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the Complete Review
the complete review - media / politics


People Like Us
(Hello Everybody !)

Joris Luyendijk

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase People Like Us

Title: People Like Us
Author: Joris Luyendijk
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 241 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: People Like Us - US
Hello Everybody ! - UK
People Like Us - Canada
Hello Everybody ! - India
Wie im echten Leben - Deutschland
Des hommes comme les autres - France
Gente come noi - Italia
  • US subtitle: Misrepresenting the Middle East
  • Original (Reportage Press) UK subtitle: The Truth About Reporting the Middle East
  • New (Profile Books) UK subtitle: One Journalist’s Search for Truth in the Middle East
  • Dutch title: Het zijn net mensen
  • Translated by Michele Hutchison

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective anecdote-filled book on the dismal state of journalism, and media coverage of the Middle East in particular

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 26/9/2009 Simon Kuper
FASz . 30/9/2007 Harald Staun
Jewish Political Studies Rev. . Fall/2007 Manfred Gerstenfeld
Trouw . 1/7/2006 Sjifra Herschberg
Welt am Sonntag A 9/12/2007 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "People Like Us helps explain the geopolitical tragicomedy of the past eight years. (...) Much of Luyendijk’s argument is familiar from the field of media studies. However, what sets People Like Us apart is that it is theory written by a practising journalist about a fantastically misunderstood region. The book applies beyond the Middle East: in Russia, where journalists trot around Kremlin press conferences as if that was the way to find out what was happening; and in South Africa, where journalists living in white Johannesburg suburbs were stunned by popular support for Jacob Zuma." - Simon Kuper, Financial Times

  • "Was aber dem Buch an analytischer Kraft fehlt, wird durch die haarsträubenden Szenen wettgemacht, von denen es berichtet, wobei vor allem die Tatsache erschreckt, dass all diese vermeintlichen Begleitumstände nicht längst tausendfach beschrieben worden sind (.....) Die Stärke von Luyendijks Buch liegt dennoch nicht darin, auf all die alltäglichen Inszenierungen und Lügen aufmerksam zu machen, sondern auf die Abgebrühtheit, mit der die Medien damit umgehen; die Ignoranz, mit der sie die Behauptung aufrechterhalten, objektiv zu berichten, im Dienste einer Wahrheit, die irgendwo hinter all den Bildern noch immer zu vermuten wäre." - Harald Staun, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "It details how the media create false images and how the author was a willing accomplice for many years. He thus confirms the lack of integrity of the media, particularly those with which he worked. (...) (H)e received an award for his reporting in 2002 that, if one reads his book, should instead have been a prize for his acting skills in the assumed role of a journalist. The jury apparently was not clever enough to detect the difference." - Manfred Gerstenfeld, Jewish Political Studies Review

  • "Het zijn net mensen is een polemisch boek. Iedereen en alles krijgt een veeg uit de pan, de Arabische dictaturen net zo hard als de Israëlische of Amerikaanse democratieën, de sufheid van de Palestijnse propaganda en de Egyptische censuur net zo goed als de standaard quotes van talking heads op de buis of de bedenkers van complottheorieën in de Arabische koffiehuizen. Maar het meest van al krijgen de media zelf ervan langs, de televisie voorop, vanwege hun bijna volmaakte onvermogen om waar dan ook behoorlijk over te berichten." - Sjifra Herschberg, Trouw

  • "Luyendijk hat ein Buch für Journalisten geschrieben, nach dessen Lektüre sich jeder fragen sollte, ob er oder sie mit dem ewigen Titeln des nächsten Blutbades und einer neuen Katastrophe tatsächlich seiner Aufgabe gerecht wird, halbwegs stimmig über den Verlauf der Welt zu berichten. (...) Erhellend ist das -- exzellent geschriebene -- Buch aber auch für jeden, der den Nahostkonflikt besser verstehen will." - Welt am Sonntag

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For five years, starting in 1998, Joris Luyendijk worked as a foreign correspondent for several major Dutch newspapers in the Middle East; he also did a good deal of radio and TV work. He lived in Cairo, Beirut, and (East) Jerusalem, and -- unlike most of the foreign reporters in the area -- actually knew Arabic -- though, as he points out, given the differences in spoken Arabic across the region, even just: "outside of the Cairo city limits, I could hardly understand a word of the various dialects."
       A true beginner, with essentially no background in journalism when he was sent off to Cairo, he realized quickly that he could adequately perform his role without much effort:

the basic task of being a correspondent is not that difficult. The editors in the Netherlands called when something happened, they faxed or emailed press releases, and then I'd retell them in my own words on the radio, or rework them into an article for the newspaper. This was the reason my editors found it more important that I could be reached in the place itself than that I knew what was going on. The news agencies provided enough information for you to be able to write or talk your way through any crisis or summit meeting.
       This reliance on pre-packaged information, especially from the news agencies and the likes of CNN, but also from the super slick Israeli and American PR-spinners, is one of the things that really bothers Luyendijk -- but, as he shows, it's also a trap that's hard to avoid, given the time pressures and the difficulties of obtaining information through other channels -- and the fact that in this sound-bite world, no one much seems to care about the whole story. In this anecdote-filled volume he gives many examples of how the headlines, wire-summaries, and brief bits of film footage entirely miss much of the (essential) background -- an idea that's hardly new, and that many are (at least on a theoretical level) 'aware' of, but that nevertheless is often shocking. Add to that the manipulation of the media that many have become so adept at -- and Luyendijk paints an especially unsavory picture of both the Israelis and the Palestinians in their ongoing media-war -- and the journalist isn't so much a purveyor of information as someone to be used in what amounts to an advertising campaign.
       Luyendijk acknowledges that truth is very, very elusive, even when one actively tries to get to the bottom of things and talks to locals, and he even goes so far as to suggest that it would be a major step forward if journalists were simply more willing to acknowledge in their stories that they're not sure about the facts. (One suspects, however, that such admissions would only serve as additional fodder for the critics of whatever story the journalist is trying to tell.)
       Luyendijk does make the useful point that journalism in the Arab states is hardly what can be considered journalism in the 'West' (though, as he notes in his afterword to the English-language edition, a great deal has changed even just in the three years since the original Dutch edition came out (but there's also much that remains fundamentally the same ...)). The dictatorial nature of Arab governments -- and, across the board, they're all dictatorial to some (usually greater) degrees, with Lebanon and Palestine the fairly feeble poster-children for Arabic democracy -- means there is no such thing as freedom of the press, and that government control is essentially absolute. The hair-raising examples from some of the Arab states clearly demonstrate the terrible levels of mis- and disinformation -- and, in his personal encounters with people on the street, suggest some of the cost of having a not-adequately-informed populace (though similar misguided opinions can be found in most any man-on-the-street interview in any American or British publication ...).
       In his dealings with bureaucracy and everyday life in a variety of countries, Luyendijk does give a decent introduction to the Arab world (well, the Middle East -- there's not really anything about the Maghreb). From hostile Iraq, indifferent to public opinion (i.e. the only place where journalists aren't at least treated a bit specially), to the pervasive petty corruption throughout the region, to the everyday hassles Israelis subject the Palestinians to, he gives a bit better sense of it than mere newspaper articles allow. He also repeats quite a large number of jokes from the region -- as if to prove that these folk can have a sense of humor too (though quite a few of the jokes are rather ugly).
       Certainly, he makes a good point in how the foreign media fails to portray the everyday human side of the Arabic population. He wonders whether it would help to think of all the newspapers and institutions known by their Arabic names in the 'West' by their English names: Al-Jazeera as 'The Island', Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaida as Devotion, God's Party, and The Basis ..... The difficulty of finding anyone who is willing to speak on the record is also a constant, as in these dictatorial regimes what they say can quickly come back to haunt them.
       Among the entities he finds most problematic -- but also typical for everything in the region -- are the (Western funded) human-rights organizations:
Their chance of getting the subsidies increases as they become more famous and, of course, Western journalists can help them achieve such fame. The consequences is a dodgy tango between journalists looking for good quotes and human-rights activists looking for publicity. I found it telling that, during my studies, not a single student knew any human-rights activists, let alone supported them. How, I thought, would I look on a Dutch organization financed by Iran or Saudi Arabia ?
       This idea of looking at things from this reverse-perspective is a useful one, and certainly one practiced far too little in the 'West'. As Luyendijk points out, the fundamental failure to engage with Arab concerns from their vantage point has also had catastrophic results, as the prevalent black/white, good guy/bad guy divide is a far too simplistic one. American (in particular) support for sclerotic and corrupt dictatorships -- first and foremost among them Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- obviously strike locals as completely at odds with claims of wanting to bring democracy and help the common Arab man in the region. Luyendijk is also correct to emphasize that the media has failed completely in addressing and trying to understand and explain:
the non-violent faction of political Islam -- those Muslims who say they want to express and promote their conservative or fundamentalist interpretations of of Islam without violence.
       Western governments -- kowtowing to and propping up the Arabic dictators -- have consistently sided with the dictators in suppressing these fundamentalists. One consequence has obviously been the radicalization of some of these groups, or parts of them -- but as Luyendijk points out, these group remain a great (and likely very significant) unknown.
       Disappointingly, the most 'controversial' part of People Like Us will be Luyendijk's treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As he notes, people (he means his Dutch countrymen, but obviously it also extends further) have: "invested much more emotional capital in Israel and Palestine than in the Arab world". And so:
If I made a factual error about the Arab world, the news floor would occasionally receive a letter saying, 'Your correspondent has made a factual error.' If I made a factual error about Israel, five letters would arrive saying, 'Your correspondent is anti-Semitic.'
       Turned off by (though also grudgingly admiring of) the slick Israeli media machine, Luyendijk goes through quite a few contortions in explaining the difficulties he finds in covering this conflict, and in particular the Israeli side. He even admits:
I deleted the sentence: 'In PR terms, the Holocaust is gold for Israel.' You can't put it like that in the paper, because you run the risk of one of the survivors of the Jewish persecution reading it and taking it the wrong way.
       (As to how American readers will take forthright admissions phrased like this in a book, it'll be interesting to see ..... One suspects it'll be more than five letters the publisher receives maintaining that the author is anti-Semitic ....)
       The emotional reactions are hard to put aside (and Luyendijk is similarly critical of some of the media-friendly outrages perpetrated by the Palestinians, though he notes that on the whole they're much worse at using the media to further their ends or even just present their stories), but People Like Us also shows that the failures of the media extend much further.
       The personal anecdotes and experiences are helpful in making Luyendijk's points, but People Like Us remains a bit unfocussed, its media criticism aimed far and wide, while it also tries to educate (about the Arab world). In the end, it doesn't feel quite certain what the book wants to be. Still, it's a useful and entertaining breezy read -- and presumably an eye-opener for those with no first-hand knowledge of the Middle East -- and a reminder that thinking critically about news coverage (every bit you see and read, right down to the book reviews ...) is probably a very wise course to take.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2009

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People Like Us: Reviews: Joris Luyendijk:

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About the Author:

       Dutch journalist and author Joris Luyendijk was born in 1971.

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© 2009-2012 the complete review

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