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Media Perceptions of Cambodia

by Bruce Sharp

Abraham Maslow once observed that "it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

One might think that the complexity of history would, by its very nature, discourage oversimplification. Unfortunately, this is not the case: ideologues and pundits are often adept at cherry-picking a handful of events and repackaging them in a way that supports their pet theses.

Through much of the late twentieth century, the magnitude of Cambodia's suffering made the country a symbol for disaster. Over time, that perception slowly began to shift. (A brief discussion of this can be read in Princess of Cambodia, the introduction to a 2005 travelogue, Between Barbie and Murder.

Cambodia has also been held aloft as a looking glass, supposedly displaying the media's failings. In particular, Noam Chomsky seized upon Cambodia to support his claims of media bias. The resulting controversy is discussed in detail in the article Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy. Various interpretations of Chomsky's comments are also outlined in a series of older articles, beginning with Evil Scholars, and summarized in Reflections on an Old Debate.

Christopher Hitchens weighed in on the controversy surrounding Chomsky's remarks in 1985, writing a lengthy defense of Chomsky; a response to Hitchens' article can be found in The Chorus and the Cassandra: A Response.

Chomsky was at one point asked about one of the articles on this site; he responded by accusing me of being dishonest, although he was unable to cite even a single inaccuracy in what I had written. He then admitted that he had not actually read anything I'd written, and further argued that "no one, ever, can be expected to respond to what is posted somewhere or even appears in print." He then proceeded to go right ahead and respond to the article that he admitted he hadn't read... and in the process, managed to make several demonstrably false claims about what was or was not in the article. Details on this peculiar incident are outlined in My Reply to Noam Chomsky.

Does media bias exist? Obviously it does: bias exists in any context in which human beings form opinions. This includes the media... but it also includes media analysis. Conservative groups like Accuracy in Media see one slant; liberal groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting see another.

The Christian Science Monitor -- arguably one of the finest newspapers in the world -- sometimes includes a teaser on subscription mailings: "Yes, there is a bias in the media - even though most publishers and reporters try very hard to keep their personal politics out of the news. It's a bias that's too frequently in favor of sensationalism, short-sightedness, and 'sizzle.' Confrontation and conflict. 'Gotcha' journalism and blurring the line between news and entertainment. It's a bias against fair-minded, rational discourse and subtle shades of gray."

In succumbing to the media's bias toward simplicity, reporters fall prey to Maslow's axiom: Cambodia becomes a hammer to drive anything that can possibly be imagined as a nail. Even good journalists can be guilty. In 1980, William Shawcross' book Sideshow detailed the manner in which American involvement in Southeast Asia led to the virtual destruction of Cambodia. Roughly twenty-five years later, however, Shawcross was arguing in favor of American involement in Iraq. Ironically, he cited Cambodia... not as an example of the perils of American involement, but as an example of the perils of American withdrawal. (A discussion of Shawcross' argument can be found in the article Starting From Zero.)

The desire to make sense of the world is a natural human impulse. In our haste to extract order from chaos, however, we are all too often tempted to discard evidence that fails to fit our preconceived notions. Nuances are lost beneath layers of dogma. One is reminded of a scene from the movie Amadeus when the Emperor complains that Mozart's music has "too many notes." Does the symphony still sound the same, without its "extra" notes?

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