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Q&A: Maria Armoudian, Author of 'Kill the Messenger: The Media's Role in the Fate of the World'

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Maria Armoudian is a journalist, educator, and a consultant for Mayor Villaraigosa and other civic commissions. She hosts The Insighters and Scholars' Circle Sundays at noon on KPFK.

Her new book, Kill the Messenger examines the recent history of the media's role and influence on cultural and political conflicts from the Holocaust, to the Rwandan genocide to WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring. It's a five-part book illustrating the influence of media on society and the human condition under varying cultural and political climates. Media can make a big difference, the book resolves, from fomenting mass rage and genocide upon a wave of propaganda in Rwanda to creating and enabling a bridge to conflict resolution with the help of international NGOs in neighboring Burundi.

AS: Is there a primary theme in Kill the Messenger that alludes to a particular pattern that drives media toward influencing the public for better or worse?

MA: The overarching theme is that media can be used for good and bad... in the cases where you have this awful combination of extremists controlling the media and ethical journalism being silenced or diminished, you can have some really dire consequences.

In the worst case scenarios, when ethical responsible journalism is largely silenced and you end up with this hegemonic message that is of an ideological, specifically extremist nature, you can end up with genocide -- Rwanda, the Holocaust, and what we saw in Bosnia. Of course it's not just the media you have to have all these other circumstances into play... but if you look across history what you find is a lot of these conflicts start when extremists take the microphone.

On the other side, we saw some transformations in the Middle East that happened really fast this year. It looked like they happened fast but they'd been brewing for years. I argue that mass media and journalism have been bringing about political transformation for decades. We saw South Africa go from being an Apartheid state to a multiracial democracy. That wouldn't have happened if we didn't have diligent, relentless journalism and journalists looking deeply at these issues and uncovering the abuses and showing the inequities that were occurring in South Africa.

Taiwan and Mexico happened at the same time -- two single-party authoritarian rules fell [Mexico's PRI and Taiwan's KMT in 2000]. And it took decades. And a lot of trouble by a handful of small journalists -- it wasn't the mainstream establishment -- that showed people how the system was inadequate and not just or fair.

The ways people silence journalism range from killing them and torturing them to limiting access to not employing journalists with something important to say. There are also financial constraints, with the internet and the way some information is freely dissemminated -- in some cases inaccurately.

Mexican Army seen through the bullet-riddled windshield of a truck in Apatzingan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on December 12, 2010, a product of an apparent confrontation between Federal Police and a a cartel. | ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

We've seen journalists barricaded at the mercy of two sides of a conflict as recently as last week in Tripoli's Rixos Hotel. The barring of journalists and struggle for media access and protection or been barred completely in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria is also well documented.

One place we're not talking about where journalists are being killed and persecuted is in Mexico. It's as if there's a complete shadow over what's going on in Mexico, with the drug lords and drug cartels having turned into organized criminals. The number of people that are being killed in Juarez for example is a huge number. And we're not able to understand what's going on because journalists are not able to get to this in a meaningful way and explain it. And even if they're able to explain a piece of it before they get whacked, how do you do enough research and investigation to figure out the dynamic between the U.S. and Mexico and how these things are connected and report it in a meaningful way considering the circumstances.

How can citizens of areas in conflict be empowered to tell their own stories and publicize key issues?

It's been assisted by technology. What we saw in the Middle East with the uprisings, we saw Facebook executives actively working to circumvent the attempted silencing by the [Mubarak] regime. We saw a Google executive coming up with new methodologies whenever they would shut down private communications. So it's been this effort to aid people. In other cases it's been very secret. This Burmese activist was given the tools to upload video of what was going on there and that turned into the movie Burma VJ.

It takes a little strategizing and a lot of courage and a little help from other people who are interested in the well being of those people.

Protestors gather outside Portculis house as the Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence in London, on July 19, 2011, on the phone-hacking scandal. CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images

What does the News Corp scandal, Wikileaks, and other examples of the dichotomy between corporate and public media tell us about the direction of the future of news?

Hacking is kind of the window into what news corporations have done more than -- it's just one aspect of the damage we've seen as the result of News Corp. But the true damage is to the institution of journalism itself. One of the things about Murdoch is that he loves gossip, according to his biographer [Michael Wolff].

Even though Murdoch's News Corp. has acknowledged the existence of climate change on its own website and even though News Corp is probably the most aggressive media companys in terms of reducing their emissions -- they promised to get it to zero by 2010 -- that's enormous! But at the same time most of what they put on their airways has been mostly silliness in terms of the climate issue. They have not aired the true experts nearly as much as they've interviewed others who are not climate scientists. There was "Climategate" -- the emails of climate scientists were hacked into and [Fox News] made it sound like they were trying to fake climate science and pretend something was going on using a "statistical trick." But it was completely out of context. Even when the scientists were trying to say what was going on they would say look these scientists are impostors or they're scandalous. They seized on this and it made the public start to doubt the veracity of the science itself. It's really a damaging approach first to the scientific institution and what's worse is that this "scandal" framing got into the elite papers -- even the New York Times referred to Climategate as a scandal. But there was no scandal -- the scientists were investigated by various agencies and found to have done nothing wrong. But they'd already been smeared.

Do you think the nature of equal time and he said/she said style reporting is part of the problem?

It's one of the ways we've been trained as journalists -- to air two sides of an issue. But if we air them as if they're equal, when they're not equal it creates a different kind of perspective. So in terms of climate change -- it really hasn't been a debate among research institutions and there hasn't been in a long time about the realities about what's happening with the planet and the realities of what the problem is. What is true about the scientists is that they are trained in a way to be open to skepticism and hear criticism and to be circumspect about how they report. So they don't talk in absolute certainties, they talk in probabilities. Well that fed right into the fossil fuel industry which didn't want to see any kind of policy that might hurt their industry or force them to do things differently like address the issues of climate.

So they had former climate scientists on their staff and other people with good scientific credentials who were not doing climate science and all they would do is say "no, that's not true... there's not enough evidence." They did this with the cigarette industry first, then with asbestos, and then they did it with climate. And they addressed it over and over again without using real science. But the way the media reported it made it sound as if they were on equal footing. when some were based on scientific evidence and the other were not. The media didn't really report the funding sources of these naysayers. In a way they did the public a misservice because we never got any good policy out and we're starting to see the results with increased storms and droughts and weather conditions that promise to get worse.

"Kill the Messenger" touches on the impact of journalism on the human condition. Which publications are doing an especially good job of this today?

I have found the Guardian of London to be pretty consistently great over the years. But there are all kinds of new things going on that are a bit outside of the bounds of normal journalism -- Pro Publica and things like out of Annenberg [at Penn] -- so there are these interesting ways in which people are getting their information.

And love it or hate Julian Assange, Wikileaks has been fascinating in terms of bringing a lot materials and information to the public, maybe too much, some would say. I'm not sure yet, I haven't seen any of the so-called damage people were afraid of yet and in fact some people say that if it weren't for Wikileaks maybe the Tunisian revolution would have taken a lot longer. The Tunisians didn't need Wikileaks to tell them that their government was corrupt but those cables might have been one of the triggers along with the killing of the young man [Mohamed Bouazizi] with the fruit stand.

So there's really a lot going on. A lot of institutions are doing a lot of good work -- I still pick up a ton of newspapers and magazines regularly. You have to read your local paper everyday if you want to get a little more in depth, read the newsmagazines, The Nation or Mother Jones.


You've certainly found dramatic examples of instances in the past in which media have served and impacted publics both for better and for worse....

If I was to go back into places where I've looked at media that have had an impact, there's the Burundi vs. Rwanda case study showing the difference.

In Rwanda we saw a society that was fairly well integrated. Two ethnic groups who aren't very different: histories, languages, religions the same, intermarried, worked together. There were conflicts as there are in any society but there was no sign that there could be anything like the genocide that occurred. But a number of things came together. The militias started organizing radio stations -- the RTLM, privately held by the way, not government -- which was a very hip radio station with the best music, the best political commentary, the best jokes. [But] they gradually started framing Rwandan politics in a way that I call a genocidal frame. They placed all the blame for the political problems on one group -- the Tutsis, they started to demonize them and make them sound subhuman. They started using selective history to argue that the Tutsis were getting unfair advantage and it scared people into believing that they were going to annihilate the Hutu if they didn't first annihilate the Tutsis. So one other piece that you hear in other rhetoric is: "They are invaders and they don't belong here. This land belongs to us and we have to clear them out." So we saw that in a matter of 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis were killed by their neighbors and friends and lovers in some cases. And it took a lot of convincing for some people to really believe they were doing the "right" thing.

Next door is Burundi, which used to be part of Rwanda and has the same two ethnic groups and a lot of shared history and culture. But what we saw in Burundi was that while Rwanda went in a horrific direction, Burundi went the other way and the Hutu and the Tutsis started to reconcile and you never saw the degree of violence.

The main difference was that they didnt have an RTLM. They had polarized media but never to that degree. At the same time nonprofit organizations both international and U.S. went in and set up real journalism that was mutual, so that every story had one Hutu and one Tutsi reporting together. They had to agree on the framing and the facts so you wouldn't really get a story biased to one side or the other. Instead of taking official statements and just reading them on the air they rejected them if they doubted their veracity or when they thought the framing was extreme. So it wasn't this "he said she said" kind of argument. Instead they dug into what they really thought was true and then they did the reporting.

These NGOs all went into Burundi to try to prevent what was happening in Rwanda. The other thing they did was radio forums where they'd have historians, politicians and other experts on the air and have people call in talking about their experiences. So you'd have real-life stories of what people were experiencing -- whether in refugee camps, hospitals or in communities -- and these experts would try to piece it together so people could understand the roots of the conflict.

One of the most profound things is that the meanings of certain acts and certain words changed. Before if one ethnic group saved someone from the other ethnic group they were considered a traitor and were marked for death -- same as in Rwanda. But as people would talk these things out and confess publicly that they were saving people of the other ethnicity they started being acknowledged as heroes on the air. So gradually people wanted to start saving people of the other ethnicity's life -- a really profound shift. It was almost like a soap opera since people would tune in every week to hear about these people, not knowing what ethnicity they were, and could really relate to their story.

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