It is said, although the origin of the phrase is sometimes disputed, that the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke once pointed to the Press Gallery in the House of Commons and declared: “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all” (the first three accepted social and political classes, or estates, were the aristocracy, the clergy and the commoners).
One of the saddest things about the incident involving the Iraqi thug who threw his shoes at President George Bush is that sometimes he is referred to as a journalist. The name of the noblest of professions has been dragged through the ditch into a dark place indeed.
First let us consider a proud moment in the modern history of Arab journalism. At the White House in the early 1960s, an era when women journalists were usually confined to covering the fashions worn by the First Lady rather than questioning the President, a young woman steps forward and asks John F Kennedy a question: a simple act that reverberated across US government departments. Welcome to the world of Helen Thomas, the daughter of illiterate Syrian immigrants, the First Lady of the Press who has covered every American president since Kennedy. For Ms Thomas that question was the first in a long list of impressive achievements that includes being the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first woman officer of the National Press Club: for decades she almost invariably had the honour of asking the first question during presidential press conferences, even though she always asked tough ones.
Ms Thomas, now 88 years old, has a special annual lifetime achievement award named after her by the 9,000-member Society of Professional Journalists in the US and has been the subject of an HBO documentary entitled Thank you, Mr President after her signature phrase. The former Cuban leader Fidel Castro was once asked what the difference was between US and Cuban democracy, and his answer was: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”
Last week Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the popular London-based Arabic daily newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, noted in his editorial that the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq was the other face of the cheering and applause that greeted the announcement by the US Administrator Paul Bremer that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been captured. “There is no room for applause, insults or throwing shoes at others in journalism,” Mr Alhomayed said, adding that “this Iraqi journalist, who today has the right to ask questions and to hold a politician responsible and remind him of his lies, decided not to do that; he decided that shoes were more powerful than words, reason and argument, as this is some people’s idea of democracy.”
On the other hand, Al Quds Al Arabi, another London-based newspaper (which is miraculously celebrating almost 20 years of publishing in one of the most expensive cities in the world apparently without the need for advertisements other than from Yemen Airlines) had a different take on the shoe-throwing incident. The newspaper’s editor stated categorically “the fact that he [the shoe-thrower] has become a hero in the eyes of tens of millions”. He also stated that the action was “understandable” because this “citizen who cares about his country” was frustrated. And the shoe-thrower’s employer, Al Baghdadia television, demanded that he be released “in line with the democracy and freedom of expression that the American authorities promised the Iraqi people” and declared that “any measures [against him] will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime”.
President Bush, hardly known for his eloquent oratorical skills, said that the shoe thrower wanted to get on TV, and had succeeded. “I don’t know what his beef is,” he added, “but whatever it is I’m sure somebody will hear it.” I personally won’t be surprised if Al Jazeera television offers the shoe-thrower a job. In a section of its website called, of all things, Analysis, the channel has posted an article entitled The shoes are a letter from the widows and orphans as part of its multifaceted coverage of the incident.
It is high time that we ceased to glorify individuals who disguise themselves as journalists and allow their emotions to seep through their reporting. We have seen them already in the US, the likes of Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, and in the Arab world there are Ghassan Bin Jiddou and Faisal Al Qassim, both of Al Jazeera: they all blur the lines so much that it becomes counterproductive to watch their programmes.
Helen Thomas recently told Newsweek magazine: “You can’t have a democracy without an informed people” and that “the role of the press is to seek the truth”. It is a sad day when a representative of the Fourth Estate is given the chance to seek the truth, to inform his people and to expose President Bush by asking him a tough question, and instead throws his shoes like a caged primate — no matter how “frustrated” he is.
This article was originally published in The National on December 21, 2008.