Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Karen Hughes, the United States Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, raised the issue of Saudi Arabia's ban against women driving automobiles during a meeting with faculty and students at Dar al-Hekma, a private college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Two rather divergent accounts of the meeting appeared in the Western news media, one from the Washington Post (Hughes Raises Driving Ban With Saudis), the other from the New York Times (Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy). The Times coverage leaves the impression that the issue of women being permitted to drive is one that Hughes brought with her, that it's not something Saudi women particularly care about. The Post coverage leaves a different impression:

Women interviewed at the college said they were pleased that Hughes had raised the issue, but they appeared divided on the ban itself.

Fouzia Pasham, a gynecologist, defended the ban, saying women who drive in other countries have to keep "a good smiling face" as they are forced to shuttle around town picking up their children and running errands.

But a mother of four, who would give her name only as Tulien, said she had secretly learned to drive in the desert and was frustrated by the ban, even though she could afford two drivers. "We are very happy and satisfied, but we would be happier and more satisfied if we could drive," she said.

As an occasional reader of Arab News, my sense is that the Post's reporting is more accurate. In terms of factual assertions, perhaps. Definitely as a matter of figurative meanings. Arab News of course is not without its own set of biases, but its regular reporting on the issue (for instance "Women Driving: Minority Dictating Terms" from today's edition) leaves no doubt in my mind that the ban against women driving is indeed an issue for citizens of the Kingdom.

It would be naive to conclude that the Washington Post is not driving an agenda, whereas the New York Times most certainly is. If the Times' agenda appears conspicuous to me, it may simply be that I am more comfortable with the Post's agenda. But I can't help feeling that the Post's reporters are following more rigorous standards of objective journalism, imposing fairness and balance where the Times would be satisfied with a modicum (more or less) of accuracy. I am very happy that the Times still covers international affairs, but I would be happier and more satisfied if they were as good as the Post.

Update. Predictably, the most polarized responses to Hughes' meeting at Dar al-Hekma have used the New York Times story as the primary source. The polarization of public response is nowhere more apparent than in the feedback to the story the Times printed under the headline "Stop Preaching to Saudi Women." Egads. Of course I am in agreement with letter-writers Manning and Khan, and Khan's point was one that I felt the Washington Post reporter understood, if not in its particulars, at least in a general sort of way. The difficulty of speaking freely is such an obvious feature of the social landscape, some awareness of that situation should have informed the Times' coverage.

Johnathan Karl covered the event for ABC news, and while I can't quite praise his report as a paragon of sensitivity, I note that his journalistic doggedness led him to a fuller dialogue with the young women of Hekma, and perhaps a better understanding of what their world is like. Hmm.

My complaint about the Times' coverage, again, is not a question of factual accuracy but of bias. I've couched my critique in terms of professional competence, but really that's not what's at stake. Because I don't doubt for a minute that the Times is capable of fielding competent journalists. So what's with this commitment to bias? One way to judge that is to look at the effects of the bias, which in this case appears to be a polarizing of public opinion. Assuming that the Times intended to create that effect, one might further assume that they are motivated by partisanship, or simply an abiding hostility towards the Bush administration. Or they might be motivated by a desire to sell sentiment. Is anger itself a product? A brand? An explication of bias in terms of the commodification (or marketing) of anger would not preclude the existence of other motivating prejudices--quite the contrary. This is an area which touches on not just journalistic integrity, but the conditions of possibility of what we call a free press, at least as that might be understood by an Americanist, Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance-- who not incidentally had some interesting things to say about equality of the sexes.

It would seem in Europe, where man so easily submits to the despotic sway of women, that they are nevertheless deprived of some of the greatest attributes of the human species and considered as seductive but imperfect beings; and (what may well provoke astonishment) women ultimately look upon themselves in the same light and almost consider it as a privilege that they are entitled to show themselves futile, feeble, and timid. The women of America claim no such privileges.

Again, it may be said that in our morals we have reserved strange immunities to man, so that there is, as it were, one virtue for his use and another for the guidance of his partner, and that, according to the opinion of the public, the very same act may be punished alternately as a crime or only as a fault. The Americans do not know this iniquitous division of duties and rights; among them the seducer is as much dishonored as his victim.

It is true that the Americans rarely lavish upon women those eager attentions which are commonly paid them in Europe, but their conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression. In America a young unmarried woman may alone and without fear undertake a long journey.

The legislators of the United States, who have mitigated almost all the penalties of criminal law, still make rape a capital offense, and no crime is visited with more inexorable severity by public opinion. This may be accounted for; as the Americans can conceive nothing more precious than a woman's honor and nothing which ought so much to be respected as her independence, they hold that no punishment is too severe for the man who deprives her of them against her will. In France, where the same offense is visited with far milder penalties, it is frequently difficult to get a verdict from a jury against the prisoner. Is this a consequence of contempt of decency or contempt of women? I cannot but believe that it is a contempt of both.

I digress. For the task at hand is simply to charge the Times with an abject failure to maintain civilization, not to explain why freedom of movement and the equality of the sexes makes it neccesary that they should do so. Oh well. So it goes.

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:21 AM.


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