The burden of establishing a responsible dialogue in any discipline falls upon its leaders. With the recent rise of so-called “post-factual” narratives in our politics, we have seen all too vividly the repercussions leaders’ failing to hold themselves to an empirical standard. A lack of moral political leadership leaves the roles of truth-tellers to those in journalism and academia. And though publications meant for public audiences may have opinion pieces in addition to reporting, opinion writing ought to build conclusions upon consensus facts in our world. This is an important difference between rigorous journalism and propaganda.
America’s recent failures mean that keeping this in mind is all the more imperative. Moreover, in a country where trust in journalism is at an all-time low but good work in the field is more imperative than ever, we must ensure that its standard-bearers stay above reproach. It is more important than ever that we hold accountable those who do not do the necessary and heroic duty of great journalists, demanding the full truth from those in power. Unfortunately, the Yale community has contributed to our failure to demand the best from our journalists by inviting Thomas Friedman to speak today, despite his failures to accurately portray the injustices propagated by the Saudi Arabian regime.
Friedman was recently offered unprecedented access via interview to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman. This is a privilege that journalists and academics worldwide have hardly ever been offered, particularly in recent months. Given Bin Salman’s role in supporting international atrocities, proper journalistic ethics would demand that Fredman ask probing and relevant questions of his interviewee. In his inaccurate portrayal of the Prince, Friedman failed in this responsibility to the public.
Bin Salman and his regime have been linked to multiple human rights crimes. Saudi forces have been responsible for some of the worst destruction in the Yemeni Civil War, which has produced suffering that surpasses even that of the Syrian crisis and has been labeled by BBC and others “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Saudi tanks also continue to be used to suppress popular democratic revolts in Bahrain, deliberately targeting civilians whose only crime was nonviolent demonstration. Domestically, migrant workers in Saudi Arabia lack citizenship rights, often facing abuse or expulsion for no reason. This interview would be the first time the Western media had the opportunity to ask bin Salman about these controversies. However, instead of pointing out these horrors, Friedman’s profile of Bin Salman was tantamount to a love letter to the prince. Despite the ongoing human rights abuses on record against the Saudi regime, Friedman’s piece lauded bin Salman as a reformer, launching an “Arab Spring, Saudi style.”
This neglects the realities of the modern Middle East in countless ways. For example, Friedman hails these “reforms” as better than “the other Arab Springs”—an inaccurate grouping in its own right—because “this one is led from the top down.” Of course, this assessment completely overlooks the fact that the reason why “bottom up” movements have been stopped, especially in Bahrain, is precisely because of top-down military deployments from regional hegemons like Saudi Arabia.
We should not exalt this violent repression of the popular will. U.S. citizens and other informed onlookers desperately need to know about the realities of Middle Eastern geopolitics. However, Friedman refuses to engage with such complexities. This refusal is problematic, especially seeing as one of the biggest problems with how we treat the Middle East today is our refusal to reconsider the antiquated stereotypes which impede inter-regional understanding. Moreover, Friedman’s trite depictions further entrench this stereotypical thinking into Western minds. When he describes Bin Salman as “much more McKinsey than Wahhabi—much more a numbers cruncher than a Quran thumper,” he not only refuses to define the Prince using his human rights record, but he also further pigeonholes Arab people as “Quran thumpers” in the minds of his readers.
Friedman seems to confuse minor political compromises with today’s most salient issues. While it is true that, for example, women have recently been given permission to drive in Saudi Arabia, journalists should not emphasize such incremental developments over the Prince’s role in the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster” or poor domestic treatment of migrant workers. Both of the latter human rights abuses not only should be stressed more heavily in the public’s eye but are also alarming continuations of previous political paths Bin Salman has purportedly renounced.
Instead of focusing on Bin Salman’s and the Saudi government’s major abuses, Friedman has found what he considers “more pressing issues” to power his arguments about the Saudi government. When Toby Keith was invited to perform in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Friedman pointed to as evidence of a reforming state it in a recent interview with Slate. No concert exonerates a leader from his active role in sectarian violence and the starvation and suffering which result from it, but Friedman’s work implies he believes otherwise
The pushback against Friedman’s most recent publication from experts across disciplines was almost immediate. Academics deplored his sympathetic treatment of the Crown Prince. An open letter from leading scholars of the Middle East such as Toby Jones and Bob Vitalis asserted that “The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for printing Friedman’s column and Friedman should be investigated and perhaps even suspended for writing it.” The letter declared Friedman’s work to be “pure propaganda.” Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan went even further, saying “if the Saudi Arabian government were to set up [an Orwellian] Ministry of Truth and Propaganda, they could offer the job of minister to Tom Friedman.” However, when asked about these dissenting opinions only a few days ago, Friedman refused to consider them. He responded by saying, “Okay, well, fuck that. And that is my view.”
This is not to lay all of the blame for this systematic failure to comprehend Middle Eastern conflict at Friedman’s feet, as other journalists often have often done the same. (A recent piece by Georgetown associate professor Abdullah Al-Arian details seventy years of the paper’s headlines declaring a “new reformer” had taken power in Saudi Arabia.) But Friedman has contributed mightily to this ploy. He hailed King Fahd as the solution to Middle Eastern conflict in 1996, and again praised King Abdullah in 2013. He once suggested that the 2003 American invasion of Iraq would “modernize” the region. Now, he has depicted a leader who quite recently cut public funding to buy a 500 million dollar yacht as the business-forward voice of the people.
Mr. Friedman’s success in the industry is not a reason for us to excuse these errors. By allowing him an honored seat as a speaker at one of the most prestigious universities in the country mere days after he purveyed what have been disparaged as “barely concealed… recycled cultural tropes,” the Yale community has failed to use its power to catalyze change.
Regardless of one’s stance on U.S. interventions in the Middle East, it is easy to agree that people should form their opinions based on accurate depictions of Middle Eastern events and history. With each misrepresentation, influential media bodies mislead their readers, a majority of whom will likely not seek further sources on these international issues. In doing so, media producers skew US citizens’ perspectives on Middle Eastern affairs. Moreover, with the recent regional instability, from the death of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the controversy surrounding Trump’s declaration of a new Israeli capital, we cannot run the risk that these untruths inform our policy. For instance, only days after Friedman’s article, CNN reported that Jared Kushner is likely to rely considerably on the Saudis to carry out his Middle Eastern agenda.
In our fake-news saturated world, we need credible information more than ever. Without dependable sources, we can never move forward. When the Times and other elite media organizations allow pieces like Friedman’s to grace their pages, they bring into question the other journalism they produce.
The failure of elites to tell the whole story in the international sphere is almost invisible and very dangerous. The fact that we personally do not see the people suffering under the Saudi regime, the suffering propagated by Saudi militarymen in Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain or Saudi fighter jets in Sanaa, Yemen does not make these victims disappear.
We must bring these people to the attention of the greater Yale community. We seek a more informed dialogue surrounding the Middle East. We seek a rejection of politically motivated motifs like the reformer Saudi prince, and in their place, we hope that journalists in the United States and abroad will insist on asking the hard questions, regardless of their subject. In this respect, Thomas Friedman has failed—as has Yale.
- Trent Kannegieter ‘21
- Lena Gallager ‘21
- Anusha Manglik ‘21
- Maria McKinney ‘21
- Ram Vishwanathan ‘21
Sajan Ramanathan ’21