Hannah Beech

New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

One of journalism’s abiding truisms is that you’re only as good as your sources. Here’s exhibit A from the dawn of my own career, which is to say the mid-1960s.

My first newspaper job was as a glorified copy boy at Newsday, then headquartered in the New York City suburb of Garden City, Long Island. I say glorified because in addition to doing a lot of fetching I also wrote a spate of local obits when no one else was available.

I worked the overnight shift and it was on one such occasion that I called the home of a local man that a funeral home reported had died of natural causes.

Yeah, we did that, ignoring the intrusiveness of it all.

If we were lucky a relative or friend of the deceased would answer. To my surprise, the widow picked up the phone. She not only agreed to provide a few details of her husband’s life but sounded cheerful in the process. I took that to be odd but did not ask her why she sounded as she did out of my newbie reticence.

The following day, instead of running my three- or four-graph obit, the paper ran a lengthier piece on its prime news pages that carried the byline of a police beat reporter. My ebullient widow had been arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband.

Oh well, live and learn. Not every source is reliable.

I relate this (at the time, highly embarrassing) personal story as a lead in to a remarkable New York Times piece written by its Southeast Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech, who I've praised before.

In addition to filing the expected stories on Buddhist Myanmar’s genocidal attacks on it's Rohingya Muslim minority, Beech ably provides keen insight into how the media influences the conflict. She does so with great sensitivity. That makes her the perfect GetReligion subject, in my book.

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Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Before I get to the Facebook angle of this post, please indulge me as I note what I believe are two widely held beliefs that we'd be better off dropping. Blame it on a recent The New York Times piece on Buddhist Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The first is that Buddhists are all about peace and compassion. This idea persists in some circles, thanks to how Mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation practices are sold in the West. Well, get over it.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist religious leader Tenzin Gyatso, better known by his title, the Dalai Lama, is a rare exception. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks are some of the fiercest instigators of nasty anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Two, we tend to believe that all Nobel Peace Prize winners are saintly advocates for equal justice for all. Well, what about Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the esteemed prize in 1991 while under house arrest for her peaceful opposition to her nation’s dictatorial military government.

These days, as her nation’s prime minister-equivalent, she defends the way the Rohingyas have been treated by her Buddhist brethren. She argues that the Rohingya are simply Muslim Bangladeshis who, in essence, are illegal squatters in Buddhist Myanmar.

So what do you know? Buddhists and Nobel Prize winners can be just as broken as the rest of us.

Now for that New York Times piece out of Myanmar written by the paper’s new Southeast Asia correspondent, Hannah Beech. She’s new to the Times, but certainly not to the region or elite journalism.

What struck me most about her excellent piece, however, were not the naive beliefs cited above. Rather, it was what she reported about the role that Facebook and other social media have played in the conflict. (Facebook and other social media are also the subject of Congressional hearings this week because of how the Russians used them in an attempt to confuse voters in the United States' 2016 president election.)

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