Saturday, March 06, 2010

The social construction of reality

O hai! Light posting of late as a couple of projects trundle toward the runway, but here's a nice example of how reality is built between the Fair 'n' Balanced Network and its audience. These are comments on an article last November that begins: "Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was within the grasp of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001, but U.S. military leaders decided not to grab him, resulting in the long-term terror war that continues today, a new Senate report says."

What happened to Osama's name. Since January whenever his name comes up in the news it is Usama instead of the CORRECT Osama. I wonder if the King Ubama had something to do with this?

Who is Usama? When did his name change from OSAMA? Has OBama infiltrated the free press to distance himself from his roots?

Irony meters engaged? Fox News is the only US news organization I know of that renders bin Laden's given name as "Usama" (the AP-standard rendering of the Jazeera subscript here* is "Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida organization"). Everyone else has been using "Osama" more or less since he started showing up in the news. The earliest AP reference Lexis-Nexis has for "Osama bin Laden" is from February 1994; as far as I can tell, AP has only used "Usama" once, not counting the occasional quote from federal documents or indication that there's more than one transliteration. The NYT used "Usama" a few times in the early and mid-90s, and the Post has some from the early 2000s (at a glance, references to official documents in articles that use "Osama" on first reference). Even the Murdoch print properties (the WSJ and the New York Post) use "Osama."

So, um, WTF? I think this suggests for a notable part of the Fox audience, facts never get in the way of a good conspiracy theory. These are suspicious-enough readers to notice something, but not suspicious enough to notice that Fox has been using "Usama" all along (which means the added effort of changing it in AP stories that, following AP style, use "Osama") -- or that the commie-riddled organizations that Obama would have infiltrated first have been consistently "Osama." There's no way, short of some serious messing with the space-time rift, that this is a deliberate outcome for Fox, but it is sort of like finding a few $20 bills lying on the sidewalk. Readers get to dogpile on both the lamestream media and the Kenyan Muslim commie usurper, and Fox doesn't even have to buy the ink.

See? Who says your research agenda can't be fun?

* Windows is a pain; the given name is the أﺴاﻤﻪ



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The weird thing for me is that at work (Defense Department) we always called him UBL. "Osama" was hard to adjust to. Now Fox is using it??


9:00 PM, March 06, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

In standard Arabic there are only three vowels, a, i, and u, which can be long or short, and the diphthongs ai and au. E and o in the spelling of Arabic names reflects the pronunciations of the national varieties of Arabic (which are distinct enough to count as separate languages, as with the varieties of Chinese). So Osama or Usama, al-Qaida or al-Qaeda, as you please.

Lawrence of Arabia made the point muc better than I, commenting on the publisher's comments on his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

11:09 PM, March 06, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

Heh. I still use the Lawrence reply to scare young editors every now and then.

As much as "national" varieties of Arabic, tho, standard spellings in American (news) English also reflect different colonial histories; "Beirut" and "Kuwait" use the same /ay/ diphthong.

Many, or most, transliteration decisions like that are coin tosses. Some aren't. How coin tosses become social flashpoints is a whole nother set of stuff. (Believe it or not, that was largely what my MA thesis was about.)

11:50 PM, March 06, 2010  

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