over CNN: Al Jazeera's View of the World Takes On the West
Cassara & Laura Lengel
discussing international news coverage, one regularly encounters
the comment "what the 1991 Gulf War did for CNN, the 2003
Gulf War has done for Al Jazeera." Several aspects of this
truism bear scrutiny and discussion. First, this chapter will
argue that Al Jazeera's impact on public diplomacy is far less
than CNN in one way and far greater in another. Beyond that
we are concerned with the entry of Al Jazeera in the global
arena of public diplomacy, particularly with regard to what
has been called tele-diplomacy - "the conduct of diplomacy
in real time through the use of CNN or some other medium"
(Strobel, 1997, p. 84).
Al Jazeera clearly challenges the monopoly on international
news by CNN and other Western broadcasters, especially in the
Middle East, Africa and other places where audiences and broadcasters
seek alternative views of world events. In South Africa, for
instance, Al Jazeera broadcasts now fill the overnight hours
when state television is off the air, a privilege that used
to belong only to CNN and BBC World. Certainly, Osama bin Laden's
choice of Al Jazeera as his media outlet of choice made the
station a household word in American homes.
aside, the impact Al Jazeera actually has on Western audiences
is minimal. While Western television operations use Al Jazeera
footage in their broadcasts and newspapers and international
news agencies cite Al Jazeera as a source for facts in their
coverage of news events, Western news consumers never actually
have access to the Qatari station's telling of a story (Najjar,
2003, June 23). Western news outlets use Al Jazeera as a convenient
source of information in the Middle East, but rarely convey
its take on any of the stories they use. Experts who watch both
American networks and Al Jazeera note that the former overlook
the Qatari channel's value as a source of breaking news. For
instance, Al Jazeera was first with the story of possible nuclear
contamination after villagers' looting a top-secret production
site in Iraq, but the American networks did not pick up the
story. "[The Western channels ] have Al Jazeera running
24 hours a day, but they don't seem to be paying attention to
what's running there" (Najjar, 2003).
If there are questions about the true power of the "CNN
Effect" when the media involved are American networks and
newspapers publishing in English (Strobel, 1997; Robinson, 2002;
Seib, 2002), then there can be little question that by standard
definitions there could be anything close to an "Al Jazeera
Effect". As used here, the CNN Effect refers not only to
the Cable News Network, but also to other satellite distributed
news channels such as Fox, SkyNews, BBC World and MSNBC. In
some usages, the term is also used to refer to print as well
as broadcast media.
However, before a CNN or Al Jazeera Effects are completely discredited
it is necessary to reconsider how the Effect is being defined.
Effect" might seem straightforward, but it is actually
an expression with vastly different meanings depending on who
is using it. For hoteliers, for example, it might be defined
as the dynamic that keeps Americans at home glued to their TV
sets during crisis thus emptying restaurants and resorts. For
people concerned with the intersection of global media and foreign
policy the term also might have a wide range of meanings. In
its early, news-related uses it described the belief that during
international crises the political actors on both ends, their
advisers, and the public were all glued to the television set
to find out what had or might be happening. An illustration
of this occurred during the George Herbert Walker Bush's presidency
when the new CIA chief William Colby is said to have entered
the agency on his first day to find everyone watching television.
As the story goes, he ordered the sets turned off immediately,
noting that the CIA didn't need CNN to tell it what was happening.
Effect also has been defined as everything from the impact that
graphic pictures of human suffering can have on television audiences
to the apparent power to speed up the diplomatic decision making
process because of the short news cycle. It has also been defined
as the increasingly frequent examples of heads of state using
the convenience of global news coverage to communicate directly
to the opponent, bypassing standard diplomatic communication
channels. The studies analyzing the purported power of the CNN
Effect to drive policy decisions-either to intervene in humanitarian
crises or withdraw from them-suggest that what power media have
is differential and limited. The decision to intervene, or withdraw,
is found most often to have been driven by the policy goals
of an administration, which have been formulated prior to television's
blanket coverage of a crisis. Where the media do appear to have
some impact is in those situations where the administration
or regime is unsure of which action to take and is open to pressure
(Strobel, 1997; Robinson, 2002).
suggests that an important aspect of the "CNN Effect,"
present from the earliest reports of its existence, has to do
with the ability of real-time coverage to transfix audiences
during crises. Impacted is anyone with access to 24-hour news
channels that broadcast seemingly endless discussions and analyses
about what the policy response is and what it should be. In
other words, real-time media coverage of crises has made the
public a party to policy discussions that once were conducted
behind closed doors of foreign ministries, consulates and executive
offices. While those high diplomatic discussions still happen,
increasingly policies are being made in venues and during events
likely to be covered and analyzed by global news media.
arena of public diplomacy in the Middle East there can be little
question of the impact first of CNN, and now of Al Jazeera.
While governments have always engaged in some form of public
diplomacy, nothing compares with the immediacy or impact to
of a nation's chief executive wagging his finger on television-literally
or figuratively-at the leader of another country. Elected or
unelected leaders involved in world crises have become masters
of the television image game. Some have required coaching to
improve their TV presence, while others seem to have come to
it naturally. So have the networks. During the 1991 Gulf war
CNN broadcast images of Saddam Hussein engaged in one-sided,
"friendly" conversations with his "human shields."
After 9/11, Al Jazeera broadcast bin Laden's anti-sound bites-lengthy
lectures set against unidentifiable rocky backdrops, and during
the 2003 Iraq War, Al Jazeera broadcast exclusive pictures of
dead and captured U.S. soldiers. Often these attempts at public
diplomacy backfire when unintended consequences result because
of cultural misperceptions.
this definition of the "CNN Effect," Al Jazeera is
fundamentally redrawing the map of the Arab world-both the West's
understanding of the region and the region's understanding of
itself-both impacting the 240 million residents of the Middle
East and North Africa and millions more in the Arab Diaspora
around the world. As noted elsewhere in this book, the upstart
Qatari network has challenged the tradition of state-controlled
television in the Arab world and, in the process, threatened
government interpretations of news in the region. In that reach
and significance, Al Jazeera became an important player in public
emerged in Arab and Western consciousness as the result of its
coverage of the second Intifada (Al Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003).
While CNN and other U.S. networks provided little coverage of
the Palestinian unrest in Gaza and the West Bank-and what little
coverage was there slanted toward Israel-Al Jazeera offered
comprehensive coverage with an Arab perspective. North American
satellite viewers came to know Al Jazeera because of the bin
Laden tapes, but Arab audiences had already become familiar
with its gloves-off coverage of religious, political, and international
issues of interest to Arab audiences. This aspect of Al Jazeera
has yet to penetrate the consciousness of the mainstream Western
media, even though American policy makers have come to recognize
the channel's reach and power.
antagonistic as the Bush administration's domestic, public rhetoric
about Al Jazeera may be, the president's closest advisers are
eager to appear on the Qatari channel to make the case for their
policy positions. Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza
Rice have all appeared on the network's interview shows to express
the Bush administration policy positions.
time the first bin Laden tape appeared on Al Jazeera on October
7, 1991, policy insiders in the West already knew about Al Jazeera.
They might not have grasped the full magnitude of its existence,
but then it is arguable that the Qataris were also slow to understand
what they had created. The emir himself is said to have wondered
aloud about the unexpected global phenomenon of the channel
that originally was intended as a national television station
with regional pretensions. Certainly journalists like Thomas
Friedman of the New York Times noticed the presence of the station
and argued that its philosophy of vigorous and outspoken press
freedom was a valuable addition to the region. In fact, given
its record as a gadfly to the conservative, autocratic regimes
of the Middle East, it is ironic that Al Jazeera came to the
attention of broader Western audiences as the representative
of the most extreme forms of Islamic reaction.
audiences who know nothing else about the network, can, nonetheless,
identify it as "Osama's mouthpiece" or "Taliban
TV." During the 2003 Gulf war, Al Jazeera came under fire
from the West for its footage of Iraqi casualties, as well as
its use of footage of Alliance casualties and prisoners. These
criticisms seem odd when one considers that the network only
reaches an estimated 35 to 40 million Arabic speaking viewers,
and is only accessible to American and British viewers who subscribe
to Arabic satellite TV packages. Networks buying Al Jazeera's
feed chose for themselves what footage they would use.
employees suggest, with some apparent justification, that footage
of bin Laden that they ran would have been used by CNN or any
other American news outlet that was lucky enough to get it first.
At the same time American commentators were loudly criticizing
Al Jazeera for running footage of U.S. casualties and prisoners,
American media were running pictures of dead Iraqi soldiers
and captured Iraqi soldiers. In fact, Al Jazeera Washington
bureau chief Hafez Al-Mirazi suggests that Al Jazeera told a
more balanced story of the war since it made a point of covering
the casualties and prisoners on both sides. In fact, the crisis
had passed before it was noted publicly that when the U.S. Defense
Department asked Al Jazeera to withhold footage until next of
kin were notified the station willingly complied, according
to Al-Mirazi (2003, April 3). In a similar vein, while American
officials were still complaining publicly about the network's
airing of the latest bin Laden footage in the spring of 2003,
they conveniently failed to acknowledge that Al Jazeera had
at least provided the footage to the U.S. government several
days before it aired.
The preoccupation of policy insiders-whether journalists or
others-with the power of the media to drive policy is understandable.
Each new medium or medium innovation has been met with a mixture
of skepticism and fear as technology seemingly opens new Pandora's
boxes. But given time the segments of society most affected
by the innovation adapts and the power of the immediate Effect
subsides. That might be the case with the CNN Effect. Policy
makers might well have learned how to turn it to their advantage
and to dodge its impact when no advantage is forthcoming. Hence,
the conviction that real-time news coverage impacts policy actions
has been overstated.
What cannot be argued away, however, is the fact that CNN and
Al Jazeera both cover live and breaking news for their audiences.
Both also provide political actors with an opportunity to directly
address world audiences, bypassing career diplomats and equally
pesky journalists. While the power of such coverage cannot be
easily measured it should not be underestimated.
is no question that CNN and other channels are willing to pay
Al Jazeera for audio-video feeds when they have nothing immediate
of their own. This fact illustrates one of the interesting contradictions
of Al Jazeera's rise to fame in the US. While networks have
been using news and footage from the network for years, and
American newsmakers have been seeking airtime on its talk shows,
it was only bin Laden's exclusive choice of Al Jazeera after
September 11 that brought the network to the attention of most
Americans. Criticism of Al Jazeera by those same newsmakers
made Al Jazeera a household name across the US. In one news
cycle it was possible to find Western news operations citing
Al Jazeera as the source for breaking news while at the same
time they carried stories critical of the Arab broadcaster.
Simultaneously, high-ranking members of the Bush administration
were arranging to be interviewed on Al Jazeera in Qatar while
administration spokesmen at home were demonizing the network.
there is merit to Western criticism of Al Jazeera is arguable.
Some of these differences in reporting techniques might be accounted
for by culture or custom. Al Jazeera is carving out an identity
for itself as an unrestrained medium in a region where neither
public diplomacy nor a free press has a tradition. The channel
is known for its sensationalism that offends some; and the vigorous
and unrestrained discussions and disagreements on its talk shows
that offend others. It has offended and alienated many by its
commitment not to bend to regional government restrictions or
preferences that it mute criticism of autocratic regimes.
James Poniewozik pithily observed that there is little difference
between CNN and Al Jazeera. "In fact, Western and Arab
media are driven by the same imperative-to feed the hunger for
human interest. Their interests are simply in different humans"
(Poniewozik, 2003). Different audiences aside, there seems to
be validity to Al Jazeera's response to criticism from the West:
the interviews it airs would be carried by CNN or other Western
networks if they had gotten the footage first. On the very day
that American politicians and journalists were criticizing Al
Jazeera for using of footage of captured British soldiers, the
New York Times ran a large, color photograph of a dead Iraqi
solider at the top of its front-page-a picture so detailed that
a family member or acquaintance would certainly have recognized
the unnamed soldier. It is understandable that Arabs claim Western
critiques of Al Jazeera are hypocritical, and should be read
as American discomfort with others exercising the very freedom
and democracy the US holds up to the world as a model.
Criticism aside, observers note that Al Jazeera has produced
another Effect-it has given the "Arab street" its
first regional-if not global-media presence (Kifner, 2001).
'Arab street,'once all but powerless, may be taking on a
new importance. The 'street' (that is, views of Arab public
opinion) has become a real force: now exposed to more sources
of information that repressive governments do not control;
harder to rein in once inflamed; and more susceptible to
radical Islam. Arab rulers no longer have a monopoly on
information and can no longer shape public opinion. Particularly
with the existence of Al Jazeera, an explosion of information
has occurred that has defined the debate." (Hachten
& Scotton, 2002, p. 20) TBS
Cassara (Ph.D., Michigan State) is an associate professor at
Green State University. Raised in several different countries,
she has been an
avid consumer of international news for more years than she
can count. A
former journalist, she teaches reporting, media history and
press issues, and is the author of book chapters, articles and
papers about American coverage of international news and the
news and foreign policy. Laura Lengel (Ph.D., Ohio University)
is associate professor in the School of Communication Studies
at Bowling Green State University, following seven years at
Richmond American International University in London. She began
researching international media as a Fulbright Scholar and American
Institute of Maghreb Studies Fellow in Tunisia. Her books, Culture
and Technology in the New Europe (2000), and Computer
Mediated Communication (with Thurlow & Tomic, 2004),
and articles address political, cultural, and economic influences
of media and technology, particularly in the MENA region and
Al-Mirazi, H. (2003, April 3), interviewed by Charlie Rose,
El-Nawawy, M. & Iskandar, A. (2002) Al Jazeera: How the
Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle
East. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.
Hachten, W.A. & Scotton, J.F. (2002) The World News Prism:
Global Media in an Era of
Terrorism. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
Kifner, J. (2001, Nov. 11) Street Brawl; The New Power of
Arab Public Opinion. New York Times, Sec. 4, p. 1.
Najjar, O. (2003, June 23). Personal communication with authors.
Poniewozik, J. (2003, April 7) What You See is vs. What They
See. Time 161, pp. 68-69.
Retrieved May 3, 2003 from the Business Source Premier database.
P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The Myth of News, Foreign Policy
Intervention. New York: Routledge.
Seib, P. (2002) The Global Journalist: News and Conscience
in a World of Conflict.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Strobel, W. (1997) Late-breaking Foreign Policy: The News
Media's Influence on Peace
Operations. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace.