Move over CNN: Al Jazeera's View of the World Takes On the West

By Catherine Cassara & Laura Lengel

 

While 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.

Bin Laden 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.

The "CNN 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.

The CNN 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).

This chapter 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.

In this 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.

Under 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 or tele-diplomacy.

Al Jazeera 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.

As virulently 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.

By the 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.

American 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.

Al Jazeera's 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.

There 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.

Whether 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.

Time's 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).

"The '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


Catherine Cassara (Ph.D., Michigan State) is an associate professor at Bowling
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 international
press issues, and is the author of book chapters, articles and conference
papers about American coverage of international news and the intersection of
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 Eastern Europe.

References

Al-Mirazi, H. (2003, April 3), interviewed by Charlie Rose, PBS.

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.

Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The Myth of News, Foreign Policy and
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.

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu