The Rise of Arab TV  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   May 2003

The Rise of Arab TV   

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

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One of the major television developments during the war in Iraq was the role of transnational satellite networks in the Arab world. Media analysts say these new players will have a profound influence on public opinion and policy formation.

Of all the technological issues that arose out of the conflict in Iraq, the most important may be "Arab networks...with Arab commentators covering this war," David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who reported on the Vietnam conflict, told CNBC viewers.

Sarah Lawrence professor and Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges agrees. "Arab satellite television stations have established themselves now as one of the main sources for information for the Arab world," he says. "They're challenging the hegemony of the American media."

The increasing presence and importance of Al Jazeera, a 24-hour, Qatar-based news channel that reaches more than 45 million people in Arab nations, raised several controversies during the war in Iraq. The first was that Al Jazeera broadcast a view of the conflict very different from its U.S. counterparts.

While U.S. television news media focused on military operations, Al Jazeera was "presenting something of the violence, the effects, the emotion" of the conflict, says Leila Hudson, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona, who monitored war news on U.S. and Arab networks.

This led to charges by U.S. officials and conservative commentators that Al Jazeera was airing propaganda.

Untrue, says Lamis Andoni, a journalist who has worked for print and broadcast media in the Middle East and the United States. Al Jazeera broadcast statements from U.S. government officials, showed the Central Command briefings and had a reporter embedded with U.S. troops, Andoni says. The network showed "a broader picture" of the conflict than U.S. news organizations, she says, because it also showed civilian casualties and the destruction of water, electrical and hospital facilities.

Gerges says neither Al Jazeera nor U.S. networks did enough analysis of the causes and consequences of reaction to the conflict. He is concerned that the Arab satellite stations are advancing the Iraqi perspective and do not "pretend to be objective," which was "doing a great deal of harm to their own audience."

Media analysts say television news operations in the Arab world and the United States would never present events or issues from the same perspective, because they are trying to reach audiences with different cultural experiences and frameworks. The fact that Al Jazeera offers "a different perspective than CNN" should not be regarded as a problem, says Mohammed el-Nawawy, a Stonehill College professor who has written about coverage of the Middle East. "Each network is trying to appeal to its audience."

U.S. network executives say the different perspectives offered by Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language networks are valuable in their deliberations about how to cover events in the Arab world.

"We have people monitoring Al Jazeera 24/7," says NBC News President Neal Shapiro. "It's a good reminder to think about how another part of the world sees the same story."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language networks help U.S. journalists understand the "Rashomon quality of news"--the phenomenon of different people witnessing the same event and coming away with widely varying interpretations.

Al Jazeera is a CNN affiliate and has working relationships with a number of U.S. networks. Other Arabic-language news operations have similar arrangements, and their footage could be seen on U.S. television during the war in Iraq.

Although U.S. government spokespersons have disparaged Al Jazeera's coverage, it has been an intelligence tool for the United States. The video feed from its rooftop cameras provided useful information for damage assessment. In the early days of the conflict, Al Jazeera sometimes had access to information before U.S. news media or the Pentagon did. The Pentagon learned about the video of the U.S. prisoners of war from the ambushed 507th Maintenance Company when Al Jazeera released an Iraqi TV tape of their interrogation. Fox News reporter Major Garrett told viewers that "senior military officials here at the Pentagon were very eager to see the video and they came to our booth and asked for permission to view it, because they had not seen it yet."

Al Jazeera's coverage of the war included much more graphic material than was aired on U.S. networks. One reason, says Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout, is that because of the long history of wars and turmoil in the Arab world, its viewers have come to accept that pain, death and destruction are part of the reality of combat.

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