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Al Jazeera: In Pursuit of ‘Contextual Objectivity’

Miles, Hugh. Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging the West. New York: Grove Press, 2005. Hard cover. 438 pages. ISBN: 0802117899. $16.32.

El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2003. Paperback. 240 pages. ISBN: 0813341493. $10.88.

Zöllner, Oliver (Ed.) Beyond Borders: Research for International Broadcasting 2003, Vol. 2. Bonn, Germany: Conference of International Broadcasters' Audience Research Services, 2004. Paperback. 168 Pages. ISBN 3-932872-11-8. Free as stock allows.

Some critics have wrongly perceived Hugh Miles' book on Al Jazeera as a regurgitation of already-published information about the transnational broadcasting channel. Instead Miles' Inside Story should be viewed as a continuing quest to understand why the world's most-watched news channel is so appealing to its audience, and so perplexing to its critics.

In his erudite ethnography, Miles draws on his skills as a reporter trained in the Western media tradition to explain how differences in perspective guide the Arabic channel on its mission to provide "the opinion and the other opinion." What has rankled Western governmental policymakers has been how successful Al Jazeera has been in carrying out its mission by practicing "contextual objectivity." More on that later.

Despite vilification from Western policymakers and skepticism by some viewers in the Arab world that the station in Qatar is an instrument of the US government, or worse, the Israelis, Al Jazeera has built a global audience of between 35 and 50 million viewers. Miles journalistically wades into the disparate -- if not contradictory -- viewpoints without offering his own conclusions. At times, however, you could almost visualize the writer shaking his head in amazement over statements, like those made by a Jordanian family, that Al Jazeera was part of a Zionist plot to control the Middle East. Or at the equally preposterous statement from Israelis that Al Jazeera promotes terrorism.

An academic curiosity

Of course, none of these claims is new to scholars of Al Jazeera, who have followed the station's development from a largely regional satellite in 1996, to a major international media player in 2003. Along the way, Al Jazeera has managed, in varying degrees, to invoke the official ire of nearly every Arab (and many non-Arab) countries in which it maintains bureaus. There's an old newspaperman's saying that if both sides of an issue are angry about the balance of your news coverage, you were probably reporting the story accurately. At least that is what they are saying in Al Jazeera's control room.
Few television channels, with the possible exception of CNN, have received so much attention as Al Jazeera in so many different forms: newspaper and magazine articles, academic journals and conference papers, book chapters, news documentaries, and even a full-length feature documentary (Control Room, see TBS 12 for reviews), and, of course books. The books listed here are only a fraction of those that have been published concerning Al Jazeera. Mohamed Zayani edits many TBS contributors in a new one published this spring, The Al Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media (London: Paradigm, 2005). That book will be reviewed in the next issue of TBS journal.

As an Arabic-speaker who grew up in the region (his father, Oliver, a critic of the 2003 Iraq war, was once the UK's ambassador to Libya), Miles made inroads into a society normally reticent around foreign journalists. One of the strengths of this book is Miles' willingness to travel around the Middle East and go as far as the Detroit suburbs in the US to interview ordinary viewers of Al Jazeera and sample their opinions on what kind of job it is doing.

Making a serious effort to transcend language barriers and cultural divides, Miles clearly demonstrates professional kinship for Al Jazeera and its many journalists around the world. Even though the author is sympathetic to his subject, he slightly misses shedding light on why Al Jazeera remains so popular with viewers despite the brick-bats from the West and ham-handed Arab government critics in the Middle East. In that regard, an earlier work by Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar hits closer to the mark by offering the concept of contextual objectivity as an explanation for why viewers find Al Jazeera so credible.

However, it must be understood that these are two different books intended for two different audiences. Both succeed in their objective of explaining the Al Jazeera phenomenon, and why Al Jazeera dominates the field of would-be successors.

Al Jazeera's broad influence

How influential is television, and Al Jazeera, in the Middle East? The Conference for International Broadcaster's Audience Research Services (CIBAR) offers some clues.
According to Mark Rhoads and Carole Chapelier's 2003 examination of Middle East media, reported in Zöllner's book, satellite television "is the most popular entertainment and information medium" in the Middle East. No surprise there, though its growth exceeds any rate found elsewhere in the world. Television beats radio as the media of choice by two to one in Egypt and Jordan.

Daily television viewership exceeds 75 percent in most countries, the study shows, with penetration highest in Morocco (89 percent) and Kuwait (86 percent) and lowest in Jordan (67 percent) and Egypt (75 percent). "News consumers tend to be skeptics who recognize the form and content of propaganda. They are not inclined to believe claims to 'objectivity' and instead seek 'balance,' a report that examines an event from diverse angles," they write.

Kuwait leads the way with satellite dish installation with 97 percent of the 7,056 of the survey respondents saying they own or have access to satellite, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (82 percent) and Qatar (81 percent). The fewest dishes were in Egypt (12 percent), Jordan (50 percent), and Morocco (61 percent).

Although Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) is the most highly watched channel in the UAE for entertainment (at 42 percent), Al Jazeera pulls down a whopping 57 percent of the viewers seeking news. Not only that but 61 percent of the viewers rated Al Jazeera as the most credible.

Perhaps as an effect of transnational broadcasting, the Rhoads-Chapelier study shows that regional stations, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi television, among the other offerings like al-Manar, MBC and Iqra, are regarded by views as "local" and dominate international attempts to penetrate the market. (p.78-79).

Regardless of where they live, Arabs view Al Jazeera as local

The perception of Al Jazeera as a local channel partly explains its popularity in the Arab World, but why is it so popular in Europe, Asia, and, increasingly, the US, where of the hundreds of channels offered Al Jazeera is the preferred channel among Arabic speakers? What Miles found out -- supporting a uses and gratifications study by Khaled Al-Jaber, The Credibility of Arab Broadcasting: The Case of Al Jazeera (see review in TBS 13) - was that people in the so-called Arab Diaspora watched Al Jazeera because it gave them a sense of their origin and kept them informed of cultural events.

Stalled by bureaucratic red tape from distributing its satellite channel in Canada until mid-2004, the channel is quickly building a viewership among Arabic speakers there, whose numbers have swelled since 9/11 in comparison with the less visa-friendly US. In fact, the prohibition on Al Jazeera was lifted months before another controversial station, Fox News, was allowed across the border. Canadian administrators still censor some of the programs as being too inflammatory or too inaccurate for the good of the Canadian people. Sounds a lot like the Middle East, doesn't it?

Indeed, much of the information contained in the hard cover Miles edition, is well known among the media cognoscenti, a group not as large as casual readers might suspect. However, Miles adds more sources to what has already been printed about the transnational broadcaster and updates readers of the el-Nawawy and Iskandar book. Like a fine chef Miles collects the known ingredients, carefully cutting away the unsubstantiated and unverified, and blends in his personal observations in Qatar, Jordan, Cairo, and Dearborn, Michigan, to produce a highly palatable stew that satisfies most cravings of casual readers for information about the Qatar-based station.

No, there are few surprises or sensational revelations about the transnational broadcasting leader-its reported 50 million viewers exceed that of either BBC World or CNN, which Al Jazeera openly tries to emulate-but what is there to expose? The station's "hidden agenda," which many Arab and non-Arab critiques suspect but can not quite figure out? No other satellite broadcaster in history has been so scrutinized. After all, Al Jazeera operates under an intensive microscope of the greatest military and economic power the world has ever seen. If there were direct links to Al Qa'ida, as has been suggested by the US State Department, a claim reported by both Miles and his able predecessors, el-Nawawy and Iskandar, then this information would have come out long ago. Could it be, Miles suggests, that Al Jazeera is just practicing the journalist's trade, the same as any other professional news organization, but within a specific cultural context never before explored in a global arena?

Academic and profession worlds meet

Where el-Nawawy and Iskandar presented seminal and scholarly research, replete with footnotes and bibliography, Miles' book is a journalistic effort. He is trying to tell a story, not document a phenomenon. But taken together -- not surprisingly, Amazon.com has done just that for $27.20 -- these books are invaluable to the West's understanding of what Al Jazeera is up to. Or what the writers think it is up to.

There is also the question of timing.

The el-Nawawy and Iskandar edition first came out in 2002 (see review in TBS 8) and a slightly modified edition came out in paperback in 2003. The new epilogue updated its earlier version and added a fresh concept for scholars to mull -- the notion of contextual objectivity. 

Contextual objectivity, a phrase el-Nawawy apparently borrowed from quantum mechanics, explains how journalistic practices of truthfulness, fairness, and lack of bias in reporting in one culture can be as subjective as it wants as long as it's targeted audiences go along and think they are receiving truthful, fair, and balanced news about another's culture. Al Jazeera is not the only international broadcaster to do this: has anyone caught Fox News on Orbit lately? 

While intuition suggests that the raison d'être of any media is to attract and hold an audience, we can safely assume the audience gets something out of its investment in time and energy to watch the channel. A spate of recent academic studies have found a direct link to the perception of audiences that their favorite broadcasters appeal directly to them and their innate wants, desires, wishes, and, yes, biases. Hence, conservatives enjoy watching Fox News, Liberals enjoy watching CNN, and Arab audiences stick with Al Jazeera over competitors because its programming appeals to their worldviews. To some extent, all of the channels offer their viewers comprehensive and selective information that reflects the viewers' interests. In short, they are all contextually objective to one extent or another.

As studies reported in this journal and others have shown, audiences generally find Al Jazeera believable, even when it makes mistakes and corrects them at a later time -- just as any Western broadcaster would do. The challenge for Al Jazeera, the writers would agree, is to inject some social responsibility into their broadcast philosophy. Indications exist that this is underway at the Qatari station, such as the adoption of a code of ethics (see Al Jazeera Update: More Datelines from Doha and a Code of Ethics in TBS 13) and its growing reluctance to broadcast images of individuals kidnapped by jihadist groups.

Both books on Al Jazeera, despite duplicating information at times -- the Miles book was ever cognizant of that fact and tried to approach well-known information from a variety of angles -- are worthy of shelf space in any transnational broadcasting library. The CIBAR studies are valuable, too, in that they provide a snapshot of the Middle East mediascape, including not only information about transnational television viewing habits, but transnational radio listening patterns as well. 

About Tessa Litecky

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