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The Biggest Beneficiary of the Debt Ceiling Debacle? Bashar Al Assad

Almost no one in Washington has emerged happy from the debt ceiling fight. But farther afield, there’s at least one person who had good reason to be smiling: Bashar Al Assad, the president of Syria. On Sunday, as the House and Senate inched towards an agreement on the debt ceiling, Assad’s regime sent tanks into Hama, the focal point of the protest movement, quelling the unrest by shooting at protestors as well as innocent onlookers, and killing more than 70 people. Assad’s security forces killed people in other towns as well, bringing the death toll to as many as 100, according to reports. The crackdown, by some accounts, was the most extreme response from the government since the uprising began four months ago. And yet thanks to the drawn-out negotiations over the debt ceiling, it received very little attention in the American press. 

Syria’s geographic location and ties to Iran and Hezbollah make the country politically significant, while the size and intensity of the crackdown has signaled to some that the regime is feeling increasingly threatened. But even the most zealous news junkies wouldn’t have guessed this story’s significance on Monday. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post featured good but limited coverage of the crackdown. The Post, for example, ran a story about Syria on the front page, but it was only one skinny column running along the side, nowhere near as noticeable as the bold banner headlines that graced the front pages of the national newspapers when the news of violent protests broke in Libya. The papers had similar treatment on their websites. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both offered a fairly prominently displayed headline and short teaser on their homepage, but a reader had to scroll down to see them. Similarly, NPR featured the story in small type under two sub headings, neither of which were easy to spot on the homepage. Cable news was even more noticeably silent. According to an analysis of the available transcripts on LexisNexis, CNN was the only one of the three major 24-hour-news networks to cover Syria at all on Monday. MSNBC and Fox News, for their part, did not mention the country on any of their major shows.

It’s possible that Syria was referenced during the news segments that were missing from the transcripts. But it’s fair to say that during much of yesterday’s news cycle, MSNBC and Fox did not consider Assad’s brutal crackdown worthy of meaty coverage. As for CNN, an analysis of its transcripts showed that Syria was mentioned 48 times, much less than the word “debt,” which was uttered 743 times, and not much more than Celina Cass, an 11-year-old girl who disappeared in New Hampshire last week. Her name was spoken 19 times, more than twice the mentions of Bashar Al Assad’s name. “On the bright side,” quipped Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, “I have seen it reported repeatedly this morning that Casey Anthony has been ordered back to court in Orlando.”

Of course, it’s hard to blame the media for failing to follow more than one story at once when the main attraction is as potentially calamitous as a default on our nation’s debt. But after talking with several experts on crisis reporting, I found that it’s not the only reason that the horrible events in Syria aren’t getting the coverage they deserve.

Tom Hundley, the senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting who was formerly the Chicago Tribune’s Middle East bureau chief, says that Syria is one of the least likely countries in the region to grant visas to journalists. This was not the case in Libya, he points out, where Qaddafi was restrictive of journalists, but at least gave some of them access to the country. The Pulitzer Center, for its part, has recently tried unsuccessfully to get journalists into Syria. When I asked him why he thought that the cable stations hadn’t featured Syria more prominently, he guessed it was in part because “they have no pictures.”

Another factor is that the protest and subsequent crackdown in Syria don’t carry the same dramatic narrative qualities as the events that transpired in Libya, where Qaddafi initially lost ground to the rebels. “If suddenly it looked like the [Syrian] regime was going to collapse or there was going to be a major democratic change, then the novelty factor would hit and suddenly it becomes a new story,” says Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “But if protestors come out and get crushed, that’s the narrative we expect.” The Syria story may also be suffering from what Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at the Kennedy School, calls “Arab uprising fatigue.” 

Finally, the most basic reason for American media apathy is the most stereotypical: Americans tend to be less interested in foreign policy stories that don’t affect them directly. Ultimately, things that hit closer to home—like the debt ceiling crisis—will always attract more attention than stories where, as Hundley put it, “there is no American dog in the fight.”    

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic.