Terrorist! Tyrant! Time-out! Covering the Syrian Peace Talks in Geneva

As the Wall Street Journal frames the story, the fractious Syrian National Coalition, whose members oppose President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s unending civil war, arrived in Geneva like a bloodthirsty Eliza Doolittle—an uncouth rabble cleaned up and taught how to behave at table by a coterie of Western PR hacks.

Oddly, the Journal’s brief offers scant analysis of the mien of Assad’s delegation, which also has a fair amount of blood to wipe from its hands.

That blinkered perspective mirrors the angle of Elissar Moulla, a Syrian journalist in the employ of the Assad government. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Moulla unintentionally reveals the strains beneath the façade of legitimate authority that the regime in Damascus tries to project.

One of the commenters deftly taps that nail on the head: Are the factions represented by the SNC “’Humans’ or ‘Monsters’? Make up your mind Moulla!”

Indeed, taken as a whole, the comments at the end of the Al Jazeera interview provide a fuller catalogue of the vectors in the Syrian equation—ethnicity, sectarianism and alarmingly Ottoman-era-invoking maneuvers among a familiar array of Great Powers—than either AJ or the Journal seems interested in offering.

In a piecemeal way, the New York Times provides a much fuller perspective on the nearly hopeless matchmaking gambit in Geneva and the dismaying events on the ground in Syria. Its coverage of the peace talks dissects the coached polish of the SNC and compares it incisively to the uneasy puppet-show that Assad has dispatched from Damascus.

But even more revealing is a Times blog on the fruits of a Dutch reporter’s classic bit of journalistic legwork: a story about Yilmaz, an ethnically Turkish man—and a former soldier in the Royal Netherlands Army—who has infiltrated Syria to train, fight with and chronicle the lives of members of the Syrian opposition.

Though Yilmaz is no more reliable a narrator of events than Elissar Moulla, his ardor and earnestness make distortions easier to spot. (Foreign jihadists in Syria are willing both to kill others and to martyr themselves for their beliefs, but the folks back home needn’t worry about antisocial behavior if they make it back alive? A million U.S. vets with PTSD says that’s just naive.)

More importantly, Yilmaz’s narrative points toward a constellation of factors that are seldom analyzed in a synoptic way by mainstream news media. Most significant among them: the degree to which unresolved, large-scale social conflicts in places like Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan serve to radicalize religious groups and destabilize communities connected to those places via the various networks of the globalized world.

The Times comes close to pulling all these elements together in a coherent way, but causing the image to spring from the dots still requires more diligence—and clicking—than most consumers are willing to devote to a foray onto a news website. This means the Times and other outlets must develop strategies to present synoptic analyses of conflict that engage readers without demanding so much effort of them. Too much to ask? Not really: If you’re not showing how everything is connected, you’ve missed the point of all this talk about globalization. Better just to sell hotcakes (or iPhones) instead.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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