RESEARCH • The “Good Muslims”


The “Good” Muslims • U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan

Boy hawking posters supporting Saddam Hussein, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Juma Bazaar, Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: Susan Moeller

Prof. Susan Moeller, director of the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) conducted a study that evaluated news coverage of Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and then again 5 years later.

The study investigated the reporting of  13 major agenda-setting U.S. newspapers: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

How did the American and British media cover the global hot spot of Pakistan for their audiences from September 11, 2001 to the end of 2007?

ICMPA’s report, The “Good” Muslims: US Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan evaluated how thirteen mainstream American newspapers covered the nation of Pakistan—first in the year following September 11, 2001 and then five years later, in 2006. What were the events and issues and angles that were covered? In the years since 9/11 and the attack by al Qaeda on New York and Washington did coverage change? Did the frames of news reporting shift? In both years under investigation, what was covered—and what was not?

In one of the most famous short stories ever written, Sherlock Holmes engages in a conversation with Inspector Gregory, a Scotland Yard detective, over clues to the disappearance of a valuable
race horse named Silver Blaze. After the two men go over the facts in the case, Gregory asks Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Yes, Holmes
replies, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Gregory is puzzled: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Exactly, says Holmes. “That was the curious incident.”

In fiction, in politics, in relationships, in the media, what is said AND what is not said are both important.

News media don’t cover all news. They can’t cover all news. So they triage. They cover the news they think is important to their own audience—in the case of US media reporting on global events, that typically means news that has a strong, direct link to American interests (usually security or economic interests, but at times humanitarian ones). They cover stories they can physically get to (visas are available, plane flights are possible, and the costs in time and money are not exorbitant) and where still or video images can be taken. They cover major international breaking news—the big event that just happened—but usually only in those places of long-term or specific interest to Americans: a hostage-taking in Iran and the British response, nuclear disarmament talks in North Korea, massive protests against the US in Iraq, stark evidence of global warming in the Bay of Bengal. They cover global trends and issues—terrorism, nuclear weapons, cataclysmic disasters—especially those that have received attention by the White House or Congress or by some other significant political player.

Knowing all that, this study analyzed how major American newspapers did cover, and how they did not cover the country of Pakistan—an essential staging ground in the US war in Afghanistan, a staunch Muslim ally (the government, if not the people), a frontline in the “War on Terror,” a critical player in nuclear politics, a key conduit in the narcotics trade, a major recipient of American aid. There were many stories about Pakistan — which ones were told. …And finally, what did we observe that was, like Sherlock Holmes’ dog, “curious”?

The “Good” Muslims study found patterns of coverage in major U.S. newspapers in the year following September 11, 2001 and again five years later — trends that may still be contributing to both the public confusion over the need for a global “War on Terror”  and the public’s perception of the global terrorist risk.  

Moeller investigated two time periods: September 11, 2001 to December 31, 2002 and January 1, 2006 to January 15, 2007.  Here are some of the takeaways from the study:

1.  Terrorism Is Monolithic—All Terrorism Is Conflated

News coverage of Pakistan reinforced the Bush administration’s representation of global terrorism as a single category of threat.  Journalists often referenced the Taliban and al Qaeda together, and failed to specifically identify other indigenous Pakistani groups when they were responsible for acts of  terror.

Too many journalists from the most important newspapers in the country continued to validate President Bush’s conflation of different types of terrorism into a single category of threat.  Reporters were not adequately distinguishing between state terrorism and terrorism by distinctive terrorist groups, some of which operate locally and others, such as al Qaeda, operates globally.

Many news stories used a range of terms interchangeably in a single article, among them “terrorist,” “militant” and “extremist,” further obfuscating real differences in tactics, motives, history, politics and culture among different terrorist groups.

And following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, journalists raised the specter of “terrorists” gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

2.  Madrassas Are Breeding Grounds for Terrorists

News coverage of Pakistan emphasized the role Pakistan plays in global terrorism. One way in which that was done was through stories about “madrassas” which were represented as indoctrination centers for young “jihadists,” making it appear that Pakistan is virtually awash with terrorist training camps masquerading as schools for boys.

US newspapers helped to stoke global terrorism fears and to demonize an entire population: Pakistani Muslim men and boys.

For example, the LA Times mentioned on Nov. 4, 2001, “the all-male madrassas in Pakistan, where boys as young as 6 are trained for jihad, far from the potentially softening influence of mothers and sisters.”  And NYT columnist Thomas Friedman wrote almost a year later, on Aug. 14, 2002, “50 years of failed democracy, military coups and imposed religiosity have produced 30,000 madrassahs—Islamic schools, which have replaced a collapsed public school system and churn out Pakistani youth who know only the Koran and hostility toward non-Muslims.”

3.  Victory in the “War on Terror”—at least in Pakistan—Is Not Assured

News coverage assumed the centrality of Pakistan in US foreign policy, but even with American troops in the region the reporting did not reflexively wave the flag, even in the months  immediately following 9/11.  While US-based stories on the region accepted the Bush administration’s assertion that “War on Terror” was being successfully fought on the ground in Afghanistan, articles datelined from the region were cautioning that victory in the war against the Taliban and for hearts and minds was not so evident.

The generally strong coverage of the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater — in comparison to the poor coverage of Iraq up through 2003 — may have been due to the fact that by early 2002, the administration’s failure to capture Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar caused reporters to look critically both at the conduct of the war and the rhetoric of the White House.

The study concluded that the press’s coverage of Pakistan was more independent and more balanced than its coverage of Iraq. The perfunctory patriotism that swept the U.S. following 9/11 did not entirely blind reporters on the ground in Pakistan to what was taking place in the region in the administration’s conduct of the “War on Terror.”  In both time periods investigated, the study found that journalists assumed the centrality of Pakistan in U.S. foreign policy, but offered contradictory perspectives on Pakistan’s role that were more blunt than the official line from Washington.

  • News stories did represent Pakistan as a Western ally but they also emphasized that it was a base of operations for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and “terrorists” in general.
  • News stories represented Pakistan as a regional model of moderation but did not hide that it was also a tinderbox for regional conflagration.
  • News stories represented Pakistan as a relatively stable state under the control of a progressive military leader but did also report on the shocking religious and tribal excesses—that were on occasion artfully managed by that military dictator.

4.  In 2001/2002:  Pakistani Women Are the “Good” Muslims

The study also documented how the press covered Muslims and Islam post-9/11 when it seemed like every talking head was asking plaintively “Why do they hate us?”  The most surprising finding of the study was who the press decided were “our” Muslim friends—the “good” Muslims were women:

  • Stories depicted women as the “peacemakers” who the West could use to find the solution to terrorism at the family, the tribal or ethnic and the national level.
  • Stories depicted women as “saviors.” Multiple tales of women struggling to gain an education for themselves or to facilitate the education of others, for example, spoke about the transformative power of women at the local level.
  • Women, rather than children became the most notable “innocent” victims of indiscriminate violence.  Certain children were not innocent, articles made clear—indeed they were to be feared.  Boys, even very young boys were part of the terrorist matrix, in large measure, because of their indoctrination at madrassas.
  • Articles about women’s “victim” status at the hands of men validated the binary idea that Muslim women are “good” and Muslim men are “cruel,” perhaps even “terrorists.”
  • Women’s clothing was a subject of intense interest. “Taking off the veil” was both a real and metaphorical statement and articles measured women’s freedom by how “uncovered” they were and how close their clothing approximated Western notions of dress.

What was fascinating in the coverage of Pakistan was that women were often the first victims mentioned. Women were the ones to be mourned.  A New York Times front-page story on a shooting in a church in Pakistan noted the deaths in this way:

NYT, Oct. 29, 2001: “Sixteen worshipers died, including seven women, three children and the Protestants’ 45-year-old pastor…. Islamic militant groups have been staging anti-American protests across Pakistan for weeks, and nobody at the church doubted that the protests had boiled over into something far more sinister. Their fear, voiced repeatedly, was that these killings were only the start…. As mothers fell on daughters and big sisters on smaller ones, [one assailant] marched forward until he stood above a pile of wounded and dead and pulled the trigger again and again until the screaming and the moaning stopped, according to survivors.”

In this front-page article, only 11 of the 16 killed are accounted for: seven women, three children and a clergyman. Mothers, daughters and sisters are mentioned. Presumably, the other five killed were men, but they weren’t referenced by gender or family relationships.

5.  In 2006/2007:  Maybe American Foreign Policy Is to Blame

By 2006 the compelling issue in much of the news coverage of Pakistan was no longer who were the Muslim “good guys,” it was whether (or even how) Americans had become the “bad guys.” Articles reported that it was not only the enemy who was acting reprehensibly—it was the Bush administration’s prosecution of the “War on Terror” that was the “moral burden.”

It wasn’t that the newspapers in this study were expressing hesitations about whether it was appropriate for US forces to target al Qaeda fugitives, what now came out in the coverage were questions about the manner and methods the US authorities used to try and kill them. The debate in the US media turned to whether the Americans still could “claim to hold the moral high ground in the anti-terror campaign,” as a Miami Herald editorial wrote. “Must the United States use tactics that are reminiscent of those used by the terrorists that we seek to destroy in order to defeat terror? No, of course not.”

Study Background

The data for this media study The “Good” Muslims: US Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan were first gathered for a paper delivered at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies conference on Islamic Identities, Gender & Higher Education in Pakistan, held January 12-14, 2007 in Islamabad. The conference, initiated by AIPS President Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, and organized by Dr. Rukhsana Qamber and Dr. Carla Petievich, was one of the first formal meetings of US and Pakistani scholars in Pakistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and offered a fruitful opportunity to interact and exchange ideas in Pakistan itself.

In addition to ICMPA’s release of its report, the story was picked up by news organizations around the world, including Foreign Policy magazine (the FP article is also available in pdf) and NeimanReports.





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