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What I (largely) failed to say at the Al Jazeera conference

In blogging about my panel at the Al Jazeera forum last week – “Media and Power” – I mentioned that I’d found the experience of the panel frustrating. While that’s true – I find panels where six smart people all get less than ten minutes to speak profoundly disappointing – my frustration was actually much broader and had to do with the issue I’ve been fascinated by for the past few years: what we do and don’t pay attention to in the wider world.

The substance of my remarks won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog. I mentioned that my interest in media studies came from discovering how little news on Africa I could find in my daily newspaper – and how much I found, in comparison, to certain issues in the Middle East: Israel/Palestine, and, as I started doing my work, US/Iraq. I referenced some of the maps I’ve been making as part of the Global Attention Profile (but couldn’t show any, as none of the presenters were using slides.) I managed to get Johan Galtung‘s “The Structure of Foreign News” and the New World Information and Communication Order into a single (run-on) sentence. (Remarkably, I wasn’t the only person at the conference to reference the ill-fated UNESCO effort to demand diversity in media – it was raised in a question from the floor as well.) I talked about ways blogs can help correct biases in media, by amplifying stories that would otherwise get missed and by bringing “caring gaps” by drawing attention to individuals and through them, to the issues they care about. (I referenced my interest in Saudi politics through my interest in Ahmad Al-Omran’s Saudi Jeans…)

It certainly wasn’t the best talk I’ve ever given – under ten minutes, no slides is far from my best format – but I didn’t bomb. But it didn’t exactly inspire debate in the way that Amy Goodman’s critique of corporate media in the US, or Dr. Faisal al-Kasim’s contention that the US has lost the battle over public image in the Middle East. Only one of the dozen or so questions from the floor was addressed to me and I didn’t get a chance to answer it in the flood of other questions. It actually got to be pretty amusing as I sat in silence, typing for almost an hour. Joseph Samaha, a true gentlemen, ceded his time for closing remarks to me in the hope that I’d get more of a chance to speak!

I used my extra time to express a frustration I had with the conference as a whole and my panel in particular – almost every conversation at the conference seemed to turn into a comparison of the values of American media and the values of Arab media, specifically Al Jazeera. While this is an endlessly fascinating topic, there’s other issues that could be on the table. I was profoundly surprised that Sudan hadn’t been mentioned during the entire conference, despite my hope that Al Jazeera would be covering the nation closely, due to linguistic and geographical proximity. What does it mean to cover the entire globe from an Arab perspective? Does that mean a special focus on all Muslim nations? A focus on nations traditionally ignored by US media?

I ended up urging my hosts to take up a challenge I feel like most American media networks abdicated – cover the whole world, not just the countries that routinely make headlines. The management of Al Jazeera has decided to create a new channel – Al Jazeera International – which will broadcast in English and compete head to head with channels like CNN and Fox News.

While I think this is brilliant, I think it will be a tremendous disappointment if the new network covers the same stories as CNN, but with an “Arab perspective”. Far more interesting will be if the new network manages to have a different “footprint” than CNN or the BBC, with better coverage of majority Muslim nations, for instance. I’ll be watching carefully to see whether Al Jazeera International manages to cover Africa more closely than US networks – given the rise of Islam on the continent, the role Libya has tried to take in the African Union and geographic proximity, it would be a crime if AJI doesn’t cover African stories closely.

(You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the challenge I offered to Al Jazeera, as reported in the Guardian, has been interpreted as unconditional cheerleading for Al Jazeera. Citing a post where I simply transcribed what was said in a conference session, the blogger behind “Blogmeister USA” notes, “Here’s a sampling of how Zuckerman really feels about al-Jazeera. Shall we give him a set of pom poms and a megaphone?” Please do, Blogmeister. You can send them to PO Box 669, Williamstown, MA 01267. I’ll use them while I root for someone – Al Jazeera, CNN, Fox News – to cover Ethiopia properly.)

Walking off the stage after the panel (complicated by the flock of people centered around Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! :-), I was asked by an Al Jazeera journalist if I’d answer a question on camera. I’d done this half a dozen times already during the meeting and, of course, said “yes”. He asked me to resolve the contradictions between America’s failure to sway public opinion in the Middle East and our government’s continuing efforts to influence public opinion by spending money on Arab media. I did something I very rarely do – I refused to answer the question. Having just spent my stage time complaining that the conference was obsessed with a rivalry between US and Arab media, I sure as hell wasn’t going to weigh in on a debate that I thought was unfairly overshadowing other debates. The journalist, bemused at my refusal and my anger that no one appeared to have heard my comments, tried his next question – also on Arab/US media comparisons – shook his head and offered me his hand, which I shook…

My point – which I’m failing to articulate here almost as badly as I failed to articulate it on stage – is that there are more stories in the world than the “clash of values” between the US and the Middle East. I worry, based both on the discussions I had in Qatar and on this week’s news and blog focus on the Danish cartoons, that Arab media is shaping itself as a mirror to US journalism – diametrically opposed in its features, but ultimately displaying the same content. Mirrors are useful. But we also need telescopes, binoculars, microscopes and satellites, tools that let us see wider pictures and look deeper into complex situations.

Here’s hoping Al Jazeera International is more a satellite, less a mirror, and that it’s the first of many new ventures designed to give a broader view of the world.

My frustrations aside, I’m very grateful for Al Jazeera for making it possible for me to participate in their excellent conference and to get a sense for the complexities their network and Middle Eastern journalism as a whole face. I’m especially grateful that criticism I offered on and off stage has been taken constructively. I’m also very grateful that I attended the conference with a wealth of good friends who did their level best to explain the inner workings of Arab media to me – special thanks to Haitham and to Marc, both of whom tolerated a wealth of stupid questions and requests for translation. I’m tempted to record a new TV commercial: “Bloggers. Don’t leave home without them.”

3 thoughts on “What I (largely) failed to say at the Al Jazeera conference”

  1. I worry . . . that Arab media is shaping itself as a mirror to US journalism . . . .

    This point came up in a class on 1920’s talking-back-to-the-cannon novels last fall: that someone who resists a set of rules by diametrically opposing them — doing exactly what they say not to do — is still governed by that first set of rules. To oppose a system, you have to create a wholly new system, examine each piece of the old system and adopt it or throw it out or change it according to your own ideas.

    It’s harder to build new than to negate what is there already. It may be harder for people to see what you’re doing, as well. “I won’t” may look more like resistence than “I will for different reasons” .

    (It’s eerie, too, how much of the history I’ve learned from the turn of the last century replays at the turn of this one. Not all of it, thank God.)

  2. maybe a current.tv / al-jazeera mashup? a world narrative formed by individuals, run by professionals and framed by global zeitgeists?

    so when’s your start date? ;-)

  3. When a nation is faced with undemoctratic false propaganda trying to impose its will on another (as reflected in current US foreign policy) the FIRST thing it must do is state the truth. Correct the message. Deny the propaganda. This is very, very important, espcecially when everyone else in the world is seeing only the US message. When the Arab media finally is permitted to speak out and correct the lies stated by the US, it is now told it is a “mirror” of the US. I’m sorry folks, but nothing could be further from the truth. While some may say they’re tired of a conversation that begins to sound like “he said, she said”, one must look to who has the power to change this diametric. 90% of that power resides in the US; 10% elsewhere.

    Congtatulations Al Jazeera for a job well done.

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