What is truth?

December 13, 2003

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SANA’A, YEMEN – I’m at a Canadian-run English language school. The topic is the media.

A North Korean student says the media are deceptive. Especially CNN. A Yemeni gal prefers the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera News. Someone says CNN beats BBC.

Then, finally, a question about newspapers.

“How do we know that what’s in the Yemen Times is true?”

Ah, truth.

“Well,” I proudly assure everyone, “the Times is independent. So the government doesn’t tell us what to say.”

Yes, sir, free as a bird, not like political organs or state-sponsored papers in Saudi or Oman or around the Arab world or, heck, across town. I refer now to the Yemen Observer, this country’s other English paper, headed by a publisher who is the former secretary of Yemen’s president.

Not that I mind the competition. It was even rumoured the Observer has a Canadian as my counterpart, but alas, he’s Brit and an anthropologist. Indeed, the Times, just 13 years old, will soon be the only independent paper in Yemen with its own printing press on-site. But what can we do about a proposed law that’s obviously been cooked up over too much narcotics?

It would force all Yemen’s media to forfeit some profits, to protect journalists who are harassed by officials for saying “bad” things. So, if you pay me, then when I slap you around, there’s money’s available for your legal defence. The logic is stunning. And Yemen’s independent press, reliant on ad revenue rather than free political handouts, becomes more vulnerable.

So my suggestion is that the Times now move into the TV news business. I’d call the channel Yemen’s TV Times. For one, viewers won’t have to read English.

Those ESL students show that once folks here learn English, they just turn to TV anyway.

And the added beauty of this plan is that truth won’t matter.

That’s because TV, in both the free and not-so-free world, is a funny little box that somehow blends fact and fiction into a very smooth froth. That’s why Private Jessica Lynch became the Mona Lisa of the Iraq war after reports of a daring rescue that never was.

Look at Quiz Show, a Robert Redford-directed movie, which, like Lynch’s story, means it must be more accurate than real life.

The story follows a real professor on a real TV game-show in the ’50s who made a mint by lying and … I can’t tell more. The important thing is the masses were entertained — both then and now.

Or take the movie Rules Of Engagement.

It shows how an angry mob, with gun-toting grannies and a one-legged girl, storms the U.S. embassy here in Sana’a. Marines blow in to save the day, but have to slaughter 83 Yemeni.

Written by a former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, the movie follows the commanding officer’s courtmartial. Stunned viewers learn the final fate of key characters during the show’s endnotes.

The thing is, it never happened. The fictitious script was intended for an unknown Latin-American country, but the studio thought that might anger 30 million American Latinos. So producers went to Morocco, where they created the worst Arab stereotype, and strangest set, in memory.

Typical was the tiny, handpainted sign in a dirty Sana’a alley for the Taj Sheba Hotel. Strange thing. I was recently there with Yemen Times’ publisher Walid al- Saqqaf, and the five-star hotel seemed swanky as ever.

(Interestingly, Walid mentioned that he saw this wild portrayal of his homeland while in, of all places, Washington.)

So, really, what is truth? That would be the motto of Yemen’s TV Times. While others in TV land are stuck on fluffy half-truths, we’d report the hard lies.

Like “little green men have landed in Jersey, and are moving towards the space needle in Canada’s capital, Toronto, from where they’ll take over the world.”

Sure, diehard TV watchers will believe it and jump off tall buildings.

No problem. That’s a great news flash. Then a movie. With our shiny new printing press, the Times will still have a newspaper — hopefully — to set everything straight. And we’ll still bury the Observer.

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December 13, 2003 • Posted in ,
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