March 25, 2011

U.S. Media Panicking Over Yemen's Revolution

Sometimes better is late than never, like giving a birthday gift or an apology. During revolution, when lives are at stake, late is not always better than never. Yemen’s government has undoubtedly made foreign journalists’ lives difficult, but the sudden rush of reports proves that personnel isn’t the sole factor in their belated arrival.

The U.S. media could have tuned in at any moment. Only now though, on the eve of Friday’s “Day of Departure,” has the mass media submitted to Yemen’s unavoidable gravity.

The White House enjoyed a cushy media blanket throughout a violent February and early March, a product of saying little in the first place. Nowhere has President Barack Obama stood further back than in Yemen, where the administration's entire strategy against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rested on a sinking and possibly delusional autocrat. Actually thinking it had a pretty good operation going, the U.S. government wasn’t prepared for anything close to what’s happening now.

Libya and Japan don’t fully explain this new flick of the switch, suggesting shadowy influences at work. Many cracks were visible in the crumbling regime and U.S. policy yielded a net negative in 2010, except most reporting and analysis continued viewing Yemen through a “terror” lens. News organizations and journalists have generally failed to press the issue and had marginal incentive to cover Yemen’s crisis so long as Libya served as the administration’s focal point. That too may be part of the plan.

The net result has skewed U.S. media coverage away from Yemen, and the media itself is beginning to concede the administration's reluctance to talk about Saleh.

So why doesn’t the media talk more about him? Isn’t that supposed to be their job? At any time the media could have devoted more attention to Yemen, focused in greater depth, found people who understand its social dimensions and demilitarized the strategy of combating AQAP. It hasn’t happened. Discounting the systematic nature of Yemen’s blackout requires a leap of faith through Washington and Saleh’s smokescreen.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has admitted to an obvious lack of preparation for post-Saleh Yemen, creating a deer-in-the-headlights look. The White House’s ongoing support for Saleh offers no reason to disbelieve Gates, and speaking is difficult without knowing what to say. Why, though, has there been no education to the public and no extensive outreach to the opposition, either publicly or privately? Why have both the U.S. government and media taken so long to ramp themselves up to Yemen’s speed, considering that a burst of reporting is possible?

Why, if Yemen is so critical and AQAP so dangerous, is so little said? Fear is the common bond - the same found in fear tactics.

Fear has now flipped the U.S. media from silent to emergency mode, not exactly conducive to rational thought. Aside from the minority who advocate a holistic approach to Yemen, the U.S. media is responding in the same panic as Saleh, the White House and Pentagon. No matter, all have consistently failed to suppress Yemen’s revolution up to Friday’s scheduled march on the palace.

At least they’ll be there to watch.

[Update: Security forces are blocking protesters from gathering in Sana’a, as promised by Saleh's state of emergency. U.S. officials continue to rule out severing his military aid, but how long can the White House's "dialogue" hold?]

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