In the current war in Iraq, and in Washington's wider confrontation with the Arab world, the American and Arab mass media have become instruments and weapons of war, and also targets of war. In the heat of battle, both sides' mass media reflect the fear and anger that define their societies. Operating according to commercial dictates, they both seek to expand audience share and advertising income. They do this by pandering to, and reflecting, their public opinions. They wave the flag. They touch the heartstrings.
The result is that Osama bin Laden uses Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya satellite channels to disseminate his views, and the US creates new Arabic-language media channels to send its views to Arab audiences. The Pentagon uses embedded American journalists to reflect its perspectives, and Arab television reporters go to Fallujah and Gaza to show the full consequences of American and Israeli military actions on the ground, going beyond the sanitized versions in the US and Israeli media. Arab and US reporters have been killed in the process, and Arab media offices in Iraq have been hit by US air strikes - deliberately in Arab eyes, accidentally in the Pentagon's view. This transformation of the media from detached chroniclers of events to active combatants on the information front line reflects a profound change that is only now becoming evident: The mass media is the only sector where the Arab world can engage the United States on equal ground. In all other important arenas - diplomacy, the military, economy, technology - the US is vastly more powerful, and it dictates policy to largely pliant client regimes. But in the mass media's basic reporting and analysis work, the half-dozen established pan-Arab satellite channels have countered the US mainstream media and fought them to a draw.
Typically, the Pentagon says its attacks in Fallujah carefully target militants, and Al-Jazeera's reporters on the ground show film of dead civilians and bombed mosques. Other than perhaps resistance fighters in Palestine, Iraq and south Lebanon, Arab satellite channels may be the only credible popular symbols of Arab self-assertion and success in a landscape otherwise defined by Arab weakness, docility, servility and humiliation. No wonder 35 million viewers watch Al-Jazeera every day.
In the past two years, the United States has mobilized and deployed in the Arab world two offensive forces - the battalions of troops that overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq and now occupy and administer the country, and battalions of Arabic-speaking journalists who man three new US mass media operations designed to change Arab perceptions of the US and its aims in the Middle East (Al-Hurra television, Radio Sawa and Hi magazine). In both cases, Washington's military and media battalions are enjoying mixed success.
Washington seems totally befuddled on how to respond to the rise of Arab satellite television. Its initial response was embarrassingly naive and ineffective - to whine and complain, and then to attempt to provide new sources of information from, and for, the Middle East. Politicians such as Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld routinely criticize pan-Arab television, especially Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, for inaccurate reporting and inciting Arabs to kill Americans in Iraq. Just last week, Powell raised this issue in public when he met the Qatari foreign minister in Washington (the state of Qatar founded and largely finances Al-Jazeera, which is autonomously managed).
The Arab-owned stations reply that they are doing their best to report facts on the ground, including rising anti-US sentiment. Arabs are angry when they see dead Iraqi infants with half their skulls blown away due to missile strikes. The Arab satellite channels convey this reality, they don't manufacture it. If Arabs are increasingly angry at the US - which they certainly are - this is almost totally due to the consequences of US military and political policies, not the reporting of these policies by Arab television. This is not rocket science: Most of the world disagrees with US policies in Iraq and Palestine. The Arab media reflect this. Shooting the messenger won't change the reality.
The US focus on the Arab mass media as bad guys is a classic example of desperate and irresponsible scapegoating that will only aggravate the underlying problem. Mainstream US politicians and public opinion seem desperate to find any plausible reason to explain away the rising tide of anti-US sentiment in the Arab and Islamic world and most of Europe, other than the actual reason - negative public reactions to the impact of violent and biased US foreign policies.
The Arab media is also a particularly inappropriate candidate for Washington's misdirected ire, because the US mass media behave almost identically to the Arab media. In this time of war, both the US and Arab media mirror and pander to their public opinions, reflect and promote a rising tide of patriotic sentiment, stereotype and sometimes demonize the other and resolutely and irresponsibly refuse to probe the underlying reasons for the mass sentiments of the other side. The Arab media have done a poor job of explaining why Americans support their government's foreign policy, and US media by and large have failed to explore the full causes of why the US has been targeted by terrorists.
The mass sentiments in the US and the Arab world are very troubling, for they comprise a volatile combination of anger, fear, ignorance and an almost Pavlovian need for revenge and retribution. George W. Bush drives the common media message in the US that Islamist militants want to destroy America, and Osama bin Laden drives the corresponding message in the Arab world that the US and Israel are engaged in a campaign to recolonize the Arab-Islamic world and transform its values and identity.
Both these perceptions are grievously flawed and exaggerated. Yet they tend to drive public sentiments in both regions, and they define much of the tone of media coverage, which has become a proxy target in this widening war of our times.www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=3248E-mail this article