Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on October 6, 2016 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) speaking during an interview with Denmark’s TV2 channel. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Taking Dictation From a Dictator

Tablet Annotates the News: How Syria’s Assad played the U.S. media

Tony Badran
November 11, 2016
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on October 6, 2016 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) speaking during an interview with Denmark's TV2 channel. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, through his father-in-law’s organization in Britain, invited a number of correspondents for American media outlets—including The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The New Yorker and NPR—to attend a conference in Damascus, where they could meet with the great man and his aides. The regime was looking, in the words of The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, “to argue their case.”

In fact, the regime’s “case,” however warped, was looking to do more than just to validate “its side of the story.” Its “case”—however obscene—has been unchanged since the first days of the uprising. Rather, the purpose of the conference and the meetings that followed was to normalize the idea of Western engagement with Syria’s blood-stained dictatorship. The dispatches generated by the regime’s attempt at normalization in the L.A. Times, NPR and the Financial Times faithfully fulfilled their journalistic mission by clothing the Assad regime’s talking points—chiefly the importance of paring down or eliminating sanctions against the regime—in the form of human-interest stories, which regime spokespeople and activists then repeated and retweeted.

While all the outlets were invited to listen to Assad lecture, only two chose to use their platforms to host the dictator’s personal recitation of his talking points as though it was some kind of exclusive or “scoop”: The New Yorker, which ran Filkins’ piece, which was more or less straight-up transcription. And Anne Barnard’s much longer piece, serial iterations of which have appeared in The New York Times. I have annotated one version of the Barnard piece in the link below.

These stenographic exercises, in which hand-picked reporters are invited to take dictation from the dictator, are a genre familiar to readers of Arab newspapers, although perhaps less so to American readers. Since dozens of such pieces have been written, the idea that the content of any of them might count as “scoops” or even “news” is laughable. In fact, they are all pretty much the same: The pieces repeat stock lines about the dictator’s “confidence.” About his English. About his geekiness. By now, none of these tired “points of interest” is the least bit original to its author. All play into an image Assad has deliberately cultivated since coming to power.

Some reporters, looking to save a little face, try to “challenge” the dictator with “tough questions” about his oppression—which is hardly news to Assad or to anyone else in Syria. Having fully anticipated such obvious questions, and having answered them dozens of times before, the dictator brushes them off quickly, and then dictation resumes.

Sitting down at their laptops, reporters justify their role in this farce by claiming that they have bravely “exposed” Assad as a ruler “disconnected from reality,” a discovery that in turn is supposed to be “chilling”—as though five years of mass murder and gassing children hasn’t already relayed the essence of who this man is in far more graphic and disturbing detail than any of the journalistic interlocutors in his palace can muster. Some reporters gratuitously volunteer flattering or humanizing comments, or even engage with his warped logic, as though weighing both sides of a complicated case. The result is invariably nauseating.

For Assad, what matters is that members of the mainstream American media came to Damascus and served as stage props for his cameras, and agreed to give him free access to their platforms at home.

To read a detailed annotation of the Barnard piece, click here.


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Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.