The News From Saudi Arabia - 1978

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The Washington Post looks at Western stringers and freelancers in Saudi Arabia in 1978.
  THE WASHINGTON POST, March 17, 1978: The News Business Who Gives the News from Saudi Arabia? By Richard Harwood  A modest little walk-up building on a dusty street in Jiddah is the press center of the Westernworld in Saudi Arabia.It produces the news for the great wire services (Associated Press, United Press International,Reuters), for major American magazines (Time, Newsweek, the McGraw-Hill group) and for avariety of other publications including The Financial Times of London.If that evokes visions of a large staff of trench-coated correspondents, forget it. The Jiddah pressoperation is a cottage industry run by three young Americans and two Lebanese, all of whom areemployed by a small English-language daily, the Arab News.That newspaper, like the eight other newspapers in Saudi Arabia, operates by government fiatand government subsidy. Its owners include Prince Turki al-Faisal, the present head of the Saudiintelligence services, and Sheik Kamal Adham, Turki’s predecessor in the intelligence job and abrother-in-law of the late King Faisal.The situation in Saudi Arabia is ideal for the news monopoly that has arisen in the offices of theArab News. Not a single Western newspaper, magazine, television or radio correspondent isbased in the country. That was of no great concern to news organizations until the 1973 oilembargo brought home the truth that Western industrial civilization is hostage to Saudi oil.Suddenly Saudi Arabia had to be reckoned with. There was an immediate, sustained demand for news, a demand that has continued.Since the Saudis are not hospitable to resident foreign correspondents, the major mediaorganizations fell back on the time-honored practice of recruiting “stringers.”A stringer is a free-lance journalist. He may be a professional journalist who roams the worldindependently, selling stories to anyone who will buy. The stringer may be a governmentemployee in a foreign land, or a diplomat’s wife or husband who moonlights on the side. He maybe a reporter or editor employed by a foreign newspaper or magazine. An overseas stringer, inshort, may be almost anyone. The reader is not likely to know, because the wire services andmagazines rarely, if ever, identify their stringers.Who gives us the news from Saudi Arabia?Occasionally we get it direct from a full-time American or European correspondent who gets intothe country with a visitor’s visa. In the case of The Post, that would be a couple of times a year.The main source of the news, however, is the stringer team working for the Arab News.This team has consisted of Tom Marinelli, a bachelor in his early 30s who came out to Arabia inDecember 1976 after a couple of years of newspaper experience in Springfield, Mass.; 30-year-old Bob Lebling of Gaithersburg, Md., who worked on papers in Egypt and Lebanon before goingto Jiddah in October 1976; Mary Jo McConahay, a sometime contributor to Rolling Stonemagazine, whose husband teaches at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran; EliasHaddad and Jihad al-Khazen, both in their 30s, both alumni of the English-language Daily Star in  Beirut. (Last month Lebling was transferred to Washington to open a bureau for the Arab News,and Jihad was transferred to London to edit a new Arabic-language newspaper there.)Among them, the quintet had the news franchise for the Western world. They were in a position,as one of them said, to “make as much money as you want” because the demand for stringer services exceeded their desire or capacity to produce. Lebling, for example, turned down stringer  jobs for ABC and NBC news.Is “stringer” news straight and uncontaminated? Sort of, and more or less. The government isinvolved.All Saudi newspapers were expropriated in 1966 (without compensation to the owners) and werehanded over to reliable friends of the ruling family. They are published at the sufferance of thefamily. And they are subsidized both directly and indirectly by the government. So they are carefulabout what they print. At least four broad subjects are off limits: the Islamic religion; the status of women; military and defense affairs: and the royal family.The same prohibitions affect the news supplied to Western clients by the stringers. Thus, while itwas well known for months in Jiddah that a royal princess and her lover had been executed for their liaison, that news never appeared in a Saudi newspaper and was never transmitted toWestern clients of the stringers.That is called protective self-censorship, and it is a practice that is by no means confined to SaudiArabia. A free and free-wheeling press is nonexistent in most countries of the world. What thosecountries get and what the West gets from its stringers in such places is some of the news that’sfit to print but not all of it.The propaganda problem is another concern. There is no evidence, in the case of the Saudistringers, of efforts to “doctor” or slant the news. But because there is no political debate in thecountry, and no tradition of critical or investigative journalism, what comes through in most casesis the government line.That is also true of the news allowed to come into the country. Articles and books that displeasethe regime are kept out. You won’t find Playboy magazine on the Saudi newsstands, and youmay find Time or Newsweek with pages or paragraphs cut out.So the pictures Americans get of Saudi Arabia and the pictures Saudis get of America aredistorted and incomplete.That is not the most significant problem affecting the relationship between our two countries. Butan aspect of the problem is causing concern among the Saudis. It was expressed in a recentspeech in Houston by the Saudi minister of industry, Ghazi al-Gosaibi. He deplored thestereotypes that affect our perceptions of one another and prevent mutual understanding andrespect.A partial solution of that problem would be a freer exchange of information by people in the newsbusiness operating under fewer restraints and restrictions. 
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