How to Become a Global Affairs Expert
Global News this evening reported on the multi-city attack perpetrated by the Taliban over the last 24 hours in Afghanistan. Midway through their segment, a professor from Simon Fraser University named Andre Gerolymatos is shown sittng in front of a shelf of books, making the following no-frills assessment of the attack:
It demonstrates that effectively the United States and NATO have lost the war in Afghanistan.
This is a bold statement about a single attack in a very long war. The attack, aimed against multiple foreign embassies, NATO bases and other targets, resulted in a grand total of 18 casualties: 17 of which were the attackers. It might be a spectacular attack, but this was by no means a strategic victory for the Taliban.
Dr. Gerolymatos' confident but simplistic statement, and the fact that I had never heard of him before, prompted me to further investigate his credibility to assess the complex and illusory conflict in Afghanistan from his office on campus.
As it turns out, Dr. Gerolymatos is chair of The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at SFU, which is "committed to the study and teaching of Greek history language and culture", part of the Hellenic Studies program at SFU which "offers courses in Greek and Byzantine History, Greek language and Culture." He was trained in Classical Greek Studies. His publications include articles such as "Espionage and Treason: a study of the proxenia in political and military intelligence gathering in Classical Greece" (1986) or "The Role of the Greek Officer Corps in the Resistance" (1984).
Notwithstanding the historical fact that Alexander the Great spent many years of his career in Afghanistan some 2000 years ago, the links between Greek history and the current war in Afghanistan seem tenuous to me. It's possible my cursory investigations failed to unearth some more recent research, or other evidence, that would qualify Dr. Gerolymatos to be called upon by one of the country's major news sources as someone with any sort of relevant expertise on the Afghan conflict. However, no such evidence was offered by Global News.
And the habit of too many mainstream news outlets to have a handful of suitably appearing academic types on speed dial to testify on anything of international flavour showing up in the news, if they can be vaguely labelled as experts in "global affairs", gives me tendency to be cynical.
How does the leap of logic go exactly? "Oh you were once in Turkey? You should be able to comment on what's happening now in Pakistan. They are both in Asia." "You published an article on Chinese history? Just a stone's throw from contemporary Syrian politics really!" "You went backpacking in Honduras thirty years ago? That'll work. We need your expertise on the FARC in Colombia." Every good news story needs a bearded professor inserted midway through endowing us with his wisdom, afterall. Ideally, he will be seated behind a stately looking desk, with stuffy looking books as the backdrop, helping to establish his genius ability to be knowledgeable about everything.
It's very often the same "experts" called upon over and over to comment on a wide array of places and issues. It's not their expertise per se, but rather often their willingness to comment on anything, to give a good sound bite that distills complicated issues into digestible bits for the public.
The problem is that the simplicity of their commentary is not necessarily derived from their grasp of the subject matter, but often from their lack of it. It's easy to make sweeping, general statements about topics that we're unfamiliar with. But it's also very dangerous.
The Afghan war has been dictated to a large extent by perceptions in the West of how the war is progressing. Those perceptions have often failed to reflect what is actually happening on the battlefield, or to demonstrate any awareness of the transformative changes that have swept over Afghanistan since late 2001.
In democracies, where public opinion impacts the foreign policy behaviour of states, the media's coverage of foreign policy issues is a crucial determinant of political responses to crises in foreign lands. The media knows this, and as such, should take seriously their responsibility to truthfully and accurately transmit information to the best of their abilities. This means taking care in matching the expertise of commentators to the issue at hand, no matter how much extra time it takes to check out credentials and credibility.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.