Washington Post’s ghostly top 50 list

It’s that time of year when media outlets put out their best of the year lists. I know we’re all waiting with baited breath for the news about who is Time‘s Person Of The Year (come on, Mars Rover! You can do it!).

The outcome of these lists might be boring. But they do tell us quite a bit about the culture of a given media outlet. Which is why I found John Wilson’s comments about a recent end-of-year list so interesting.

Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a wonderful bimonthly review that engages the contemporary world from a Christian perspective. He had some interesting insights about the Washington Post‘s Best of 2012: 50 notable works of nonfiction list. Here are the first few books on the list, in alphabetical order:

500 DAYS: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars By Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone)

An anecdote-rich, page-turning account of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, with almost all of his actions traced back to decisions made during the first 500 days after Sept. 11, 2001. — Dina Temple-Raston

ALL THE MISSING SOULS: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals By David Scheffer (Princeton)

Written by the Clinton administration’s point man on international justice, the book describes the U.S. role in trying to make accountability for mass atrocities a central principle in international affairs. — Anthony Dworkin

AMERICA’S GREAT DEBATE: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union By Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)

This stylish history recounts the Compromise of 1850, which managed to hold the expanding nation together. Bordewich breathes new life into figures who were giants in their day. — Donald E. Graham

AMERICA’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION: The Precedents and Principles We Live By By Akhil Reed Amar (Basic)

This is a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades. — Ken Gormley

AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War By Stephen R. Platt (Knopf)

Platt’s fresh and important argument refutes the traditional idea that China was unchangeable and not a significant factor in the world’s history in the 19th century. — John Pomfret

THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS: A Memoir By Domingo Martinez (Lyons)

Recounting the author’s tough upbringing in Brownsville, Tex., this finalist for the National Book Award joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives. — Valerie Sayers

Notice anything thus far Wilson wrote (on Twitter):

In WaPo’s Best 50 works of nonfiction in 2012, 14 titles (by my quick count) deal with war, including 7 on war on terror.

There are also several others closely related (e.g., on Pakistan, on Saudi Arabia), and another 9 or 10 on politics.

This list represents a suffocatingly truncated view of “nonfiction” in 2012–or any other year.

No book on the WaPo list–this will shock you–centers directly on religion, though it plays a part in a book on the Taiping rebellion, …

…and on the side in a couple of others. One book of 50–by E.O. Wilson–is from science. (WaPo hates science?)

The list includes some mighty fine books and I have my own ideas about some that had no business being included or no business being excluded, but I think Wilson’s point is worth ruminating on.

If you wonder why some media outlets view everything through the prism of politics, it might just reflect their own provincial culture. Perhaps it’s to be expected of some media outlets, but it’s just a good reminder to keep in mind when evaluating overall media coverage and the world it conveys to readers.

The murder of Shaima Alawadi and media credulousness

I mentioned the story of Shaima Al Awadhi the other day. (Previous coverage here, here and here.) I became mildly obsessed with her after news of her unbelievably brutal killing broke in March. Al Awadhi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later.

Within days there were thousands of stories about her death, focused on the family’s claim that she was the victim of a hate crime. A minor movement sprung up, seeing parallels between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Al Awadhi. Activists began to encourage people to wear hijabs in honor of Al Awadhi and as a statement against racist hate crimes.

A local CBS affiliate has the latest:

An Iraqi man whose wife was fatally beaten in their East County home last spring in what initially appeared to be a hate crime pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday afternoon.

The passive voice in the lede isn’t helpful. Appeared to whom to be a hate crime? The police always claimed they were pursuing a complicated case, even if the media ran with the “hate crime” angle.

Where the previous story resulted in national and international headlines within moments, this story has received more sparing coverage. Comparing the local coverage of Al Awadhi’s death when it was being billed as a hate crime to now is even fascinating.

Media outlets can be so good at holding other industries accountable but we tend to struggle with introspection of our own industry.

While we have no idea how Kassim Al-Himidi’s trial will turn out, it’s clear that the media botched this story. If the police had botched the investigation, I’m sure we’d have stories about that. Typically when institutions perform their duties poorly, the media are at the forefront of finding out what went wrong and issuing demands for improvement.

Shouldn’t we see those same demands for improvement when it’s the media that performed its role poorly?

Instead the AP ran a story quoting Nina Burleigh, which at first I found odd on account of her 1990s comments about sexual favors, President Bill Clinton, and abortion. But the AP was actually one of the only outlets to try to find some larger meaning in the murder of Al Awadhi. The story ended:

Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western societies, said the case highlights the sometimes dangerous clashes that can occur when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available in their adopted homelands.

“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”…

The arrest of Alhimidi came only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother in Phoenix who was charged with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage.

The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.

Tablet published a piece worth reading headlined “Behind the Veil of Islamophobia: The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness.” A portion:

If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia? …

The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.

Do any of us expect that the next time a story such as this comes out that the media will handle it differently?