And now to tonight’s fake news …

September 29, 2014
Major Mariam al-Mansouri in plane

STRANGE NEWS: Major Mariam al-Mansouri comes from the UAE, where women are routinely discriminated against.

Last week’s news that a female fighter pilot from the United Arab Emirates had led an airstrike on ISIS strongholds inside Syria struck me as odd. Especially since The UAE isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for women’s equality. I mean, their biggest claim to fame on the topic is that unlike other Arab counties, they allow women to drive cars!

According to Human Rights Watch, the UAE isn’t exactly the National Organization for Woman. Islamic law in the UAE discriminates against women granting men privileged rights in divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Men in the UAE are allowed up to four wives, while forbidding Muslim women, but not men, from marrying non-Muslims.

So it seemed strange that there, looking at me from the pages of everything from The Washington Post to the New York Times, was Major Mariam al-Mansouri, touted as the first female fighter pilot in the history of The UAE in photos released by none other than that country’s own state news agency.

Media on both the right and left lapped it up. MSNBC used it as sycophantic proof that their favorite son and President had indeed achieved some coalition even as 90 percent of the sorties have been flown by Americans. On the right, Fox levered it to further advance a tired war narrative. Not a single media point stopped frothing long enough to even question how such a backward government would permit a woman to be on the front line.

I don’t know if Major al-Mansouri exists or not. I do know that she is a convenient foil to advance a UAE public relations campaign to portray itself as a modern contemporary society .. as well as the administration’s need to convince a war-weary public that we are not alone. See, even Arab women are fighting ISIS alongside us! Right? When a story seems too good to be true — it usually is.

Ironically, Al-Mansour’s story comes the same week that a Tampa Bay woman conned the world into believing she had a third breast cosmetically inserted. Selfies seemed to prove that Jasmine Tridevil had the work done, even though she’s known as an Internet hoaxer and a three-minute call to a cosmetic surgeon would have uncovered the fraud. But no one made the call, and the story went viral for days before the media realized it was an attempt to score a reality show. Who cares? Great click-bait trumps fact, right?

My loathing of fake news might seem in-congruent with my career, which is based on often persuading the media to see a client’s newsworthiness. But it’s just that process that makes PR work valuable.

Without a carefully discriminating media, the value of coverage diminishes to that of paid advertising. It’s the filter of analysis that keeps us employed on this side of the table. That’s why the media should have questioned the legitimacy and purpose of Major Mariam al-Mansouri and reality show wannabe Jasmine Tridevil.

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