In its nine-year
history, the Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera has been
the subject of much debate. From glorification to vilification,
the station has been described as “radical” by its
detractors and as an “alternative” medium by its
admirers (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003, Miles, 2005). Since
the launch of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, Al Jazeera,
already of immense popularity in the Arab world, solidified
its reputation as the go-to source for “alternative”
news for much of the Western hemisphere. Currently, the station
is in an ambivalent position "vis-à-vis"
its regional and global audiences --in some instances serving
as the sole voice of discursive dissent and in others acting
as the major mainstream broadcaster in the Arab world. This
paper assesses the narratives of “nativity” and
“alterity” as they pertain to Al Jazeera, thereby
comparing its corporate institutional “wholesaler”
properties to the station’s seemingly contradictory role
as an alternative news provider. Does Al Jazeera fall into the
category of “alternative media?” In its current
structure, how do characterizations of the station as “counter-hegemonic”
of alternative media must encompass distinctions of the “alternative
press” that position such media in relation to the mainstream
media. Once this contrast is established, the task is to highlight
the frequently overlooked yet common chiasms between the mainstream
and alternative media. It is precisely these chiasms that contribute
to the loose categorical groupings of mainstream and alternative.
How does this vague territory help assimilate “alternative”
media into the mainstream? Conversely, how do mainstream media
employ strategies of alterity to create the image of alternative
of Al Jazeera as an alternative medium, prior to its employment
by the station and its advocates as a promotional tool, seems
to have emerged from early writings in the West. Aside from
providing succinct analyses of Al Jazeera’s history and
development, the writings of Arab media scholars (El-Nawawy
& Iskandar, 2003; Miles, 2005; Sakr, 2002; Zayani, 2005)
have inadvertently contributed to the image of the “alternative”
network, making Al Jazeera more attractive to activists in the
Media and the Counter-Hegemonic
the terms “mainstream media” and “alternative
media” have been used loosely and frequently by commentators,
pundits, and the public to refer to widely divergent entities.
The nature and definitions of alternative media have often been
contested terrain. From their responsibility towards a viewing
audience, to their ability to reflect the aspiration of a socially-conscious
citizenry, the characteristics attributed to “alternative
media” have undergone a process of continual self-identification
(Downing, 1984). However, the literature indicates several common
definitional themes, most of which arise from their contrast
to mainstream media.
mainstream counterparts, which serve as sizable information-processing
inventories, alternative media’s values tend to revolve
around participatory democratic ideals of a mobilized citizenry.
Not simply venues for the dissemination of information, alternative
media are often identified as “facilitators of social
communication and change” (Tomaselli and Louw, 1989, p.
213). This theme of alternative media’s responsibility
towards social change is pervasive throughout the literature.
regimes, publics tend to hold overwhelmingly cynical and predominantly
untrusting views of political and economic establishments. Therefore,
Al Jazeera’s dissenting discourses are potentially a verbalization
of Arab publics’ critiques of government. To a large extent,
Al Jazeera’s programming meets does meet this criterion
as the station targets monarchical regimes in the region, fielding
attacks against political and economic corruption throughout
the region, and serving as a voice of dissent and forum for
various national opposition movements.
with a radical political agenda, another common theme of alternative
media definitions is an affirmation of their responsibility
towards, and relationship to, social movements (Downing, 1984).
Examples of these are pervasive, including: the opposition press
of the suffrage movements (Kelly, 2004; Lumsden, 1998), the
abolitionist press in the US (Rhodes, 1998), the “underground”
media’s role in the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto,
and the Zapatista uprising’s cyberprotest (Russell, 2005).
The common alignment between alternative media and a respective
social movement often develops into a symbiotic relationship.
This affiliation is produced by news organizations’ efforts
to engage and activate audiences. Their presentation of “[m]obilizing
information” (Stanfield and Lemert, 1987) produces mediated
content with the intention of promoting social involvement in
a respective movement. The overarching desire for such media
is to instigate social change by enticing audiences to become
responsive, reactive, and engaged with ideological social movements.
This symbiotic relationship between “alternative”
media and activism often elicits accusations of bias and partisanship.
criticism is lobbed at Al Jazeera, with critics pointing out
the channel’s incitement of activism against Arab regimes,
violence against US interests, and hatred of Israel. While the
station has provided a platform for the broadcast of radical
voices, Al Jazeera doesn’t appear to align itself with
any social movement directly. Conversely, there are no definitive
signs of an ongoing, coherent, and cohesive relationship between
Al Jazeera and any one issue, ideology, or group in the Arab
world or beyond. While the station has been called “Bin
Laden’s mouthpiece” by critics (Bin laden alive,
2002; Darwish, 2001; Taylor, 2001), Al Jazeera, in fact, does
not appear to have internalized or adopted the ideologies of
any specific social movement in its coverage.
criteria that define alternative media focuses on their unique
operational characteristics. Definitions of mainstream media
as an antithetical structure view them as largely monolithic,
centered on profit, hierarchical organizations which, by virtue
of their professional routinization and codification, are implicitly
exclusive (Downing, 1984). On the other hand, more radical alternative
media are democratic in terms of access and political aims,
distancing themselves from the “elitist professional”
ideals of the mainstream press. This characteristic of alternative
media cannot be met by Al Jazeera, as the station functions
much the same way as most mainstream institutions function --
it is a non-collective media enterprise.
following prescribed Western mainstream media formats and styles,
the station’s news values, as enshrined in the broadcaster’s
recently released code of journalistic ethics, differs little
from those of major transnational broadcasters CNN and the BBC.
A sizable number of Al Jazeera’s staff responsible for
producing marketing and publicity for the station are Western-trained
and educated. This has led to a rapid growth in Al Jazeera’s
operations including the incorporation of a sports channel,
children’s channel, and an upcoming English-language news
station. Such franchising operations and the expansive reach
of Al Jazeera’s commodified brand name raise some doubts
about the extent to which Al Jazeera can be characterized as
an “alternative” medium.
(1984) also identified “non-hierarchical” structure
as a characteristic that distinguishes alternative institutions
from their mainstream counterparts. This involves mostly collective
modes of organizational operation. He defines the radical media’s
operations as produced and composed primarily by non-professionals.
Instead, groups that are primarily activists working for progressive
social change are the purveyors of alternative media content.
But overall, Al Jazeera is in fact structurally on-par with
its Western mainstream counterparts in terms of organization
and planning. The station’s operations are no more collective
than network television stations in the US. In fact, Al Jazeera’s
reporters and editors have years of experience in the industry.
They possess extensive training from some of the world’s
leading news agencies. Therefore, the image of an amateur staff
operating an alternative medium is not applicable to Al Jazeera.
further explicates Downing’s criterion of non-hierarchical
structure, suggesting that alternative media function first
and foremost as journalistic operations. In his discussion of
the British anarchist press, Atton observed that these media
are characterized not just by their critiques of mainstream
media, but also by the alternative values and frameworks that
underpin their news coverage (p.10). From the accommodation
and employment of the “native reporter” as an integral
component of message-construction to emphasis on “active
witnessing” and the transformation of “social movement
news,” the mainstream conventions of media structure are
eschewed by such institutions. Compared to other global media
institutions, Al Jazeera does exhibit the criterion of “native
reporter” to a great degree in its coverage of the Arab
world, but it is not applicable to coverage of other geographic
locales. Hence, the notion of "native reporter" while
evident in some instances, is not a strategic approach employed
by Al Jazeera. Furthermore, the Western professional training
of Al Jazeera staff and their increasing cosmopolitanism complicate
the naively-conceived notion of "native reporter."
Nonetheless, at times the appeal of Al Jazeera for Western media
and audiences has much to do with the perception of their coverage
as regional, indigenous and “native.” Less applicable
are the other two criteria of "active witnessing,"
and “social movement news."
the most striking feature of alternative media is their “perceived”
counter-hegemonic” agenda. An emphasis on providing counter-information
(Downing, 2001) that is nonhierarchical (Atton, 2002b) and collectivistic-democratic
(Hochheimer, 1993) is a crucial defining feature of alternative
alternative media could be defined distinctly as those that
provide representations of issues and events that are in opposition
to the portrayals of the same issues and events in the mainstream
media. Although some scholars divide alternative media into
“oppositional” and “advocacy” media,
depending on which of these goals is most central to their mission
(e.g. Jacubowicz, 1990, Sholle, 1995), it might be useful to
conceive of these as different goals of alternative media. Downing
(2001) argues that such media typically perform dual functions
as “counter-information institutions” and “agents
of developmental power.”
of such radical media suggest the existence of specific and
coherent goals. However, in today’s anti-capitalist movement,
Downing (1984) argues, such goals are less rational, creating
a diffuse alliance of anti-establishmentarian narratives.
this binary construct of radical-mainstream media relations,
Atton (2002a) employs Gramscian hegemonic criteria to illustrate
the interchanges between the two types of institutions. In doing
so, Atton (2002a) suggests that the categorical distinctions
between the two are loose and vague. The lines, he argues are
not only dull already vague, but continue to blur more. Rather
than view the two entities as discrete fields of symbolic production,
it is more evident that they are situated within the same landscape
of cultural construction (Couldry & Curran, 2003). Hegemonic
structures dictate relations between the two. In Gramscian terms,
the structure is maintained based on by a bourgeoisie logic
that intends to contain and incorporate dissident values of
subordinate groups within the same ideological space. Hence,
alternative discourses are assimilated into the mainstream,
appearing permanent, natural, and common-sense despite continual
redefinition and mutability (Couldry & Curran, 2003).
in mind Downing’s (1984) presentation of alternative media
as modern, anti-capitalist institutions, it is clear that Al
Jazeera is instead situated in the mainstream media realm. Al
Jazeera is even less rational than much of the media described
by Downing and Atton (2002a, 2002b) because it does not represent
a movement of any kind. Furthermore, since the station’s
inception in 1996, the broadcast of such dissent has been emulated
by other satellite broadcasters in the region, thereby mainstreaming
most of the station’s news discourses.
situate Al Jazeera’s discourses of self-promotion directed
towards Arab and Western audiences, definitions of alterity
must be investigated. Schutz (1998), whose discussion of alterity
in the educational context is quite revealing, described alterity
as “absolute otherness” and argued that narratives
can provide a form with which to "grasp" the alterity
of an individual's past without reducing it necessarily to the
"shared," or the "same."
also employ a post-colonial definition of alterity which is
informed by the institutions of power and colony. Loomba (1998)
characterizes alterity as a cooption by westernized postcolonial
intellectuals and institutions that run the risk of becoming
what she calls “otherness machines” and whose primary
role is to manufacture alterity. Such criticism is especially
pertinent to media institutions.
(1998) and Loomba’s (1998) definitions are congruent in
their portrayal of the alternative as overwhelmingly intriguing
and attractive. Hence the popularization and mainstreaming of
alterity is endemic to both the colonial enterprise and the
non-opportunistic exoticization of the “other.”
In either case, the incorporation of all or part of the subaltern
into the larger mainstream establishment is an act of cooption.
Some scholars such as Jacobs (2001) even advocate the assimilation
of alterity to the establishment to encourage multiculturalism
within it. Jacobs discusses the assimilation of marginal alternative
narratives in the public administration sector indicating that
transplantation and internalization of these narratives into
the dominant discourse is beneficial. This assimilation is both
intentional and beneficial for the mainstream establishment’s
success and continued appeal.
to the media institutions and their content, the cooption of
alterity by the mainstream media is both prevalent and strategic.
And while the subaltern is subverted and incorporated into the
larger hegemonic narrative, the hegemonic succeeds in asserting
its domination over the subaltern while appearing to embody
a renewable, cosmopolitan, diverse and alternative other. The
successful assimilation of the subaltern into the mainstream
ensures that hegemonic structures remains invisible.
successful incorporation of subaltern discourses into their
programming content is both prevalent and noticeable. The station’s
news coverage of opposition groups and dissident currents regionally
and international are widespread and reflect a substantial concentration
on counter-hegemonic discourses. However, because of the station’s
motto “the opinion and the other opinion,” these
discourses are often balanced with establishmentarian narratives
that affirm and reflect the status quo in each respective case.
These attempts to strike an equilibrium between mainstream and
subaltern messages affirm the station’s distance from
the ambitions of any particular social or political movement.
Like most mainstream media, disconfirming any perceived political
or social loyalties ensures immunity from criticism.
narratives cannot be incorporated within a mainstream system
without losing their ideological, counter-hegemonic purpose.
Atton (2002a) asks: “is a counter-hegemonic discourse
inevitably diluted by the adoption of its primary features in
the mainstream press?” (p. 491) While radical media appear
to gain strength from their borrowings from mainstream media
the adoption of mainstream media values, practices, formatting,
and style often streamlines narratives eventually eliminating
alterity altogether (Herman and Chomsky). Therefore, the mainstreaming
of alternative discourse defangs the alternative narratives
without promoting their agenda.
or presentation of a media outlet or its content as subaltern
tends to be the product of a perceptible image. This image of
an alternative medium can be produced and reproduced based on
two overlapping and interdependent parameters: audience-attribution
and self-attribution of alterity.
In the case
of Al Jazeera, for example, audience attribution means that
viewers of a news outlet or product characterize it as “alternative”
in comparison to their customary press environment. These definitions
and attributions tend to be anything but reliable. Audiences
differ in their interpretation of news and analysis content
and there may be little or no consensus on its status as "alternative."
Instead, most characterizations and attributions of alterity
to a media product are constructed by media producers themselves.
What constitutes an alternative production tends to depend on
whether its employees define it as such. Self attribution may
be a product of either corporate strategy or a genuine desire
to meet the conditions of alternative media described by Downing
(1984) and Atton (2002a, 2002b).
alterity, as employed by Al Jazeera, resembles the marketing
strategy for a corporate brand. Alterity is manufactured by
the station to promote its image as an alternative news provider.
Self-attributed alterity itself is not an uncustomary practice
among mainstream media organizations who market their brand
by emphasizing uniqueness, distinction, and contrast to their
competitors. A station like Al Jazeera has, despite being a
large-scale institutionalized media establishment, effectively
co-opted and constructed the “image” of alterity
to serve purposes of audience and profit.
achieve variable degrees of success in self-attributing alterity.
For example, Newscorp’s Fox News Channel and American
right-wing talk radio conglomerates have been successful in
disseminating an image of alterity and arguing their status
as alternative outlets compared to a liberal mainstream media
(Viguerie & Franke, 2004). Most striking are the contradictions
between the denotative definitions of alternative media and
the usage of the label. For instance, Bill Clinton was once
proclaimed the “King of the alternative media” by
the "American Journalism Review"because he
was the first US presidential candidate to give an interview
to MTV, the Arsenio Hall Show, and local television
affiliates of the major networks. In Alicia Shepard’s
article, all those sources, along with satellite television,
were defined as alternative media sources (1997). A "USA
Today" article on the new age of alternative media
described Fox News Channel, the National Rifle Association's
NRANews.com, and a holistically labeled “Internet”
as growing alternative media sources.
has been employing an internally circulating slogan that reiterates
and emphasizes their contrast to the mainstream. The marketing
statement -- “Everyone watches CNN, but who is CNN watching
… Al Jazeera” -- is placed on a mosaic background
of tiny images from the station’s programming that together
create an oversized eye, suggesting a more authentic view of
the news. By juxtaposing the mainstream global media establishment
(in this case CNN) with the dissident, Al Jazeera not only confirms
its alterity, but also suggests it has a more indigenous connection
“alternative” media do not have a monopoly on alternative
narratives. Instead, mainstream media organizations are often
judged based on their ability to reflect alterity. Before becoming
a mainstream medium with immense popularity, Al Jazeera started
as an alternative medium and effectively mainstreamed many previously-subaltern
narratives. While the station’s programming contrasted
with the majority of regional networks in content and editorial
policy (at times even verging on the counter-hegemonic), its
institutional structure did not meet Atton’s (2002a, 2002b)
and Downing’s (1984) definition of alternative media.
Jazeera is "the" social movement
evident signifier of Al Jazeera’s status as an alternative
media source is a growing appeal by US-based activism to defend
the network against government and public criticism. The "Friends
of Al Jazeera" is one such group that emerged in recent
months. The group’s Web site details Al Jazeera’s
quest for a voice in the global media scene. Created by self-proclaimed
veteran student activists from Canada, South Africa and Jordan
with a grassroots agenda, the group even developed a so-called
“manifesto” in which they coupled Al Jazeera’s
effort at world recognition and access with other grassroots
media such as Indymedia and "Adbusters" etc.
The station is referred to as a “bastion of hope for a
humanize and personify the media organizations themselves, allowing
them to possess human rights. Transplanting human rights discourse
to news organizations is perhaps the most effective way of maintaining
and promoting alterity. Such practices have been effectively
employed by right-wing media in the US. Conservative talk-radio
has for many years maintained its alterity from the perceived
“liberal” mainstream media (Viguerie & Franke,
2004). Similarly, campaigns to support Al Jazeera characterize
the station as a conveyer of postcolonial resistance to Western
hegemony. One article from the "Friends of Al Jazeera"
inventory was headlined “The Empire writes back!”.
Al Jazeera is described as an anomaly, the first “company
from the ‘Third World’ to break into the mainstream.”
The creation of a narrative of counter-hegemonic alterity along
the post-colonial model helps propel Al Jazeera’s image
as an alternative voice that “represents the other”
and the “first significant challenge to Western hegemony
and its monopoly on truth.” In essence, the station is
seen as representing its constituency -- if Arabs are subaltern,
so is “their” station. Without a clear agenda or
ideology, Al Jazeera itself becomes the social movement for
which the station and its supporters are advocates.
Western eyes, Al Jazeera sometimes appears to be alternative
because it is the “only alternative.” That is also
the case in the Arab world where the station provides a contrast
to most authoritarian, totalitarian media stations run by domestic
governments, with institutional barriers of monitoring and censorship
restraining their practice and ministries of information serving
as clearinghouses for news. While Al Jazeera has become in some
respects the "de facto" alternative media
source for the Arab world (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003; Zayani,
2005), Arab news media are sometimes inaccurately characterized
as alternative simply because of their contrast to mainstream
(1984) argues, “commercially viable audience is discovered
and alternative media become specialized additions to the established
media. This only happens when the newcomers are also within
the general spectrum of established politics.” (Downing,
2001, p. 35) Likewise, for many Westerners, Al Jazeera has become
emblematic not only of an alternative voice, but also a “native”
voice from the Arab world. Al Jazeera quickly became the go-to
alternative for alternative press on US policy. And yet institutional
and political-economic characteristics of Al Jazeera as a station
have instilled in the station it the very attributes that identify
corporate media in the West. To activists, in comparison to
the products of US-based media organizations, Al Jazeera’s
discourses appear to be dissenting. But in a substantive analysis,
the station in fact meets few standards of alternative media.
are two locales of debate--the Arab audience and the Western
audience--that must be disaggregated for any clear understanding
of Al Jazeera’s role as an alternative press to be identified.
Al Jazeera continues successfully to construct the image of
an alternative medium. Diasporic Arabs in the West who may disagree
with some of the station’s programming are reluctant to
voice this criticism in their respective countries. Acutely
aware of the representational dynamics of alterity, they arguably
prefer to acknowledge the benefits of Arab media like Al Jazeera
over any antagonistic views. Broad statements such as “Al
Jazeera reflects our values and view of events and the world”
tend to outweigh accusations against the station. Fear of further
misrepresentation in the Western press and an underlying desire
to substantiate a positive image in the West contribute to this
stance among Arab migrants. Defense of Al Jazeera and other
Arab media outlets in some diasporic Arab communities is a response
to a “perceived” call of duty to support the station
not simply because it is seen as “alternative,”
but also because it “represents them.”
From a political
economic standpoint, the narrative of Al Jazeera as an “alternative”
medium is problematic for several reasons. Since its inception,
the station’s funding has come primarily from the Emir
of Qatar, Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Aside from the
degree of editorial independence, the very notion of complete
government funding of a news outlet negates the notion of alterity.
Furthermore, as stated above, the commercial nature of the network
makes it similar in structure and hierarchy to the operations
of major US and global satellite networks, generating revenue
from exclusive sales of footage, documentary, direct feeds,
and advertising for large global corporations.
the only characteristic that still articulates Al Jazeera as
an alternative network is the station’s editorial approach.
This is described elsewhere as “contextual objectivity”
(El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003; Iskandar & El-Nawawy, 2002).
However, even this characteristic of news delivery is heavily
borrowed and emulated by other broadcasters in the region in
the same fashion that Al Jazeera’s talk shows, news reporting
style, and formatting are copied. The overwhelming extent of
stylistic borrowing and imitation by other regional networks
is a confirmation of Al Jazeera’s increasingly mainstream
position among regional media.
Al Jazeera’s accomplishments in broadening the media discourse
in the Arab world and raising the bar for investigative journalism
in the region, it is naïve to suggest that its content,
institutional operations, values, or political economic conditions
qualify it as an alternative media source in the region. In
a broader frame of global media outlets, Al Jazeera offers --
through the prism of Western media programming – what
amounts to alternative content from the Arab world. That is
why many US audiences often mischaracterize foreign mainstream
broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutche
Welle, and others as “alternative” media. Even media
studies Professor Dorothy Kidd, in an article to "Peace
Review", refers to mainstream stations in other countries
like the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
as alternative. Likewise, as revolutionary as Al Jazeera has
been for political discourse in the region, its virtual monopoly
on Arab mainstream news consumers negates any coherent definitions
Al Jazeera’s self-promotion as a counter-hegemonic news
provider is an example of alterity mainstreamed. In the current
state of affairs, many media organizations use the image of
the sub-altern in an attempt to contrast themselves from “mainstream”
competitors. The title “alternative media,” therefore,
becomes a misnomer -- often a self-constructed label employed
by a news provider to target a niche audience. Rather, Al Jazeera
derives its “counter-hegemonic” narrative from the
construction of Arab identity as an “other.” The
very representation of Arab-centric media reflects the image
of the frequently fictionalized authentic “native”
after the station’s conception, despite a multi-million
dollar budget, an extensive network of world-class global bureaus,
a growing multi-lingual enterprise, and virtual news monopoly
in the region, Al Jazeera’s discourse of alterity still
predominates. While most alternative media tend to have limited
outreach and smaller audiences, Al Jazeera is a regional behemoth
with growing international influence and is accessible worldwide.
In fact, although approximate and unconfirmed, most audience
ratings of news providers in the Arab world indicate Al Jazeera’s
demographic dominance. While acknowledging its humble and ambitious
origins; it is no longer suitable to discuss Al Jazeera, a global
news behemoth, as an “alternative” news medium,
both discursively and structurally. Despite the station’s
expansive reach and growing operations in multiple sectors,
the station must continue to balance and manufacture the brand
image of a fledgling alternative counter-hegemonic medium coupled
with a global source of “reliable” news.
Until recently, Al Jazeera served as the venue for dissent in
the region. Compared to state-run and terrestrial channels in
the Arab world, it still serves as an alternative medium. However,
with other satellite stations’ emulation of Al Jazeera’s
style, approach, and programming, the Qatar-based network’s
formula has been heavily mainstreamed. Conversely, in the eyes
of some Western audiences and in comparison to Western news
channels, Al Jazeera continues to represent alterity. This perception
of the network’s alterity in the West may be viewed as
the rationale for the new English-language station Al Jazeera
the station’s regional and international image as alternative
and subaltern is self-attributed and affirmed through strategic
marketing campaigns. Nonetheless, by definition, the term alternative
media appears contradictory to the operations and practice of
Al Jazeera as a broadcaster. Almost 10 years since the station’s
inception, with the discourse of Al Jazeera as alternative and
subaltern becoming outdated and irrelevant, a new conceptualization
of the station’s new role and impact is imperative. At
a time of exponential growth for the network in all broadcasting
markets, its new role as a global news station requires radical
reevaluation. An assessment of this sort would instead highlight
Al Jazeera’s impact as a major “mainstream”
political, social, cultural, and economic playmaker on the media
landscape, not just in the Arab world, but globally.
Iskandar is a scholar of Middle Eastern media
with research interests in Arab diasporic identity, popular
culture, and critical theory. The co-author of Al-Jazeera:
The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and
Redefining Modern Journalism (Westview, 2003), Iskandar is currently
editing an issue of Social Identities (Routledge) on
media and Arab identities. His forthcoming work is an edited
volume on Edward Said.
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