Professor examines misportrayal of Taliban in the media

During a rare face-to-face interview, an American journalist spoke with a member of the Taliban. His young son sat upon his lap and told the journalist that Osama Bin Laden is not a good Muslim. This tame view of the Taliban is not commonly represented in American media.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of cultural studies and anthropology at George Mason University, presented “Can the Insurgent Speak?” on March 14 in the Pioneer Reading Room.

Gusterson has spent a large chunk of his time poring over newspapers and magazines. He aims to find the ways Muslim people and members of the Taliban, often called insurgents, are misrepresented in the American media.

Gusterson said his findings indicate such people are often dehumanized and stereotyped. U.S. citizens frequently see this in popular media sources, and in turn, develop a skewed viewpoint of insurgents.

“It’s deeply embedded in our conscious as an optic for viewing the Muslim troops,” Gusterson said, explaining the way many media consumers disregard distorted portrayals.

Gusterson first examined the depiction of insurgents from mainstream media sources.

His discussed the tropes or figures of speech that the mainstream media use to portray the Taliban. He said they are often described as cruel, sneaky and mysterious. Many expressions used by American journalists lead readers to conceive an image of facelessness for insurgents.

Gusterson quoted a writer from The New York Times that described the Taliban as “a canny but mostly unseen force.”

According to Gusterson, a journalist from NPR explained that the media is simply relaying the attack and hide method used by the Taliban. However, Gusterson said this interpretation works to demonize insurgents and to define them as opposites of Americans.

“[The media] portray them as different so you can feel justified killing the enemy,” Gusterson said.

The use of animal metaphors to describe the Taliban is common.

Gusterson said he has encountered words and phrases, such as breeding ground, nests, ant hole and Taliban-infested. He found an article from the Washington Post that said, “They are like bees. How many do you have to kill to get them all?”

Gusterson said the mainstream media gives a violent and cruel impression of insurgents. However, they neglect to highlight similar wrongdoings committed by the U.S. in the same fashion.

“When the media talks about [American] soldiers killing, they use military language, such as ‘collateral damage,’” Gusterson said.

There are journalists, however, who have broken past barriers to interact with insurgents. Gusterson focused on these journalists, who work from alternative media sources, for the second half of the lecture.

He told the story of Wafal Bilal, an Arab performance artist. “He wanted his artwork to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, to the travesty of the current war and to expose racist generalizations and profiling,” Gusterson said.

Other journalists, such as Nazir Roden, who works for the Rolling Stone magazine, and Dahr Jamail, who is famous for his reporting of the war in Iraq, have gained ground in etching more personalized images for insurgents.

Gusterson admitted to having a bias toward the alternative media’s portrayal of insurgents because they hold a more critical point of view when covering the war.

Gusterson’s lecture was part of Linfield’s Legacies of War project.

Carrie Skuzeski

Culture editor

Carrie Skuzeski can be reached at