No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
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Al Jazeera: Bridging the East-West Gap through Public Discourse and Media Diplomacy

By Mohammed el-Nawawy and Leo A. Gher

Following the events of September 11, U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking about his administration's efforts to reach Arab and Muslim audiences said, "We are not doing a very good job of getting our message out" (Zaharna 2001). Winning the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim populations has therefore risen to the top of the Bush administration's international agenda. Moreover, the public diplomacy effort became a top priority when the U.S. State Department pledged to dispel mistaken impressions of America and challenged anti-American viewpoints, especially throughout the Islamic (Muslim) world.

The State Department's effort is designed to reach the general public in the Arab countries - as opposed to government officials in those countries - through broadcasts, exchange programs, speaking tours, articles in foreign papers and the Internet. Perhaps the driving force behind these efforts is the growing importance of Arab satellite television networks, notably Al- Jazeera. Al Jazeera, the first Arab all-news channel, was launched in Qatar and has become a household name in the West thanks to its airing of the Osama Bin Laden tapes and its exclusive footage of the war in Afghanistan. But even supporters of the new American effort on the diplomacy front, which until recently was headed by then Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, say the results so far are not encouraging, based on private polls, anti-American protests, and surveys financed by the State Department.

"Weak, very weak," is how a University of Qatar political science professor described the public diplomacy effort. "It is reaching only the elite, who tend to support the United States anyway," he said. "There is more anti-Americanism now than before September 11," he added. "That's not good. You have to do something about it" (Weiser 2002).

For this reason, the main argument of this essay is that American officials need to intensify their diplomacy efforts to communicate with the Arab people through effective media channels like Al Jazeera. The authors will present two notable forms of diplomacy, public diplomacy and media diplomacy, which may be useful in America's attempt to connect with the Middle East. With the drums of an Iraqi war beating loudly in Washington and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reaching a boiling intensity, the need for media diplomacy is especially important today. The primary reason the U.S. administration should consider using Al Jazeera as a conduit for its diplomatic efforts in the Arab world is that Al Jazeera, with its freedom of information and bold talk shows, has challenged many traditional taboos of Arabic culture. Such action has pushed to the forefront Juergen Habermas' concept of public discourse through public sphere, and will establish an open dialogue with the Arab world in an unprecedented way. One of the most important points of this treatise is the explanation of how Al Jazeera's affects Arab audiences within the context of public discourse.

Finally, the essay will address the concept of the clash of civilizations, and the role that can be played by Al Jazeera to end the quarrels between East and the West. In its endeavors to add weapons of mass communication to weapons of war, the United States should support an indigenous open and democratic medium like Al Jazeera, which can contribute to bridging the philosophic gap between the peoples of the West and the Middle East. Even though many Arabs disagree with the U.S. foreign policy in the region, they yearn for freedom of speech and access to information - characteristics of democracy that have been made available through Al Jazeera. U.S. national security is enhanced to the degree that other nations share these freedoms. and it is endangered by nations that deny freedom of expression (Hoffman 2002).

Public Discourse

Understanding public discourse requires a discussion of the "public sphere" concept, which was developed by the contemporary German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, who searched for a model of enlightened citizen participation in societal guidance. The "public sphere," as defined by Habermas (1989) constitutes a public stage for discourse regarding critical joint problems and topics of collective concern that are found in the public realm. The "sphere of public discourse" is the intermediate area between state and civic society, where, in theory at least, each person has equal weight (Habermas 1989).

Habermas argued that the public sphere developed in Western Europe during the eighteenth century reached its high point during the early part of the nineteenth century when coffee houses, societies, and salons became the center of debate and when the press was still "a genuinely critical organ of a public engaged in critical political debate: as the fourth estate" (Habermas 1989, p.60). So, the importance of Habermas' theory lies in the process of discussion, which must take the form of rational debate. Participants in the debate should have a common interest in truth, which meant that they ignored status differentials. Criticism is also vital to the process, so that the proposals being put forward can not only be tested, but also that participants can discover a meaning together as a result of the process itself (Calhoun 1993).

Habermas highlighted the critical role of media in the public sphere. He argued, however, that the active role the press used to play in political controversy began to diminish in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of media privatization, which commercialized the news and changed critical debate into passive consumption of mass culture. Many communication theorists argue that public debate on television today bears little resemblance to the rational-critical debate idealized by Habermas. Events are manipulated to provide the maximum televisual impact, and "topic selection reflects the pressures of commercial and proprietal interests" (Dahlgren 1995, p.66). Although there has been a heavy normative emphasis in the work influenced by Habermas' public sphere, this study will apply a Habermas' framework to the role played by Al Jazeera in enhancing public discourse in the Arab world.

Al Jazeera and Public Discourse

Most recent discussions on communication processes are based on the idea that the clearer, less controlled, and less distorted the message between the parties, the greater the chances of full understanding between parties and the higher the probability that they will be able to develop a common perspective. In this view, open and free channels of communication enhance the chances of shared modes of thought, and make it easier for parties to arrive at common solutions to mutual problems (Coser 1984).

This fundamental orientation can be seen at work in Al Jazeera programs. With its bold independence, openness, and freedom, this channel can improve the communication between the United States and the Middle East and achieve the ideals of Habermas' theory of overcoming the residues of ignorance and misunderstanding through enlightened forms of public discourse. Since its inception in November 1996, Al Jazeera has raised the level of political and social debate throughout the Arab world, and has changed the way the Arabs see themselves and the rest of the world. This was done by providing a forum for criticism that had difficulty finding an outlet. In most Arab states, presenting uncensored views, dialogues, and political debates in a free and open manner without government restrictions is unusual (El-Nawawy & Iskandar 2002).

Before Al Jazeera, there was little opposition to Arab government views on Middle Eastern airwaves, which have always been dominated by state-sponsored propaganda machines through the Arab ministries of information. Arabs used to express their political opinions behind closed doors and in many cases during informal gatherings at coffee shops, which are wide-spread in most Arab cities. So, one can argue that before Al Jazeera, Habermas' concept of public sphere was reflected in the Arab world through face-to-face interactions of the man-on-the-street. There was also opposition press, which has now emerged with official consent in a few Arab countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. But opinions expressed in the opposition newspapers did not reach many people because of the high illiteracy rates in the Arab world.

However, Al Jazeera has taken Habermas' public sphere to a new arena, the Arab television screen. For the first time in the history of the Arab world a television channel has dared to spark public debate about the major issues of the day by allowing a free flow of information and criticism of governmental leaders and decision makers. That has made Al Jazeera the most watched (and most controversial) news channel in the region, winning over viewers with its uncensored news coverage and its unbridled political debates (Obaid 2002). Now the question that poses itself is: can Al Jazeera play a role in advancing democratic ideals in the Arab world by enhancing public discourse?

Several media analysts have outlined ways in which the media could contribute to a Habermasian environment. Curran (1991) argued that the media should allow diverse social groups to express their views in a free marketplace of ideas. By analyzing Al Jazeera's brief history, one would realize that this pan-Arabic satellite station has allowed audience participation through its call-in programs and talk shows, which have provided a forum for groups that would otherwise be excluded from public consideration. However, some Western analysts accused Al Jazeera of inviting guests who have harshly criticized U.S. policy after September 11. To the contrary, Al Jazeera program producers have invited guests who were sympathetic to the U.S. position. Moreover, the network has presented the views of U.S. officials through personal interviews, press conferences, and news briefings held by the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. By doing that, Al Jazeera has tried to live up to its motto: "The Opinion and the Other Opinion" (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 2002).

Mukerji and Schudson (1991) argued that the media should put pressure on the public authorities to divulge information, a requisite for the proper functioning of public discourse. Al Jazeera has been a thorn in the side of many Arab regimes by inviting Arab officials to talk about issues that they would not normally like to discuss on television. If an Arab official refuses to appear on Al Jazeera program to debate an issue, the program's host would leave the official's chair empty and would announce that he has refused the invitation to appear on the program. That is one of the reasons why Al Jazeera has received many official complaints from various Arab regimes.

Al Jazeera, by promoting public discourse through critical debates and open discussions between mainstream and dissenting voices, can put an end to the conspiracy theories that prevail among Arab societies. Conspiracy thinking, which has resulted from years of governmental secrecy and public brainwashing through the government-owned media, has promoted distorted explanations for myriad events that have occurred in recent history. One of the conjectures that was so pervasive in many Arab countries after September 11 was that 4,000 Jews had been informed before September 11 not to go to work at the World Trade Center. Al Jazeera invited prominent guests, who helped discredit such false speculation (Campagna 2001).

Based on the arguments presented in the section above, it can be argued that Al Jazeera has succeeded in creating vibrant public discourse in the Arab Middle East, and that its management understands the power of public opinion and the role the station plays in formulating public policy. Now, the U.S. administration needs to recognize the impact Al Jazeera has on the public in the Middle East, and to appreciate the role Al Jazeera plays in providing a forum for the free expression of different opinions from the Middle East as well as the Western world. The suppression of these opinions would eventually lead to fundamentalist views. That is reason why the U.S. officials should begin to practice media diplomacy through the airwaves of Al Jazeera television.

Global Television and Diplomacy

Gilboa (2000) defines diplomacy as "a communication system through which representatives of states and international or global actors, including elected and appointed officials, express and defend their interests, state their grievances, and issue threats and ultimatums. It is the channel of contact for clarifying positions, probing for information, and convincing states and other actors to support one's position" (p.275). Up to and including the twentieth century, diplomacy was secret and decidedly formal. However, exposing diplomacy to the media and public opinion created a "new diplomacy" with new rules and implications for government officials, diplomats, journalists and the public. The revolutionary changes in politics resulting from the growing mass participation in political processes along with the technological advances in communication resulting from the globalization of electronic journalism have led to a new media-dominated governing system called "medialism," "teledemocracy," and "telediplomacy" (Gilboa 2000).

The CNN Effect

The basic assumption behind the terms, medialism, teledemocracy, and telediplomacy is that global television plays a powerful role in politics, a role so special that it has created a new phenomenon known as the "CNN (Cable News Network) Effect." This role is played out in foreign affairs, primarily in humanitarian crisis situations, when officials have lost control over decision-making to global television (Hoge 1994). Referring to the most powerful effect of global television, taking over policymaking, Kalb (1991) said, "indeed, only the foolish foreign leader can any longer afford to underestimate the power of TV news" (p.xvii).

The concept of the CNN Effect was the result of policymakers' reflections on the part played by global television networks, particularly CNN, in major international conflict of the post-Cold War era. These include coverage of the Chinese government crackdown on students' protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989; the 1991 Gulf war following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait; and the civil wars and humanitarian interventions in Northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the past decade (Gilboa 2002).

The Al Jazeera Effect

Using a similar process, the authors of this article have coined a new term, the "Al Jazeera Effect." The idea behind this term is the visible regional and global presence established by Al Jazeera and the vital role as a pan-Arab network it plays in broadening the scale of Arab cross-border interaction. Moreover, this Qatari-based station acts as a transnational network by attracting the attention of the diasporic Arab audiences in Europe and North America. The station's impact on politicians was crystallized through its on-the-ground coverage of the U.S. bombing strikes in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera was the only broadcast network operating from the Afghan capital, Kabul, in September 2001, and so in a way it was the world's window to the Afghanistan war.

Al Jazeera's graphic footage of young, bruised children in Kabul hospitals, Afghan mothers wailing and lamenting the loss of families, and bodies laid out on stretchers caused much controversy and raised U.S. officials' fears that the images would compromise Muslim support for the antiterrorist campaign. That is why many American networks chose not to purchase or rebroadcast these images. In this context, Pearce (1995) said, "the crux of the matter is not whether the public can handle images and difficult choices; plainly, as a group, it can. More to the point is whether the public has all the information needed to make informed judgments" (p.25). Al Jazeera did not just broadcast graphic images of Afghan casualties, but always put them in context and invited Western and Arab analysts to comment on them.

Special reports from Afghanistan by Al Jazeera journalists startled the world, and encouraged its leaders to appear on the Arab network to express their opinions on the war. Moreover, many Western networks, such as CNN, had signed news agreements with Al Jazeera, especially after Al Jazeera's exclusive airing of several Bin Laden tapes. Today, Al Jazeera has become a serious competitor with Western news networks in covering major events inside and outside the Arab world. While neither the CNN Effect nor the Al Jazeera Effect has been sufficiently validated, there is little doubt that global television has accelerated the pace of diplomatic communication and has pressured policymakers to respond faster to world events. These dual effects also allow policy-makers to send out significant messages that, in turn, have had an impact on the outcomes of such events. This has prompted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to say that "live television coverage doesn't change the policy, but it does create the environment in which the policy is made" (McNulty 1993, p.80). It can be argued that Al- Jazeera has revitalized the political environment in the Middle East in such a manner that the American executive and diplomatic offices should utilize it in an effort to win the hearts and minds of Arab peoples.

American Public Diplomacy in the Arab World

After the September 11 attacks, it took the U.S. administration several weeks to regain its footing and begin disputing the image created by its enemies in the Arab world. Initially, most Arab media requests for interviews with American officials went unanswered. "This benign neglect of Islamic public opinion only proved a boon for the anti-American rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden and his followers, who argued with some success that the U.S. deserved such horror" (Labott 2002, p.33). In a recent editorial, long-time U.S. diplomat Richard Halbrooke, posed the following question: "How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world's leading communication society?" (Zaharna 2001). In a crude, but effective way, Bin Laden, through his taped messages to Al Jazeera, realized the importance of public diplomacy in the global communication age. He took his message directly to the affected publics through the most credible and most popular television network in the Arab world.

Fearing that they were losing the propaganda war in the Middle East, U.S. State Department officials made public diplomacy an urgent priority. That is why Charlotte Beers, the new undersecretary for public diplomacy, was asked to do for the U.S. image what she had done for Uncle Ben's Rice, the successful advertising campaign for which she was best known before assuming her position in October 2001. Gilboa (2000) argues that the core idea of public diplomacy 'is one of direct communication with foreign peoples, with the aim of affecting their thinking, and ultimately, that of their governments' (p.291). In terms of content, "it describes activities, directed abroad in the fields of information, education, and culture, whose objective is to influence a foreign government, by influencing its citizens" (Fredrick 1993, p.229). Public diplomacy takes place when both sides are involved in a confrontation, and their essential goal is propaganda. Public diplomacy uses several channels or techniques, only one of which is the mass media, particularly international broadcasting. A government uses its own means of communication, such as radio stations, to conduct public diplomacy, or it hires public relations firms in the target country to achieve its aims (Wilcox, Ault, & Agee 1992).

One effort of public diplomacy initiated by the U.S. government was the production of short videos in October 2002 profiling Muslim Americans in professions such as teaching and firefighting. This was an effort to show that the United States is open and tolerant. The government had hoped to run television spots from these videos on Al Jazeera, but the Arab network asked for more money than the State Department was willing to pay. The end results was that entire project was suspended in January 2003 because three Arab administrations expressed opposition to airing the spots on government-run channels (Murphy 2003).

Another public diplomacy effort by the U.S. government was the launching of an Arabic language radio service, Radio Sawa; it started broadcasting in several Middle Eastern countries in March 2002. Judging from embassy reports and e-mails from listeners, Radio Sawa, which broadcasts pop music, sports, and twice-an-hour newscasts, was and still is the government's most successful public diplomacy venture. But young listeners, who are the target audience of Radio Sawa, may well be ignoring the network's newscasts, the core of the public diplomacy mission. Echoing that thought, an editorial in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper said, 'the chances are Arab youth will split the strategy: take the U.S. sound and discard the U.S. agenda' (Weiser 2002). Moreover, the Arabs might be suspicious about the intentions of Radio Sawa in the Middle East. "There is strong likelihood that [Radio Sawa] will be seen as a way to sell Americanism through entertainment rather than tackle issues that plague the [Arab] region, something that Al Jazeera has already accomplished" (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 2002, p.195).

Al Jazeera and Media Diplomacy

Gilboa (2000) has stated that media diplomacy has been frequently confused with public diplomacy. According to Gilboa, public diplomacy (when the sides are involved in a confrontation and their goal is propaganda) precedes media diplomacy (when the sides wish to end the conflict through negotiations). He defined media diplomacy as the "uses of the mass media to communicate with state and non-state actors, to build confidence and advance negotiations, as well as to mobilize the public support for agreements" (p.295). Media diplomacy is pursued through various routine and special media activities. They including press conferences, interviews, leaks, heads of state visits, exchanges of mediators in rival countries, and spectacular media events organized to usher in a new era.

During grave international crises or when all diplomatic channels are cut off, the media provide the only channel for communication and negotiation between the rival actors. Today, the U.S. administration should engage in media diplomacy with the Arab world through Al Jazeera. This is especially important at a time when the American public diplomacy efforts, initiated mainly through the American media, have not achieved all their desired results. When it comes to American foreign policy in the Middle East, there are numerous questions that have not been addressed through American public diplomacy. America should also attempt to dispel the widespread notion that it "takes the Middle East so much for granted that it does not even bother to explain to the people of the region why it does what it does, and expects them simply to accept and follow" (Telhami 2002, p.48).

American government officials need to think about which communication channels they are using to get their messages across, and how these channels are perceived in the Arab world. Perception, not reality, is what matters in communication, according to Zaharna (2001), "Perception is what makes spin possible despite an abundance of facts or logic." In that context, mass media can be a double-edged sword. In the American experience, mass media have been a highly influential and credible tool for reaching the public. As one network slogan suggests: More Americans get their news from X Network, than from any other source. In the Middle East, more Arabs get their news from Al Jazeera than from any other source.

During the initial months after the 9-11 tragedy, the American administration tried to muzzle Al Jazeera instead of endeavoring to employ this important Arab voice to reach out to the Arab public. For example, when the Emir of Qatar came to Washington a few weeks after the attacks, Secretary Powell publicly asked him to tone down Al Jazeera programming he considered hostile to America. This request drew angry responses from Al Jazeera officials. "We learned media independence from the United States, and now the American officials want us to give up what we learned from them," said Al Jazeera's managing director, Mohammed Jasim al-Ali (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 2002, p.176). Moreover, in November 2001, U.S. fighter jets bombed Al Jazeera bureau in Afghanistan, destroying its facilities. A few months later, the Pentagon officials stated that "the building was a known al-Qaeda facility in central Kabul, and there were no indications that this or any nearby facility was used by Al Jazeera" (CPJ 2002).

Despite these clumsy attempts by the U.S. to silence Al Jazeera, the American administration has started to grasp the channel's importance as a medium to reach millions in the Arab world, and many cabinet members have been interviewed on station programs. According to Hafez al-Mirazi, Al Jazeera Washington bureau chief, the U.S. State Department has now assigned at least one official per day to speak with the channel. However, the interviews did not have the desired effect because most of the American officials who had appeared on Al Jazeera spoke in the language and manner of a superpower. Their tone alone was enough to alienate the audience, and they seemed to have little understanding of how this audience thinks.

When a person thoroughly understands his or her audience, the appropriate tools, strategies, and tactics almost define themselves. Furthermore, there is no question that one essential tool is speaking the language. That is why Undersecretary Beers hired Christopher Ross, the former ambassador to Syria, who is a fluent Arabic speaker. Given the fact that there are not many U.S. officials who can speak Arabic confidently, each time a Bin Laden tape aired on Al Jazeera, Ross was on hand to defuse the power of Bin Laden's words and rebut his allegations point by point.

Having someone like Ross, who understands U.S. policy, and who can address the Arabs directly without translators is a very positive and effective step. But it is not enough to change the Arab mindset, especially given the suspicion with which the United States is viewed in the Middle East. The Arabic peoples need someone who can reflect their cultural sensibilities in an emotionally charged context. Americans rely on facts, figures, rationale and logical arguments to build a compelling and persuasive case. Arabs, however, do not buy into dispassionate objectivity. For them, emotional neutrality can be perceived as deception, something that Bin Laden has tried to avoid. Although Bin Laden is not considered a hero among mainstream Arabs and moderate Muslims, he appeals to some Arabs in a way that has left some thinking about his message, whether or not they agree with it. He epitomizes the role of the underdog, and symbolizes the struggle of the weak against the strong.

More important than just being an Arabic speaker, Bin Laden communicates in the cultural style that spans a wider world. He speaks to evoke feelings, not logical explanations. He uses simple imagery and metaphors that resonates with the personal experience of an uneducated public, and he taps into historical references in a region steeped in history. He has harnessed the power of religious symbols that work as emotional cues to spark his audience to action. And he did it from a cave (Zaharna 2002).

Bin Laden has tried to poison the relationship between the United States and the Arab community by raising the issue of the "clash of civilizations," and the widening gap between the Western camp and the Middle East, a gap that many Western scholars believe is unbridgeable. However, if more American officials understand Arab sensibilities and adapt their messages to reflect these sensibilities through a credible medium like Al Jazeera, the chasm of misperception between the United States and Arab and Muslim states can be reduced.

Disucussion

Al Jazeera, with its openness and unrestricted style of dealing with sensitive issues can help create a bridge between two worlds. And the station can serve an important role, which typically occurs when representatives of rival sides are brought together on the air for discussions of the issues dividing them. It can take place through Al Jazeera's bold talk shows and panel discussions that have invited guests from opposing camps - Iraqis and Kuwaitis, Palestinians and Israelis, to mention a few - and engaged them in open and free debates. But in this continuing discourse we must ask ourselves one critical question: can media diplomacy be successfully implemented in real world situations.

To answer this answer we must explore known examples of successful programs with respected journalists that utilized media diplomacy. Ted Koppel played that role in Nightline. Nightline's motto: "bringing people together who are worlds apart" reveals the program's self-declared mission. According to Gilboa (2002), media observers have agreed that Nightline is 'an electronic negotiating table with the anchor bringing combatants together, searching for answers, probing for common ground' (p.202). Another relevant example comes to us from television programming in postwar Lebanon. With its political diversity, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity, Lebanon is a very different state among the nations of the Arab Middle East. As such Lebanese television programming had to struggle with many discordant social, political, and cultural issues, forcing politicians to clarify their guiding principles to a skeptical public in a live television format. But civic discourse in Lebanon benefited from these shows because private stations offered a stage for media diplomacy that played a role in the democratic life in the nation. Television talk shows in postwar Lebanon provided a space for discussion of a variety of topics by a variety of people and interest groups, including diverse constituencies (women's rights, environmental, professional, intellectual, artistic and civic groups), elected officials, opposition parties, and expatriate political groups (Kraidy 2000).

Long ago, the 1926 Lebanese constitution laid the groundwork for a robust civil society. Lebanon is a democratic republic. It contains legislative, executive and judicial branches of government with prerogatives that are stipulated by law (Kraidy 1998). While political groups are created along sectarian lines, research indicates that media audiences are fragmented (Chaoul 1997), and thus cancel out long-established religious and political divisions. This is notable because television station ownership adheres to sectarian lines - the Christian-run stations are LBCI (Maronite) and MTV (Greek Orthodox), while the Muslim-operated stations are Future (Sunni) and NBN (Shii). The idea that audiences do not adhere to such positions is a significant indicator that media diplomacy in Lebanese television is able to construct a public sphere where civic discourse and civil society operate freely without government intervention (Gher & Amin 2000).

In postwar times, one trendy genre was the talk show. Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International and Murr Television had the most popular programs. Al-Shaater Yehki (May The Brave Speak Up), Hadiith al-'Umr (Dialogues of a Lifetime), and Kalam al-Naas, (People Talk) battled with MTV's Al-Hakeh Baynaatnah, (Words Between Us) and Sajjil Mowkaf (Take a Stand) for audiences and ratings. These live, prime time programs featured an appealing host who challenged guests with confrontational questions. Some programs were political, such as LBCI's Kalaam al-Naas, while others had a mixed menu of topics. Al-Shaater Yehki, centered on controversial social issues, and most took telephone calls or direct questions from a live, studio audience. Controversy often followed. The live format allowed for unpredictable questions from callers venting their frustration with politicians. In such situations, the host rarely intervened, but pressed on with follow-up questions. As a precursor to Al Jazeera, several talk show hosts openly invited their audiences to discuss taboo topics, including pre-marital sex, incest, rape, homosexuality, and co-habitation.

The Television Talk Show as a Format for Media Diplomacy

Beyond the storms of disagreement, such television shows represented a means of expression for civic discourse and the cultivation of media diplomacy. As Kraidy (2000) explains,

"In a postwar era dominated by widespread beliefs that government officials are incompetent, corrupt and removed from the concerns of citizens, and where grandiose reconstruction projects were the government's declared priority at the expense of social issues, these shows were perhaps the only avenue for Lebanese citizens to participate in public discourse, their only point of entry to the public sphere." (pp.13-14)

The spontaneity and open dialogues of these programs inspired citizens to pass judgment on public policy, to reprimand politicians, and to demand a redress of grievances in front of a national TV audience. Furthermore, these shows played an important role in the process of making political discussion more transparent in Lebanon. The shows also offer insight on the perceived relationship between station and political identity. LBCI, the station furthest removed from the ruling regime, had more talk programming than any other television operator in the nation. MTV, which was more connected to the political powers that be, offered some such shows. And Tele-Liban, a public company, still regarded as empowered by the state, had few talk shows. On the other hand, Future television, which is generally recognized as the public relations tool of the Office of the Prime Minister, was never a competitor in this market niche.

Civil society in Lebanon materialized during the war as a reaction to the government's failure to deliver social and economic benefits (Diamond 1994). In developing nations, the government's institutional failure to deliver such services often affects a large number of citizens. Meanwhile the rich and powerful get around these incompetencies through bribery, political connections, or economic intimidation. Such a situation creates resentment in the majority of people, an emotion easily exploited by mass media, particularly television. As Garcia-Canclini (1995) puts it, "The televisual realm is fast and appears to be transparent; the institutional realm is slow and its forms are complicated to the level of opacity" (p.23). This is the reason why the populace seeks the media to realize a few of the social gains that the state has failed to deliver.

The Clash of Civilizations

The concept of "the Clash of Civilizations" appeared in an article published by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs. In that article, Huntington said, "Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future" (Huntington 1993, p.25).

The authors of this study believe that Huntington's perception of a world dominated by cultural conflicts that are inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are several areas of misunderstanding and stereotypical thinking in the relationship between the West and the Middle East. However, this can be overcome by improving the conditions for dialogue on an official level and a public level. What share of responsibility for making these conditions available belongs to the Middle East and what share belongs to the West? The Middle East has to develop and stimulate channels of communication, like Al Jazeera, which would enhance public discourse, promote democratic practice, and release feelings of frustration, anger, and bitterness, that if suppressed, would drive people to extremism. The West needs to support free media venues like Al Jazeera by encouraging officials to appear on these media and try to address issues of mutual concern in a manner that would appeal to the Arab audience.

Conclusion

The authors of this study believe that Al Jazeera is possibly a sine qua non to more effective media diplomacy and better understanding between the United States and the Middle East. To use Al Jazeera effectively, the U.S. officials must master the tools of intercultural and public communication and need to appreciate the cultural nuances that shape the efficiency and effectiveness of their messages to the peoples of the Middle East. For its part, Al Jazeera needs to reach out to the Western audience. The fact that it is in the process of launching an English website is one step in the right direction. Finally, America should use Al Jazeera to avoid losing the ear of the Arab world and Al Jazeera should endeavor to make the Arabs' voices heard in the United States. And most importantly of all, the United States government should understand that actions speak louder than words. This means that media diplomacy, in and by itself, is not enough to improve America's image in the Arab world - American policy in the Arab Middle East needs to reflect care and concern for issues that are of critical importance to the Arabs. No amount of spin in media diplomacy, even through a powerful venue like Al Jazeera, can substitute for a fair and balanced foreign policy. TBS

References


Mohammed el-Nawawy is assistant professor at Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts. Leo A. Gher is associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois
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