Us and Them, the Demise of the Union of World Journalists: A Report on the Conference Arab and Western TV Coverage of the War in Iraq: the Continuing Debate, Cambridge, March 19-21, 2004

 By Dana Suyyagh

Dana Suyyagh and Mohammed Zayyani

Much has been made, written, and analyzed over the past few years of Western vs. Arab perspectives on events. The events of September 11th and war on Afghanistan sparked a debate on the issue so wide it was practically impossible to read a book or article or enter a seemingly harmless chat room on the internet without being sucked into it.
But for a while, the journalists, educated, well rounded, seen-it-all folk, jaded by wars they've covered, politicians they've questioned, and human faces they've put on policies, domestic and foreign, were immune to this ongoing debate. They found a haven in each other's company, in exchanging views on events they had covered in the past, events that had now been suddenly thrust into the limelight by forces greater than them, and that had taken on a spin journalists the world over, questioned, as they should, before ratifying.

There were times before that day that changed the world, when Western media outlets showed great interest in their Arab counterparts, those fledgling signs of democracy. Outfits like Al Jazeera were welcomed into the Big Boys Club of world media; they were the little voice that could, this tiny experiment that adopted Western journalistic ethics in a sea of state-controlled voices. There was, more often than not, a patronizing tone in the way many journalists from the West viewed this "new dabbling" on the part of Arabs with the free press, but it was a start, and it was promising.

I, for one, always looked forward to these gatherings, and media conferences always allowed for the sharing of stories in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. And though everyone took note that the patronizing tone that always snuck into references to the Arab outfits was getting worse in the lead up to the bombing campaign on Iraq, one had hoped that after the dust of war had settled somewhat, journalists would get together once again and review what had happened, what they had learned, individually and collectively, away from the fog of it all.

And it was with that hope that I went to the conference on "Arab and Western TV Coverage of the War on Iraq" organized by the University of Cambridge. The program promised a lively debate between reporters who had covered the war from the field, editors from various media outfits responsible for bringing it all together on screen and in print, and academics monitoring the output, and providing an educated overview of how these events were received and perceived.

It became evident right from the start that this "coming together of perspectives" was not meant to be. The unfortunate timing of the conference, which coincided with the first anniversary of the start of the bombing campaign on Iraq, meant that a lot of scheduled speakers, mainly the field reporters from Arab and Western channels, were all involved in anniversary specials. Of twenty-eight speakers originally programmed, twelve failed to attend.

Without the view from the field that often brings into to the story and away from all the debate surrounding it, Arab academics and TV journalists adopted the Us/Them mentality born of being on the defensive.

Those present and involved in the continuing war coverage were, in a sense, still bruised from the beating Arab media took from foreign governments, and the toll of the war itself on their own (Al-Jazeera had lost a reporter in the US bombing a day before Baghdad fell, an Al-Arabiya reporter and cameraman were shot dead by American troops a day before the conference).

Joanne Tucker, my colleague from Al Jazeera, and Noureddine Miladi from Westminster University, spoke at length about the bias of Western media, a reaction, evidently, to the finger pointing endured by Arabs and their media. The message was that we might be biased, but you are more so. American media became, due again to late cancellations, the elephant in the room, talked about, but not represented. Much was said about media corporations in the US and their not-so-subtle alliances with the American administration, a great deal of the debate centered on the demonizing of Arab media outfits like al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera. But it was a friendly debate between representatives of those outfits, academics from their part of the world, and some Western journalists allied with them-by default and by virtue of their opposition to the campaign-in their criticism of the official allied spin on the war,

The presence of the "official view" represented by Dr. Nabil Khouri, the State Department Spokesman in Baghdad, and Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, British Spokesman of Operations in Iraq, though welcome, did little but strengthen the focus on media objectivity. "The Spokespeople," obviously fixated on attracting media and with it public perception of the campaigns their governments led, sang the praises of embeds and made constant references to "operational safety" and "need to know bases," as means of fielding tough questions. Both participants didn't stick around for the duration of the conference, or the friendly exchanges of ideas reserved for the dinners and coffee breaks, widening, in a sense, the feeling of mistrust many an Arab and independent journalist reserves for spokespeople from the Allied Forces.

The questions raised by journalists during the coverage of that war were left unanswered. The viability of the embed experience, the problematic of occupation terminology, public perceptions before and after the war, and the issue of reconciling the image with the official version of the story, all took a back seat to the greater debate over "bias"—the new four-letter word.

It was always there, this division based on perspective. But what was once a welcome alternative, a basis for dialogue, had become grounds for suspicion, distrust, and undermining credibility. The war on Iraq had hit home for the Arabs, as September 11 had done for the Americans. And they had both taken the journalists hostage. We still hope for the conference where journalists can get together again to talk about journalism, the craft we all love. And maybe when it happens, we can all check our war baggage, though not our perspectives, at the door. TBS

Dana Suyyagh is a senior producer for Al-Arabiya.

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo