Answering the ‘What is Aleppo?’ question

When reporting gaffe, New York Times made factual mistakes of its own, leading it to issue a correction, later a correction of that correction.

2016/09/11 Issue: 72 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Mamoon Alabbasi

During an interview with cable channel MSNBC, US Libertar­ian Party candidate for president Gary Johnson revealed that he did not know what Aleppo was.

When asked about his proposed policy on the Syrian city of Aleppo, much in the news in recent years because of its strategic position as Syria largest city and the target of sustained attacks that have left much of the city in ruins, Johnson did not understand the question.

“About?” asked Johnson. “Aleppo,” replied Mike Barnicle, an MSNBC commentator and regular panelist on the network’s Morning Joe show. “And what is Aleppo?” asked Johnson. “You’re kidding,” Barnicle said. “No,” said Johnson.

Barnicle explained that Aleppo was the “epicentre of the refugee crisis”.

The incident was widely ridiculed on social media and the hashtag #WhatIsAleppo was trending on Twitter soon after Johnson’s remarks.

When reporting the gaffe, however, the New York Times made factual mistakes of its own, leading it to issue a correction and later a correction of that correction. It referred to Aleppo as the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) in one instance and the as capital of Syria in another. In a third instance it called it a stronghold of ISIS. The final edit correctly identified Aleppo as “the war-torn Syrian city”.

At the end of the article, the Times printed the two corrections:

Correction: September 8, 2016

An earlier version of this article misidentified the de facto capital of the Islamic State. It is Raqqa, in northern Syria, not Aleppo.

Correction: September 8, 2016

An earlier version of the above correction misidentified the Syrian capital as Aleppo. It is Damascus.

The mistake by the New York Times was seen by some as more serious than Johnson’s.

“Gary Johnson will probably not be elected president in November but the New York Times is and will likely continue to be the country’s most influential newspaper — so its gaps in knowledge are far more worrisome,” wrote Jim Naureckas, the editor of FAIR. org, a media watchdog.

The New York Times was not alone.

Former US ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill appeared on MSNBC mocking Johnson’s lack of knowledge. So what did he do? Hill, too, misidentified Aleppo as “the capital of ISIS”.

Perhaps this could explain why there is little international solidarity with the besieged and bombarded rebel-held, eastern part of the city.

Painting all Syrian rebels with same brush as ISIS is indeed a heaven-sent gift for the Assad regime and its backers.

Maybe we should not be so hard on Johnson, who later confessed to MSNBC that he was “frustrated” with himself and that he has to “get smarter”.

Compare that to the position of US Green Party candidate for president Jill Stein, whose views on Syria are closer to that of Russia.

When visiting Moscow in December 2015, she blasted the United States’ “lawless domination” and called for “more collaborative approach” with Russia. She quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as agreeing with her “on many issues”.

There was no mention of Russia’s military role in Syria. Nor that of Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, either.

In fact, her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, expressed support for the Assad regime in Syria when he wrote an article giving legitimacy to elections conducted by the Syrian government in June 2014.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump, who heaped praise on Putin in addition to making bigoted remarks on Syrians.

Is life any better for the average Syrian because Trump, Stein or Baraka know where Aleppo is?

The Democrats do not fare much better. They first saw Syrian President Bashar Assad as a “reformer” then quickly disowned him as they pay lip service to the plight of the Syrian people.

They know very well all about Aleppo because their policies have helped make it what it is today.

Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi

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