictate that the response of the person so spoken about be included by way of balance, fair-mindedness or right of reply. But that would be one combined story and not lend itself to being ratcheted up in degrees. Worse, if the subject of the calumny is approached and convincingly refutes or repudiates the slur sought to be pinned on him/her, the story begins and ends there. So the ploy, to stretch it out, is to put out the allegation in one bulletin, the rejoinder of the affected party in the next, and join issue, with them and/or both their supporters participating, in the third, and so on.

Such piecemeal, in the name of blow by blow, coverage of the Boston bombings kept leading us up the garden path time and again. In the absence of solid facts, prejudicial theories and psychological punditry took over. A strange constant across channels was the eat-drink-smoke-make merry litmus test. If the suspect was given to partying, smoking tobacco (or better, pot) and drinking alcohol, he was seen as more socially integrated into American society (says something about that society) and that much less likely to be radicalised or subscribe to a terrorism-prone creed—get it? The sweet, partying, wrestling, grass-smoking Dzokhar really had them flummoxed, and it took the dark religious hints of his Twitter posts for the theory to match the fact. In one hilarious psychoanalytic byte, which looked wise after the fact, there was this expert making meaning of the way the two suspects walk with their backpacks in the widely aired CCTV footage from the marathon site: the semi-casualness of the walk, was his conclusion, shows that they did it. In short, the fluff and the spin took up the bulk of the time and tended to reinforce, even if as a byproduct of the exercise, the religious profiling that goes with terrorism.

Some of the misinformation in the coverage of the Boston bombings may, as Murdoch professed in defence of the New York Post’s screw-up, have originated from the FBI, but reflects poorly on the media’s application of due process in terms of verification. One of Noam Chomsky’s five famous filters (that the mainstream media in the U.S. are subject to as they go about “manufacturing consent”) was unthinkingly at work here—dependence on government information. Once the authorities had shut down Boston and secured and sequestered the streets of Watertown which were the scene of the action, the media were by and large kept at bay and television switched to delayed telecast, unlike, one might add, in Mumbai in November 2008 when they had a run of the place and compromised the forensic investigation on the site of the crime, and when TV channels broadcast the evolving situation live, inviting the charge that they may have unwittingly aided the masterminds remote-controlling the attack. Real information on the Boston hunt for the suspects, after the initial scattershot coverage by the media, pretty much narrowed down to a flow regulated by the authorities.

The media discourse in the wake of the arrest of the surviving suspect suggests that these pressure cooker bombings are being categorised and dealt as home-grown terrorism by the brothers acting on their own, without links to organisations within or outside the U.S. But their ethnicity, Chechens from Russia, and religion, Islam, give a different edge to the nature of the violence perpetrated by them. As studies—including a recent one by Angie Chuang and Robin Roemer (“The Immigrant Muslim American at the Boundary of Insider and Outsider: Representations of Faisal Shahzad as ‘Homegrown’ Terrorist”, published in the Spring 2013 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly)—indicate, there are different yardsticks applied to mass violence of this nature depending on whether it is committed by Muslim or non-Muslim naturalised American citizens/native-born Americans.

The authors, in their cited work, take up the example of another “home-grown terrorist”, this time of Pakistani origin, Faisal Shahzad, and his (failed) attempt to detonate a bomb on Times Square in New York in May 2010. Much like Dzokhar in Boston, there was little that set him apart as a likely candidate for such a desperate act. It was the story of, as the headline in The New York Times put it, “A suburban Father who gave no warning signs”; in other words, of someone who had imbibed the values of the American suburban life—jogging, barbecuing and pursuing the American dream. And yet, retrospectively, the coverage of his story hinged on his Islamic roots and tended, as Chuang and Roemer describe it, “to tie motive to a trajectory from American to Muslim identity”.

No such religious or ethnic identity factor figured in the coverage of Adam Lanza shooting dead 20 children and six adults in the elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, last December. The discussions around that sordid deed were couched in medico-psychological terms. There was soul-searching and an attempt to understand why: Asperger syndrome, his being bullied when he was at school, and so on. It did of course set off a frenzied debate afresh about gun control, but the killer and his deed were a recognisably, and pathologically, American aberration (one in a series of such mass killings), not an attack on the American state or society by the “other”.

In another study (“Representations of Foreign versus (Asian) American Identity in a Mass-Shooting case: Newspaper coverage of the 2009 Binghamton Massacre”, published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly of Summer 2012), Angie Chuang deals with a mass homicide like the one in the Newton school. Jiverly Wong, a 41-year-old man of Vietnamese origin, went on a shooting spree in April 2009, killing 13 people including students and a teacher at the American Civic Association Immigration Centre in Binghamton, New York. He seems to have nurtured a complex about his poor English and a grouse against those who teased him about it. However, unlike Adam Lanza whose origin and ethnicity did not matter to the press, Wong’s Vietnamese identity was always kept in focus; he was, Angie Chuang points out, regularly referred to as a Vietnamese immigrant even though he was a naturalised U.S. citizen—another trail of ethnic name-calling that has persisted down to the present and is posed in terms of a “yellow peril”.

The American dream turning sour, religious fundamentalism, inability to succeed in a demandingly competitive society, and anger against official USA for its interventionism in different parts of the world do not seem to be recognised each for what it is, or are not seen as providing separate traction, as distinguishable motives for acts of violence when it comes to certain immigrant groups traditionally viewed with suspicion or are more recently under the scanner. For a nation with nearly 50 million (legal and illegal) immigrants of diverse ethnic origins and religious persuasions, the broad-brush approach cuts both ways. It integrates and it alienates. A particularistic understanding of what drives the various denominations to a sense of belonging or to one of rejection seems a prerequisite for the different immigrant communities to cohere into a bond of nationhood.

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