No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
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Media on Media: Introduction

By TBS editors

In no previous war has the media been so much a part of the story. Whereas in the past, interest has been largely directed at the information that journalists have collected and passed on, in the current Iraq war a large part of the press's attention has been directed at its own functioning, that is to say, not at the content of what is said by the media but how it has been said and by and to whom. In acknowledgment of this development, TBS has collected articles that comment on the how and why of satellite coverage of the war. TBS intends to continue adding to this collection between issues and to broaden its scope to include at least a sampling of the non-English language press, so that by the appearance of TBS 11 an archive will have been assembled that bears witness to a phenomenon that may be the start of a trend - or a peculiarity of the times.

In stating that "CNN and Al Jazeera [are] covering different wars," Danny Schechter of MediaChannel.org (April 5) raises one of the primary concerns of Western journalists, namely that the Western and the Arab media are reporting the war in fundamentally different ways (and, many writers imply or state, have betrayed a sacred standard of objectivity that the Western press still upholds). Thus, according to Susan Sachs, writing in the New York Times of April 5, "the media in the region have increasingly fused images and enemies from this and other conflicts into a single bloodstained tableau of Arab grievance." Al Jazeera is the target of much of this criticism, reflecting its dominating position as the earliest and, thanks in part to this conflict, the most watched Arab satellite channel. Mamoun Fandy, writing in the Washington Post (March 30), speaks of "the unbridled nature of Arab television," directing most of his barbs at Al Jazeera, while Walid Phares similarly takes Al Jazeera to task for being "all politics" (The National Review, March 26). On the other hand, a number of commentators have sprung to Al Jazeera's defense. For Chris Suellentrop in Slate (April 2), Al Jazeera is "just as fair as CNN" and according to Tim Llewelyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent quoted by James Deans (The Media Guardian, March 27), "Al Jazeera [is] just doing what the BBC 'had taught them to do' and providing coverage of the Iraq war from another perspective." James Poniewozik, in Time Magazine (April 7) opines that though "[t]he Arab networks are not without bias…they often fill in missing pictures from the war." Even the New York Times weighed in with an editorial on March 31 that explained "Why Al Jazeera Matters" and went on to say that "For right now, Al Jazeera deserves all the help and support it can." In any case, for better or for worse, Al Jazeera seems to have established itself as the channel of choice for a large segment of the Arab viewing public, whether in the region-"Al Jazeera…claims 35 million viewers"-or outside of it-"Al Jazeera's Approach [is the] Choice of Many Arab Americans" (Charlene Gubash, MBC News, April 4).

In part, the issue lies in the eye of the beholder: one person's sensationalism is another's realism. As Gubash also points out, of the Arab media, "They focus less on bombs, more on bombs' victims." And as a man in a Gulf country told Tanya Goudsouzian and Shadian Abdullah of Gulf News (April 7), referring to CNN, "It's very boring…They never seem to show real people, only experts. The Arab channels show you real people and how the war is affecting them."

Nor is the Western press exempt from criticism. Many writers have expressed their concern about "embedding" and the whip hand that it may be giving the Coalition's spin-doctors. "In Iraq," according to Lucian K. Truscott IV in the New York Times (March 27), "the Bush administration has beaten the press at its own game," while Lionel Barber writes in the Financial Times (March 24) that the media have been "conscripted to the fight." On the other side, according to Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times again (April 5), reporters in Baghdad before its fall were highly controlled and "walking a tightrope."

Others see the supposedly "sanitized" reporting of the Western press as being as misleading as the more visceral approach of the Arab press, whether because it leads to an avoidance of the more shocking images of war or simply because, as ITN's Richard Wild put it after viewing untransmitted footage of "the fluctuating emotions of troops on the Iraqi front line," it edits out "the human face of war."

In the end, to some at least, the differences are not as great as others make them out to be: Joe Klein wrote in Time Magazine that "American television tends to go heavy on the symbols of patriotism…Arab television channels display virtually identical biases and omissions."

At another level, the impact of new technology on reporting comes in for comment. Morley Safer, quoted by Julie Salamon (International Herald Tribune, April 7), notes that "back in the Middle Ages, when I covered wars you had reflection time-you weren't winging it…Now suddenly you're on, and you have to say something." Perhaps this is why Tanya Goudsouzian and Shadiah Abdullah in Gulf News accuse some journalists of seeking stardom and "[breaking] the cardinal rule of journalism by becoming part of the story they are sent to cover." And, as Frank Rich points out (New York Times, March 29), "When even weathermen are predicting rain in Kirkuk, it's clear everyone must get into the act."

Which brings us to the issue of entertainment. Everyone agrees that, from this perspective, things got off to a slow start. As Robert Thompson, a media studies professor at Syracuse University put it, "This is a television event that has been promoted for 18 months…All of a sudden it starts, and it was extraordinary how little footage we had" (quoted by Allison Beard and Christopher Grimes in the Financial Times, March 21). Indeed, said Prof. Thompson in the ultimate put-down, "You could almost have listened to it on the radio." There was much at stake, however, as far as ratings were concerned. Jamie Doward, writing in the Observer (April 6), finds that, in Britain, Sky news "[won] the battle for rolling news audience…fueled by a new appetite for 24-hour news among British viewers." If there are winners, however, there must be losers: according to Doward, "there is a sense that…CNN has lost."

Given that war coverage was at saturation levels until at least the end of the second week of the war, some viewers, not surprisingly, became jaded, and Merissa Mars, Reuters European media correspondent, found "signs of fatigue in wall-to-wall Iraq TV war" (April 4). This may give pause to those such as Jack Abernethy, Fox's executive vice president, who, as described in the Columbia Journalism Review for March/April, were wagering, before the war broke out, "that the cable, not broadcasting, will become the principal source of television news in peace as well as in war."

As a corrective to so much navel-gazing, the articles referred to above [see Parties to the Conflict] are prefaced by two pieces that put the issues in a wider perspective [Moral Dilemmas of the Press]. Each explores an aspect of press behavior that impacts on the lives of real people, lives that continue with greater or lesser happiness or misery beyond the reach of the media but which are, nevertheless, affected by it. Eason Jordan describes the appalling dangers faced by Iraqi associates of CNN under the Saddam Hussein regime, and the extent to which cherished press values of veracity and openness had to be sacrificed in order to protect their lives. Robert Jensen, in questioning the media's reporting on civilian casualties in the Iraq war, raises the troubling possibility that what the media packages as truth is not only not the whole truth but may not even be the part of the truth that matters.

The opinions expressed in these articles reflect the opinions of their authors and are not necessarily those of TBS. In this issue more than ever, given the strong emotions and diverse attitudes generated by the war, we are trying to provide readers and particularly scholars with a sense of different perspectives.

Moral Dilemmas of the Press

Parties to the Conflict

Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu