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Beating Around the Middle East Bush on Morningside Heights

Columbia University's prestigious Middle East Institute, with an assist from Columbia's equally prestigious School of Journalism, was the host to a curious but stimulating conference that was as ambiguous in its apparent direction as it was ambiguous in title: "Opening the Channels: Columbia Forum on Television and Society in the Middle East."

Which is not to fault the hosts, and in particular the Middle East Institute's administrator and forum coordinator Dr. Jean-Marc Oppenheim, who not only was personally as helpful a coordinator as one could hope for, but is also a prolific scholar of the modern Middle East in his own right and who called upon some of Columbia's most able faculty to provide context including Dean Lisa Anderson from the School of International and Public Affairs; Prof. Richard C. Bulliet, who provided the forum with a historical context for the information revolution in the Middle East; Dr. James Carey from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, who moderated the discussion called "The Social Impact of Media in the Middle East" (one of the two public sessions); and Prof. John Pavlik from the Graduate School of Journalism's Center for New Media, who provided informed technological insights to the Roundtable on Future Trends.

The problem was that there were in effect two very distinct conferences co-existing under one ambiguous title. Some of the participants assumed, given their own work as presenters of the successful and controversial public affairs talk shows broadcast by a number of the Arab satellite channels, that the "channels" of the forum's title referred to just that broadcasting channels which have been opening up quite remarkably in the Arab region over the past decade with the advent of privately owned satellite channels and networks. But it was also apparent from the participation of several Israeli and Palestinian documentary filmmakers, who (especially the Palestinians) had but the most marginal relationship to television, that this forum was at least as much about encouraging intense channels of communication between Palestinians and Israelis as was about regional broadcasting.

The curiously cloaked nature of this second agenda curious because Palestinians and Israelis are in constant dialogue, not to mention government to government collaboration, and because Arab and Israeli artists and intellectuals have been encountering each other at regional issue-specific conferences and seminars in Europe and America for more than a decade was also reflected in the curious relationship between who participated in the conference, what went on, and the title. From the perspective of "Television and Society" this was primarily and most engagingly a forum of Arab television presenters and directors: stalwarts of the emerging satellite industry such as Sami Haddad of al-Jazeera; Moataz Demerdash, MBC's senior anchor and talk show host; Dr. Hala Sarhan, ART's most professional on-air talent who hosts three controversial talk shows; Mohammed Gohar, CEO of Video Cairo Sat, which provides a facility out of Cairo and participates in production with a dozen of the Arab satellite channels; and scholars like Dr. Hussein Amin and Prof. Shibley Telhami, who are focused on both the region and on broadcasting.

The token individual Israeli broadcaster participating in the panels and roundtables that were dominated by intense discussion of issues relevant to Arab broadcasting be they related to program content or the implications of new technologies could only make contributions that seemed forced or irrelevant. Yet Israeli participation was not a hasty afterthought; it was obviously of great concern to the co-organizers and funders of this forum, which was primarily the Dreyfus Foundation. Indeed nearly one-third of all the participants presenting papers and/or screen video examples of their work were Israelis, a rather high percentage for a truly regional conference. And interestingly Arab participation, while dominating much of the discussion, did not reflect the broad Arab world, for none of the North African broadcasters (who certainly have an impact beyond their own borders with significant audiences among the large Arab communities in France, Belgium and the Netherlands) participated. It did reflect those countries and their privately owned media that are directly engaged, peacefully or otherwise, with Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabiaan engagement, peaceful or not, which is not present in the North African Arab societies.

This marginality on the television side of this forum might not have been the case if the use of the words "Middle East" in the title of this Forum had had more substance. A Middle Eastern forum is not limited to Arabs and Israelis and American scholars focused on either or both sides of that particular regional divide, as was the case here. It would have meant participation by Cypriots or Cyprus-based broadcasters, as well as the more obvious participation of Turkish and Iranian broadcasters and relevant scholars, American or otherwise. Then the Israeli participants for the television side of this forum would have been no more or no less singular by virtue of the unique history and context of Israeli broadcasting (which, like Israeli culture, has little or nothing in origin and context to do with that of Arab broadcasting or Arab culture) than the Arab, the Iranian, the Turkish, the Cypriot and even Maltese and Greek broadcasters.

But within the context of this forum as a focus on television and society in the Middle East understood as  the Arab East, there was much pertinent discussion on and off the podium. Among the issues: was Cairo still the center for Arab television production? Dr. Shibley Telhami argued that the emergence of so many regional players and non-Egyptian centers of production meant that the Egyptian hegemony of the fifties and sixties was not going to repeat itself. Dr. Telhami was not simply referring to dynamic broadcasters like LBC and Future out of Beirut or Orbit out of Rome, but also to the quality television productions coming from Syria. Hassan Hamed, who founded the Egyptian government's English-language satellite and terrestrial channel Nile TV, and now heads up the thematic satellite channels, challenged this assertion, comparing the tremendous output of broadcasting-hours production coming from the ERTU or financed by the ERTU compared to Syria's output or that of other emerging centers such as Jordan or Dubai.

But the issue, as other participants such as Moataz Demerdash and Muhammed Gohar noted, wasn't determined by reference to quantity. Rather it is reflected in the extraordinary number of quite professional productions for non-Egyptian private sector satellite channels that are undertaken in Cairo either directly by the private satellite networks, like Emad al-Deeb's pioneering public affairs talk show for Orbit, which broke the ice for all the others, including al-Jazeera; like Hala Sarhan's talk shows for ART; or in partnership with Egyptian private sector companies like Gohar's. Part of that has to do with the depth of talent. In Cairo, unlike Qatar or Avezzano or Rome, one can close one's eyes, stick one's arm out the door, and haul in 25 passers-by, and probably half would have the qualifications to participate in a talk show. And that explains why al-Jazeera produces or co-produces from Cairo and why it has declared its readiness to participate in Egypt's proposed Media Free Zone.

That possibility, an Egyptian Media Free Zone, was another area of debate. Former BBC presenter Sami Haddad, who now hosts one of al-Jazeera's most popular talk shows, expressed his concern as to whether anyone could be sufficiently convinced that an environment of free discussion would be tolerated. But as other participants pointed out, despite bothersome rhetoric and discernable examples of an authoritarian mentality in Egypt's strictly political arena, no one has prevented al-Jazeera, Orbit or others from producing and transmitting controversial live programming via Egyptian facilities, just as no one in the Egyptian establishment has ever made use of the delay-signal kill button at the ground station that receives CNN for retransmission via CNE to an Egyptian wireless cable audience.

Almost completely detached from the first forum was the second, a forum devoted to documentary film. There was concern in general for the documentary as an art form that provided the basis for a scheduled presentation by Diane Weyerman, from the Soros Documentary Fund; Paola Freccero, vice president of the documentary-oriented Sundance channel; and a demonstration and talk by Jon Alpert, the moving spirit of what could be described as "guerrilla television news" in contrast to the less enterprising formal canons of conventional TV field reporting. But the core of this forum, in presentation and discourse, were the Palestinian and Israeli documentary filmmakers, the latter of whom were impressively professional as well as personally and artistically sympathetic.

Much of this confusion stems from a virtue: the dynamic role played in this conference by Richard Dreyfuss, who is clearly more than a very interesting actor. He is above all a man so serious as to be beyond the pretensions of Hollywood fame and any of its trappings. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet and talk with him. For all of his low-key and humorous manner, Dreyfuss is a man passionately committed to the acquisition and transmission of humanist knowledge in general and the achievement of cultural environments conducive to this in other words, to the growth of civil society in cultures like contemporary Arab political culture, where it is sorely lacking or misunderstood, and of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab reconciliation. Dreyfuss is not only committed, he is also sensitive. It was interesting indeed that during the panel he chaired, "News and Talk: Personalities in the Middle East," it was Dreyfuss who raised concern, amidst the general celebration of the brave new world in Arab satellite talk shows, that is precisely such shows, taken to a certain logical extreme in testiness and confrontation, in psycho babble and embarrassing exhibitionist confessionals, that have contributed so much to the erosion of good manners and decency in the United States. But all of Richard Dreyfuss  vitality and wide-ranging concerns, when translated by his staff into packaging this forum a staff who obviously had as much or more to do with the organizing of this forum as the Columbia scholars could not help but contribute to the confusion. 

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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