The Al Jazeera Television Network captures the attention of
those interested in Arabic-language satellite television broadcasting
like nothing else. Approximately half the articles submitted
to Transnational Broadcasting Studies over the past
two issues were about Al Jazeera. To some degree this is understandable.
The network is important and influential. Observers claimed
an "Al Jazeera effect" as early as the late 1990s,
though it was a rather different "effect" than the
one many Americans were writing about a few years later. In
the late 1990s, many an academic conference in the US promoted
Al Jazeera as the Great White Hope of civil society in the Middle
East. Even then, I suspect there was a considerable gap between
what Americans and Europeans were seeing on their screens, and
what Arab viewers saw. Initially, Americans saw Al Jazeera as
more truthful because it dared to broadcast debates and to criticize
Arab governments. The "Al Jazeera effect" was putatively
to spread such truthfulness to other stations, and, as the reach
of satellite broadcasting extended to more and more homes, to
the social grassroots. But all along there was another "Al
Jazeera effect." It was to break the news monopoly of the
Western media. That was certainly the operative "effect"
in my first encounter with Al Jazeera, which came before the
satellite dish had penetrated deeply into the Egyptian market,
and long before 9/11 changed the dynamic of discourse on Al
Jazeera. An Al Jazeera broadcast was playing in the house of
an Egyptian film director to whom I paid a visit in 1997. He
was positively gleeful about Al Jazeera, and told me proudly
that he had switched off CNN. He was very clear about his reason
for the switch: It was largely because he saw the new station
as reporting from an Arab perspective, and not because he endorsed
its debates or criticisms of Arab governments.
it was all a matter of whose ox was being gored. The faultline
between those who saw Al Jazeera as an Arab voice and those
who saw it as a critical voice in the Arab world was revealed
soon after the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq. It is rare for a precise turning point in a discourse
to be so evident, but this was one such case. In the Western—particularly
American—news media, the moment of change came when Fuad
Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at the
School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University,
published an article severely critical of Al Jazeera in The
New York Times Magazine a little over a month after the
9/11 attack. Ajami saw Al Jazeera not as a harbinger of civil
society, but as an irresponsible promoter of pan-Arab or—even
worse—Islamist radicalism. The effect of Ajami's article
on the US news media was striking. For American journalists
and politicians, Al Jazeera suddenly became a Public Enemy not
far removed from Osama Bin Laden himself.
away from Al Jazeera was so sudden that Ajami's article might
well have been identified as the source of an "effect"
in much the way that Al Jazeera has been labeled. Call it the
"school of fish effect." Certain species of fish swim
in large groups, which can, astonishingly, change direction
instantly as if all the members of the group were a single organism.
It is easy to see why they do it. Predators have a harder time
singling out weak individuals for the kill; in a more offensive
mode, fifty or a hundred fish turning on antagonist as if one
are far more intimidating than a single fish doing so. How they
do it is less well understood. Pheromones? Eyes in the sides
of their heads? Fish telepathy? So it is in nature. We just
don't understand every mystery. But fish are one thing, and
journalists another. Journalists displaying schooling behavior—all
changing directions as if telepathically connected—is,
well, fishy. Journalists are supposed to be an independent species,
and yet the schooling behavior of was unmistakable. With regard
to Al Jazeera it was as if all the mainstream print and broadcast
news media in the US were hardwired to the same brain. Al Jazeera
the Mouthpiece of Bin Laden was born, and Al Jazeera the Great
White Hope of Arab civil society died in the same instant. Did
Ajami's broadside against Al Jazeera somehow cause the change?
Or was Ajami simply the first observable instance of a collective
is not simply to defend Al Jazeera against false charges, but
rather that if such charges and counter-charges ever led to
any real understanding of what the network does, they no longer
do. The notion of "Al Jazeera-as-mouthpiece-of-Bin-Laden"
should never have carried much weight beyond mainstream American
print and broadcast news. And indeed, all intelligent analyses
of Al Jazeera do acknowledge that the biases of the network
are roughly on par with those of American television journalism.
But why, if Al Jazeera politicizes no more than Fox News or
NBC, should the network be given the task of creating a civil
society, or burdened with the charge of politicizing the masses?
As for distorting truths, surely Al Jazeera is no more guilty
than its American counterparts. Indeed, by the time George Bush
was re-elected a majority of Americans believed the Bush administration's
demonstrably false claims that Saddam Hussein was behind the
9/11 attacks, and that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction.
Misinformed Americans are not a natural phenomenon. They have
to be actively created. It would be almost impossible to explain
misinformed Americans without reference to television news.
And yet virtually all articles about Al Jazeera implicitly measure
it against an imagined standard of American or European television
journalism that is presumed to inform its audience more objectively
and more effectively than do Arab news networks.
politically crucial Arab elites, such as the film director who
was my first "informant" about Al Jazeera, have access
to a greater range of news broadcasting than American elites
do. It is telling that he framed his opinion about Al Jazeera
in terms of switching. Arab elites know our languages better
than we know theirs. They can choose to switch from CNN or BBC
to Al Jazeera, or indeed, to simply watch them all. Our elites
do not have this choice. If choice is what it takes to create
a better informed viewer, then Americans should be told that
they could do worse than to emulate the Arab world. The "friend
or foe" logic applied to analyses of Al Jazeera—and
the implicit assumptions made about the nature of Western television
journalism that go with it—is an inadequate framework
for asking interesting questions about what the network does.
It bears mentioning that TBS is meant to be in the business
of analyzing public culture, and not merely dedicated
to adding its voice to those of The New York Times
and Fox News. And yet virtually all articles on Al Jazeera submitted
to TBS over the past two issues—both those of sufficiently
high quality to publish and those we declined—have been
structured by the same dynamic that shapes American public discourse:
Is Al Jazeera a force for promoting civil society, or is it
an irresponsible voice of anti-American radicalism tinged by
anachronistic pan-Arab or (according to the perspective of the
observer) Islamist sympathies?
that the stakes became so high in the cottage industry of Al
Jazeera analysis is that the network was made to stand for all
of Arab media. Almost every article on Al Jazeera submitted
to TBS over the past two issues has casually used "Al Jazeera"
and "the media" interchangeably. One can grant that
everyday English does sometimes refer to "the news"
as "the media." But more precision is required in
a thoughtful analysis. Al Jazeera is not "the media."
It is not even a medium. It is a television news network, and
news is a television genre. Simply thinking about Al Jazeera
as an instance of a television genre puts the superheated rhetoric
of Al Jazeera as the Great White Hope of civil society versus
Al Jazeera as the Great Satan of Anti-Americanism in a more
useful perspective. Even if either extreme were true, one could
not plausibly claim the kind of "effect" that some
observers want to see, because the effect takes place on a vastly
different stage than we have been led to believe. "Al Jazeera
is an important television program" sounds so much less
impressive than "Al Jazeera is Arab media and all else
is just entertainment." There is, of course, no such thing
as "just entertainment." Al Jazeera is also entertainment,
and entertainment is just as embedded in political, economic,
and cultural processes as news.
this is to say that one cannot still discuss what makes one
television viewer better informed than another, or how one way
of constructing the truth might be superior to another. But
we should always be clear: Al Jazeera is a news network, not
a medium. As a genre, the news disseminated through Arabic-language
satellite broadcasts has unique characteristics, but these will
never be well illuminated by always referring back to a false
dichotomy between civil society and anti-Americanism. The television
news also shares with other television genres common features
such as structures of ownership, relations with states and nations,
markets, and audiences. One hopes that if TBS continues to receive
about fifty percent of its submissions on Al Jazeera as it has
over the past couple of issues, then both the uniqueness and
the broader context of the network will be more effectively
analyzed. A new wave of Al Jazeera analysis must break away
from the "school of fish effect" and start looking
at this news network for what it is: an interesting news channel,
not a high-stakes contest between democracy and radicalism.
-Walter Armbrust, chairman, TBS editorial board