The Coverage of Egypt and the Fundamental Deficiencies of News in the US

The coverage of Egypt shows an over-reliance on pundits and an under-reliance on actual experts.

Ok, so I am watching MTP via TiVo delay and was struck by the contents of the panel, which spent half their time talking about Egypt. The panel was made up of Chuck Todd of NBC News, Katty Kay of the BBC, Harold Ford, former US Rep and now chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Mike Murphy, GOP strategist.

Now, what’s wrong with that panel? None of them are qualified to discuss Egypt. As a result, we got a bunch of vacuous speculation (from Ford and Murphy in particular). At least Kay and Todd could report on goings on at the White House (although much of that was speculative as well).

Clearly, the panel was assembled with the SOTU in mind, which is fair enough, but given the dramatic and important events in Egypt, it seems to me that they needed to adjust their plans (as they otherwise did in other portions of the program). However, the notion that anyone can effectively opine on anything because, after all, politics is politics, is one of the problems with US mass media. Indeed, there is too much focus on talking to pundits and politicos and not enough of an attempt to talk to actual experts on these matters (indeed, on all matters).

This problem continued into my TiVo’d edition of Fox News Sunday. I was especially struck there by the simplistic dichotomy that Chris Wallace kept offering in questions about Egypt between maintenance of the Mubarak regime and allowing “Muslim extremists” to take over. It would be helpful to have as a guest (or even, multiple guests) on to talk about Egyptian politics, it’s various factions and what kind of power contenders might actually emerge from this situation.

These are the types of situations where finding political scientists who devote their careers to studying both Egypt and the region (as well as the dynamics of political change) would be a great idea. Instead, we get, for the most part, the same parade of pundits opining about subjects about which they know little.

Indeed, the closest thing that FNS had in terms of an “expert” was Brit Hume, because, as Chris Wallace said in tossing question Hume’s way, “You’ve seen a lot of these” (which meant, I guess, that Hume has been in the news business a long time and is, by extension, old, so has seen a lot of a lot of things). This hardly qualifies as informed, expert comment.

Another problem, in general, with the coverage is the focus on looting to the detriment (in terms of time given in the discussion) of the complex socio-political dynamics of the situation (which reinforces an observation a colleague of mine made concerning the general tenor of cable news coverage of the issue). These events are far more complicated than just mobs in the street, as dramatic as they may be. If real change is, in fact, coming, it will be driven by elite and middle class actors, not looters.

In short: US news does a generically poor job of covering international news to begin with, but the situation is exacerbated when a crisis hits. This problem is made even worse by the fact that they apparently cannot tell the difference between the punditocracy and actual subject experts (and this is true if the subject is Egypt or the deficit).

The best example of coverage that my tour of the TiVo has been Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN. Indeed, he noted a number of key issues about the situation in his intro that were lacking in both of the other shows mentioned. But then again, Zakaria has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard, so that may have something to do with it.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Media, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Did you watch This Week?

    I am not really a fan of Amanpour, but she actually went to Egypt and did a good part of the show from Cairo this morning.

  2. I have that one TiVo’d as well, but haven’t gotten to it as yet. She does have extensive experience in the field (and in that region), so I suppose it follows that of the network Sunday shows hers would be the most thorough on this subject.

  3. anjin-san says:

    > Chris Wallace kept offering in questions about Egypt between maintenance of the Mubarak regime and allowing “Muslim extremists” to take over. It would be helpful to have as a guest (or even, multiple guests) on to talk about Egyptian politics

    Depends on how you define “helpful”. Fox exists to frighten and indoctrinate, not to inform. My guess is Wallace is doing exactly what he is being paid to do.

  4. John Burgess says:

    I’ll point to another media deficiency, though it’s not exclusive to American media:

    There is simply no reporting coming out of Middle or Upper (i.e., southern) Egypt. So far, it’s only the Nile Delta (which geographically also contains Cairo.

    Now, the delta is where the majority of Egypt’s population lives, but fully one-third of Egyptians live in Upper Egypt and Middle Egypt. These are areas where Islamic radicalism thrives, in cities like Asyut which has seen sectarian conflict for well over 20 years and continuing until now.

    I’m supposing that the lack of reportage merely represents a lack of media presence. Those southern cities, even the ‘nice’ ones like Luxor, cannot meet the conveniences or comfort of Cairo and Alexandria.

    In sum, what we’re seeing reported out of Egypt is only 2/3 of the story. Not bad, but definitely lacking something…

  5. Brett says:

    I have been watching live streams from both Al Jazeera English and BBC World, and the difference from US coverage is so striking. Of course, unlike those networks, the ones in the US have been closing bureaus around the world and relying more and more on wire services to get their information. Not only is there a lack of competent guests, but there are also not enough “boots of the ground” from US networks – ie, journalists who have covered an area a long time and can provide competent coverage of events on the ground. US media outlets are normally so fixated on domestic news that they simply do not have the resources to engage in good coverage of international events. Or to put it more simply, people would rather see coverage of Sarah Palin’s tweets than invest in good international journalism.

    However, for what its worth, I find the coverage on publicly funded outlets (ie NPR and PBS) to be much more sophisticated in this regard, and I think highlights the need for continued funding of these organizations.

  6. ponce says:

    If you don’t limit your “news” sources to TV there is plenty of good stuff out there.

  7. André Kenji says:

    Fareed Zakaria show on CNN is aimed at CNN International audiences(Mostly, people that speaks English as a second language). Part of the problem is that there is a small market for hard news(In part because news is a niche).

    When Fox managed to get stellar ratings(Mostly by offering infotaiment) without having to spent money with these things like correspondents everyone wanted to do the same. That´s the problem. You don´t get 4 million people of ratings with good journalism.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Picking up on what Brett said:

    Al Jazeera, BBC and NPR are entirely or partly funded by governments.

    CNN, MCNBC and Fox are private.

    And who is reliable in a crisis? Private industry emphatically does not do everything better.

  9. reid says:

    Michael, CNN, Fox, etc. are much more profitable than BBC et al, so they are by definition doing better. There are no other measures than the bottom line.

  10. Tano says:

    “There are no other measures than the bottom line.”

    I sure hope, for your sake reid, that this is meant as sarcasm. It is hard to tell sometimes….

  11. anjin-san says:

    > There are no other measures than the bottom line.

    Of course. Because people certainly don’t need to be informed to function in the complex modern world.

  12. reid says:

    Tano, yes, sorry! The rightwing behavior utility function is horribly skewed towards profits with very little regard for anything else.

  13. reid says:

    Oh, and this is a good time to mention the movie Idiocracy, which is turning more and more into a documentary….

  14. Janis Gore says:

    My husband and I visited Cairo for two days at the end of a Holy Land pilgrimage that we and another sibling shared with my husband’s parents about ’96.

    I figure I can venture an opinion when I can drive from one end of the city to the other without crashing the car.

  15. Brett #2 says:

    There’s another “Brett” here? I may have to start posting with more of my name . . .

    Not only is there a lack of competent guests, but there are also not enough “boots of the ground” from US networks – ie, journalists who have covered an area a long time and can provide competent coverage of events on the ground.

    Part of this is certainly that most of the US papers have closed their international bureaus and folded back towards centering around domestic coverage, but I also believe it’s because there simply aren’t that many US reporters who can actually speak Arabic. It reminds me of the book People Like Us, from a Dutch reporter who actually could speak Arabic – being able to speak it opens up entire new worlds of investigation, particularly in a situation like this (where you are going to be interviewing a lot of non-english speaking people on the streets).

  16. Janis Gore says:

    That’s a good observation, Brett. I wonder how many opportunities there were 20-25 years ago to learn Arabic outside of oil companies, the military, or the state department.

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    Mike Huckabee had Dr. Michael Youssef on and it was very insightful. It was on the network of fear and indoctrination and he is not the kind of Ph.D. your looking for, but it was very insightful.

  18. not the kind of Ph.D. your looking for,

    And what kind would that be?

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    via wikipedia

    ***After the 9/11 attacks, in a now-legendary Newsweek cover essay, “Why They Hate Us,” Zakaria argued that Islamic extremism was not fundamentally rooted in Islam**** Yes

    ***Zakaria has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard.**** no doubt.

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***And what kind would that be?***just a playful summation, Dr. Taylor 🙂

  21. just a playful summation, Dr. Taylor 🙂

    I think I would have to go with “cryptic” and “non-responsive.”

  22. Janis Gore says:

    Missionaries, G.A.? That could be another route.

  23. george says:

    >If you don’t limit your “news” sources to TV there is plenty of good stuff out there.

    Yup, and I think the number of people who get their news primarily from TV is dropping quickly, especially among younger folks. This problem is taking care of itself.

  24. anjin-san says:

    G.A. – Not impressed by commentary from a minister who’s mission is to lead folks out of “the darkness” to the light of Christ, even if he was born in Egypt. Sorry, Egypt is a Muslim nation, and Youssef seems like a man with his own agenda.

    Please, get back to your indoctrination, you goofy Christian Soldier you 🙂 Thanks for helping prove my point.

  25. Janis Gore says:

    No,no,no. We were part of a tour. We rode buses. With police escorts and sirens blaring,

    Three weeks after we left a German bus in front of the museum was firebombed.

  26. sam says:

    Lighten up on GA. I consider him our correspondent reporting on Fox (“I’m a fan of Glenn Beck!”). Somebody’s gotta do it. And I can’t think of a somebody more qualified than GA.

  27. G.A.Phillips says:

    Geraldo Rivera, also had an insightful show on the matter. Same fear and indoctrination network. Good semi panel.

    Anjin gets first place in the the what was G.A. Poking about contest:) Well he was closest:)

    ***I think I would have to go with “cryptic” and “non-responsive.”*** 🙂

    My inability to understand what you consider to be proper education and or experience on any given subject is stage props for me to dig at what I perceived as to be a very dismissive attitude to anyone thought not to be the perfect fit and then some.

    I could be reading more into it then I should and then adding to much up I guess. Done that before……

    ***Missionaries, G.A.? That could be another route.***Not sure what you mean, send them to Fox news or OTB?

    One again I will try to slow down and be more clear, I am still learning how to convey thought in the written form you know, believe it or not…lol…

    Good thing is that I think I am starting to get my emotions under control…..

    yes I know, Excuses excuses…..

  28. Janis Gore says:

    I was just thinking of avenues to learning Arabic, G.A. Missionary work might be one.

  29. @GAP:

    When I asked what you meant by “not the kind of Ph.D. your looking for,” I asked “And what kind would that be?” you responded “just a playful summation” which struck me as cryptic (i.e., it was unclear to me what it meant) and “non-responsive” because it didn’t seem to me that you answered my question. Since you seemed to have something in mind, I was wondering what it was.

    Ends up, you were correct, the fellow you cited isn’t the kind of expert I am looking for, as it would appear from what I could find that his training is in theology (and Christian theology at that). If the topic under discussion was Christian theology, then he would fit the bill. However, what I was arguing for was not perfection, but rather people actual expert in the subject under discussion.

    If one is having tax problems, one wants to take to an accountant, not a dentist who has some general opinions on tax law. As such, if we are going to have conversations about Egyptian politics, all I was asking for was people who studied Egypt or the region or, at least, the dynamic of political violence and change.

    I am not sure why that should be considered dismissive, although I would be happy to further discuss it, if you like.

  30. Dr. Taylor, a little OT, but remember when I said the whole thing would be declared unconstitutional?

  31. @Charles: Yes, I remember and I called the opposite, so kudos.

    Regardless, I will be sincerely surprised if, at the end of the process, this is the outcome. But, we shall see.