When the media obscures instead of clarifying

This is a pet peeve of mine, but in my opinion it’s a justifiable one.

Al-Monitor has a post today about the Iraqi Presidency; the current president is a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, but he’s term-limited and there’s a movement in Iraq’s  Sunni Arab community to see the current Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Usama al-Nujayfi, take the office. The various Kurdish parties can’t seem to agree on a single candidate to take the office, so there’s a decent (though probably not great) chance that Nujayfi could be elected. The Iraqi president is elected by the Council, and the office is largely ceremonial, but it has considerable symbolic value and having a Kurd occupy it was an important concession to the Kurdish community and helped to get them invested in building a national government after Saddam’s ouster. The Kurds now apparently believe that the office should be permanently Kurdish, along the lines of Lebanon’s government in which the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiʿi Muslim. But there’s nothing in the Iraqi constitution that says the president must be a Kurd, and so there’s a bit of a dust up brewing between Nujayfi’s supporters, who would like to see some presidential prestige coming to the Sunni Arab community, and the Kurds, who want to keep the office in their control.

What bugs me is that Al-Monitor falls into the lazy shorthand that most American media uses when referring to Iraq’s fractious ethnic and religious politics, and so we’re told that “Sunnis, Kurds vie for Iraqi presidency.” That would be fine, if “Sunni” and “Kurd” were two separate things, but one is a sect and the other is an ethnicity. Most Kurds (at least most Kurds who live outside Iran) are Sunni, including Talabani and most likely including whatever Kurdish candidate or candidates is/are ultimately floated for the presidency. It would be much more accurate to refer to Nujayri as an Arab, since that’s really what differentiates him from the Kurds and is the source of the dispute. Add “Sunni” to clarify that he’s not Shiʿi, but stop treating “Sunni” and “Kurd” as equivalent and opposing classifications.

I don’t mean to single out Al-Monitor, which is a site I read regularly and whose reporting I like quite a bit. This is a problem that has been endemic to American media since we invaded Iraq and unleashed all these decentralizing forces. I’m reasonably sure that if you combed through my archives here you’d find me slipping into the same inaccuracy, even though I try to be very conscious of this issue when I write about Iraq or Syria. And I get that the people who read Al-Monitor are probably knowledgeable enough to realize what “Sunni” means in an article like this, but not everyone is that knowledgeable, and the media should be helping to increase their knowledge rather than decrease it. Yet by conflating “Sunni” with “Sunni Arab,” that’s precisely what they’re doing. I realize that Iraq’s fractious politics are complicated, since one of the major fissures is sectarian and the other is ethnic, but if it’s a choice between accurate complexity and misleading oversimplification, I say choose the former every time.


One thought on “When the media obscures instead of clarifying

  1. Precision matters. You are surely correct that anyone paying attention would understand what sunni means in this context, but you have my whole hearted agreement that it would be nice…

    Your friend over at the 20committee blog has a charming discussion about this kind of issue, how galling it is to watch helplessly as non=experts go strutting around as if they knew what they were talking about.

    For what it’s worth, every single time that I read/see a report about some matter on which I have first hand knowlege I find that significant pieces have been garbled beyond recognition. Naturally this does not inspire confidence in reports that i can not check, which helps me to maintain my composure in the face of reports that the world is going down in flames… before long the bayesian priors get updated into a reasonable facsimile of the truth.

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