There is one thing that ISIS, the mainstream U.S. news media, and the Donald Trump administration have in common: a preference for focusing on violent stories about Islamic conflict. While each of these groups hypes the conflict for different reasons, the outcome is the same. The Western-based public simply has few, if any, stories that contradict the narrative that the Islamic world and the West are at war.
A new documentary by "Cartel Land" filmmaker Matthew Heineman is set to disrupt that view. "City of Ghosts" follows a group of citizen journalists from Raqqa, Syria, who eventually flee their homes due to death threats from ISIS. The film is a moving account of courageous journalism, but even more important, it offers a powerful counterpoint to the logic of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. By focusing on Syrian victims of ISIS who are using journalism to fight back, it tells a story that is almost entirely absent in the mainstream media.
The film is at both uplifting and heartbreaking as it follows the life-and-death challenges faced by a group of friends from Raqqa who had participated in the Arab Spring only to later watch as ISIS tanks rolled into their city in July 2014. They founded “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” — RBSS — a website of citizen journalism that was designed to tell the story of the assaults by both ISIS and the Assad regime on the civilians of Raqqa.
And yet, even though some of their reporting made it to mainstream news channels, overall it has not been the on-the-ground reporting by Syrians fighting ISIS that dominates news media coverage of the conflict. A new study by Meighan Stone, a fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center and former president of the Malala Fund, argues that the predominantly negative coverage of Muslims and refugees on U.S. TV news contributes to negative public opinion of Muslims and, in turn, policies such as President Trump’s Muslim ban.
Stone analyzes the major newscasts of three outlets — CBS, Fox and NBC — and finds that during a two-year period from 2015 to 2017, there was not one month where positive stories about Muslims outnumbered negative stories: “War and terrorist activities were the major focus of news reports, with ISIS serving as protagonist 75 percent of the time, while positive coverage, such as human interest stories or those depicting Muslims as productive members of society, were overlooked.”
She further finds that in stories where Muslims were the focus, only 3 percent of the voices heard were those of Muslims, while Trump spoke on their behalf 21 percent of the time. In addition, she notes that stories about refugees were also negative in tone. Given the fact that more than half of the global refugee population is Muslim, such reporting further fuels hostile attitudes toward the Muslim community and the plight of refugees.
This overwhelmingly negative reporting, Stone suggests, was directly responsible for public support of Trump’s call for a Muslim travel ban.
The idea for the ban emerged in late 2015, when then Republican presidential candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump described Muslims as “a dangerous threat to America.” “Our nation,” Trump argued, “cannot be the victim of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and no sense of reason or respect for human life.” At that time an ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 36 percent of Americans, and 59 percent of Republicans, believed that Trump’s proposal “was the right thing to do.”
While the efforts to implement the travel ban hit some early roadblocks, on Monday the Supreme Court allowed parts of President Trump's travel ban to go into effect and they plan to hear oral arguments on the case this fall.
But the only reason the concept of the ban exists is because there is a manufactured fear of Muslims that simply doesn’t line up with reality.
Stone reminds us that out of a global Muslim community of over 1.6 billion people, the United States has resettled a mere 784,000 refugees since 2001. Of those, only three refugees have been arrested for terrorist activities and they are all currently in prison.
Stone’s research further shows that U.S. journalists don’t just obsess over ISIS; they also ignore positive developments in the Muslim community. She notes that in December of 2015, Muslim activists held a public march against ISIS and terrorism. Organizers of the march summarized the news media’s response to their effort in one word: “silence.”
She explains that negative stories about Muslims come from both anti-Islamic think tanks and the mainstream media. As the Center for American Progress reports, there is a network of Islamophobic interests who have tried to equate mainstream American Muslims with the perverted brand of Islam promoted by ISIS.
Describing the story of the West and Islam as a civilization vs. jihad battle serves to stoke extremism on all sides. It bolsters the anti-Islam faction in the United States and fuels the ISIS argument that the West is hostile to Islam. Back when Trump had first announced his travel ban in January, the Washington Post reported that jihadists celebrated, saying the policy validated their claim that the United States is at war with Islam.
The Post quoted Robert Richer, a 35-year CIA veteran and former chief of the agency’s Near East division, who said the ban was a “strategic mistake.” “This was a win for jihadists and other anti-U.S. forces,” said Richer, the deputy chief of the agency’s Operations Directorate during the George W. Bush administration. “It fuels the belief out there that Americans are anti-Islam. Otherwise, it accomplishes nothing.”
This is why next week’s release of "City of Ghosts" is such perfect timing. Coming on the heels of a Supreme Court decision that allows some features of the travel ban to remain in place and following the release of a news media study that shows that coverage of the Muslim world is disproportionately negative and violent, "City of Ghosts" offers viewers an intense and intimate view of a group of Syrians who have risked their lives to tell the story of their city.
The voices in the film are almost entirely those of the Syrian journalists who form RBSS. Rather than depict the group as heroes, the film emphasizes the fact that they are average guys living in extraordinary circumstances. Scenes show them joking about finding one reporter a wife some day and teasing another reporter, a former math teacher, for his bad grammar.
These light moments are contrasted by close-up shots of their faces as they receive incoming news from Raqqa. We watch them process the information they receive via video clips and texts from both a personal perspective and a journalistic one. At times they brush away tears or puff on cigarettes to push past their intense sorrow at what they are seeing happen in their hometown.
Most of the founding members of RBSS were school friends who started reporting on the anti-Assad movement in Raqqa in 2012. When ISIS arrived in Raqqa in July 2014, their coverage of the events became even more risky. "City of Ghosts" gives viewers a rare sense of what it is like to have ISIS take over a city. Families try to continue on as usual while ISIS performs public executions and attempts to terrorize the population.
Different from the sterilized images of ISIS violence seen in the mainstream media, "City of Ghosts" screens images of beheadings, hangings, assassinations and other outrageous violence from a human perspective. Often the viewer watches one of the RBSS reporters watch the footage — a technique that doesn’t allow the viewer to forget that this violence affects real human lives.
In one especially painful sequence we see two RBSS members, who are brothers, watch ISIS murder both their father and their brother. The effect of these sequences is powerful: These shots humanize the many Syrians who are victimized by ISIS and they also show that despite suffering extreme threats to their lives, they refuse to give up.
“The rape of Raqqa,” as it would later be called, was not reported internationally at the time, but RBSS continued to try to create a public record of events. After one of their members was arrested and executed, they sought asylum in Turkey and Germany.
Given the fact that most of the journalists are now refugees, the film also serves to offer viewers a much-needed corrective to myths about refugees. Watching these brave reporters seek a safe space from which to continue their work is a clear reminder that the battle with ISIS isn’t between Islam and the West; it is between those who seek peace and those who profit from conflict. The film serves as a powerful corrective to the notion of a travel ban as an effective way to make the United States safer.
As the RBSS reporters explain in the film, no one cared about what was happening in Syria until ISIS started to attack Europe and the United States. These reporters have firsthand knowledge of what ISIS can do to communities, and they are committed to fighting them with their stories. They are some of the best allies the West could ever have in the fight against ISIS terrorism.
And yet, as they relocate in Germany, they have to contend with hostility toward Muslim refugees. Rather than see these reporter refugees as allies, for some Germans they are only seen as a potential threat. While the film shows the RBSS reporters feeling exhausted and frustrated with attacks coming at them from multiple quarters, their unwavering commitment to use journalism to combat terrorism offers viewers a unique glimpse into their courage.
Throughout the film the members of RBSS repeat the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword. Faced with death threats, they answer by saying that they are sure that words are stronger than arms.
"City of Ghosts" makes it clear that one of the major battles is over who controls the narrative — who tells the story of Raqqa and who defines the forces in opposition. As the members of RBSS learn, ISIS does not just deploy brute force; it is also extremely skilled at crafting its own image and disseminating it on various media platforms. "City of Ghosts" shows viewers various ISIS promo videos that are used to help recruit new followers and intimidate any opposition. Combining grotesque snuff footage with Hollywood effects, these videos are a stark reminder of the way that ISIS has used media to attract followers.
As we watch ISIS videos designed to recruit children, Western-based viewers will also get the sense that ISIS is winning the media war. While ISIS churns out promo videos, the Western media continues to obsess over ISIS in ways that play right into their narrative.
In fact, it is only coverage like that offered by RBSS that really offers a different view — one that documents in detail the suffering in Syria, while also showing us that the vast majority of ISIS victims are Muslim. A 2016 study showed that between 82 and 97 percent of all terrorist victims are Muslim. And yet, given the biased news coverage we consume, few in the West know that.
This means that the RBSS reporters are not just facing death threats for telling the story of their city to the world; they are also facing an onslaught of misperceptions about them.
And that is where their real heroism comes in. In addition to showing the journalists as fathers, brothers, sons and friends who are simply trying to make sure that the story of what has happened to their city reaches the public, "City of Ghosts" also focuses on how they cope with fear. In the first shots we learn that they have suffered numerous death threats. We watch videos of their family and friends being executed. We see them pack quickly to leave for a safe house. We see them harassed by Islamophobes. We see them live with a constant barrage of stress.
As the film closes, Aziz, one of the reporters, flatly remarks, “Either we will win or they will kill all of us.”
The brilliance of the film, and the reason why it is such a must-see in the United States right now, lies in the message it sends about how a group of people can cope with the threat of terrorism. Unlike our president and his administration, these men didn’t respond to the threat of ISIS by demonizing entire nations or religions or by building walls between people. They sought to change the story, to offer not just information about Raqqa but another view of the world.
"City of Ghosts" opens in New York on July 7 and select theaters on July 14.