Robert Worth's NYT Week in Review piece on MEMRI is out. Worth, who reported from Baghdad and knows what he's talking about, points out the extent to which journalists have come to rely on bloggers, translations services like MEMRI, terrorism monitors like SITE and Jamestown:
WHEN an Iraqi insurgent group releases a new videotape or claims responsibility for an attack, Western reporters in Baghdad rarely hear about it firsthand. Nor do they usually get the news from their in-house Iraqi translators.
Instead, a reporter often receives an e-mailed alert from a highly caffeinated terrorism monitor sitting at a computer screen somewhere on the East Coast. Within hours, a constellation of other Middle East analysts has sent out interpretations — some of them conflicting — and a wealth of contextual material.
Journalists in Iraq are far too busy with the perils of on-the-ground reporting to sit at screens for hours browsing for terrorist Internet traffic. That is why the new array of online expertise has become an essential tip sheet for them. A whole new mini-industry of instantaneous translation and analysis has arisen, and it often erodes the traditional distinctions between credentialed foreign policy experts and mere amateurs.
Some of the groups are well-known and generously financed outfits like the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, whose primary function is to translate Arabic and Muslim media.
But among the best informed are one-person shows — a driven Arabist with a bedside computer. They gain access to terrorist Web sites, sometimes by posing as terrorists themselves, and translate jihadist communiqués and chatter that would not otherwise be available. Others write blogs, translating and commenting on terrorism and politics in general.
This conduit up to the mass media has long struck me as one of the crucial points about the influence of blogging and these internet sites which direct measures (like blog hits or links, surveys about blog reading patterns, or "scalp counts") miss. It's very interesting to see bloggers like me, Juan Cole, and Josh Landis (and many others not mentioned in his piece) essentially put in the same category as professional, full-time and multi-person staffed organizations like MEMRI, SITE or Jamestown. What bloggers and these organizations do is very different, as is how we do it. But from Worth's perspective as a journalist seeking useful information and analysis, our output falls into the same category. I think he's right about the consumption of this information by specialist audiences (government agencies, journalists, academics, etc). There's an interesting research project to be done (by someone else!) on the implications of these new sources for public debate and for policy-making alike.
With regard to MEMRI, Worth highlights the selection bias issue which has long been my primary criticism of its output: "While differences in translation can be an issue, the main disagreement among the interpreters is usually about selection: Which texts are worth highlighting? Which are significant?":
"They say they highlight liberal voices along with the dangerous radicals, which is fine," said Marc Lynch, a scholar of Arab politics at Williams College who has criticized Memri on his own blog, Abu Aardvark. "But what that conceals is the entire middle ground, where most of the political debate goes on in the Arab world."
Mr. Carmon, in a telephone interview, dismissed this criticism, noting that Memri has expanded its translations immensely over the years, and now highlights Arab reformist views.
I find Carmon's response fascinating and revealing. If Worth conveyed his objection accurately, then Carmon is effectively admitting the accuracy of my earlier critique, with his defense being that MEMRI now does a better job with Arab reformists than it used to do. Maybe, maybe not - a lot would depend on the definition of "reformist" (is it Wafa Sultan, or is it people who actually matter for mainstream Arab political discourse?). But I'm gratified to hear Carmon effectively conceding my long-standing point about MEMRI, at least in the past (when I actually made the criticisms).
Whether or not MEMRI has changed, it doesn't bother me as much as it used to because the proliferation of sites has somewhat reduced the dangers of its selection biases. I think that there's been enough criticism of MEMRI by now that most responsible people with any background in the region take their stuff with a degree of caution, and can take the source into account when drawing their conclusions. And because there's an ever growing range of alternative sources of information, MEMRI no longer has any kind of monopoly as a window on to Arab debates. Like Greg Gause, quoted in Worth's article, I've always felt that the more of this stuff that gets out into the public realm the better, and then let people make up their own minds about it.
There's a long way to go before this process is complete, of course. Bloggers do this on the side, in addition to our full time jobs (see below), and can't be counted on to fill translation gaps. I know that there are various projects in the works to translate news and TV, which will help considerably. Until then, two things which I would love to see to push this diversification of sources quickly to an acceptable level:
- Mideast Wire: from what I've seen, this relatively new service offers by far the most comprehensive, well-selected, and well-chosen translations from the Arab media. Unfortunately, it's subscription only. All newsrooms should provide their journalists with subscriptions to it, or else some foundation should pony up the funds to allow Mideast Wire either to be a free service or at least to offer its services free to journalists. (I don't work for them or even know them - I was just impressed with them during my free trial a while back)
- US Open Source Center: Juan Cole's readers are often treated to the translations from the US Government's Open Source Center. But those translations should be far more widely available. Those with access to a university library can usually access a much abridged version of what used to be FBIS (that's where Juan's stuff comes from, I believe). But the full-scale translation service is locked up, available only to government employees and contractors. That's a shame: if these translations are so important (and they are), then shouldn't the public have access to the expert, non-partisan work of the OSC rather than having to rely on bloggers or potentially biased private organizations?
One last thing: My experience with Abu Aardvark definitely confirms Worth's narrative - I've been really surprised over the last year or so that in a wide variety of forums, including policy workshops, I'm now almost always introduced as the writer of Abu Aardvark. Two years ago, I'm fairly sure that most people in these audiences would have hardly heard of blogs, much less of Abu Aardvark. Over the last few months, I've been giving more and more thought to the implications of this change - both for my personal blogging and for the whole academic/ specialist blogging phenomenon in general. For instance, it's made me sometimes think twice before posting cute stories about my kids, or waxing rhapsodic over the charms of certain newscasters, or engaging in once-entertaining blog-wars. It also, sad to say, sometimes makes blogging feel more like part of my job and less like the hobby and amusing side-project that it began as - a problem at times when my real full time plus job makes it hard to find the time to blog. That may merit another post sometime down the road...