Ten years ago TBS's publisher, the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, published an obscure book on the second Gulf War called "Media in the Midst of War." Now in 2002 we return to examining the same topic—this time both post-September 11 and in the face of escalating violence in the Middle East.
The Gulf War is often cited as one of the key events that brought CNN, with its exclusive coverage from Baghdad and a viewership around the world that wanted up-to-the-second reports, to global prominence—as well as making household names of some of its star players like Peter Arnett and Christiane Amanpour. As we reported in our last issue, the war in Afghanistan did the same for Al-Jazeera, which had exclusive footage from inside Kabul and which continues to receive videos from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda group (the latest, accompanied by the last will and testament video of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was aired just days before this issue of TBS was published). Both CNN and Al-Jazeera were quite well known, of course, before the Gulf War or the Afghan War, respectively—but these conflicts brought them to a truly global prominence; in the first case bringing CNN to the Middle East, and in the second, bringing Al-Jazeera to the forefront of western attention.
The significance of the media in the midst of today's wars cannot be underestimated. War, for the media, can boost ratings, it can make names, but there are also much more significant dynamics. In the Middle East, satellite stations that were already making a name for themselves for open debate and freedom of expression have now brought to public view what is shaping up to be an incredibly powerful force in regional politics: the Arab street. Public opinion has a voice as it never has before, and the implications of this are potentially wide-reaching. As Tim Golden wrote in the New York Times ("Crisis Deepens Impact of Arab TV News," April 16, 2002): "The television coverage has been a major factor in stirring Arabs' outrage at Israel and its supporters, especially the United States. The anger has even spilled over into resentment of some Arab governments, particularly those allied with Washington or at peace with Israel. Yet it is a sign of the changes taking place that even some of the region's more authoritarian leaders have appeared largely powerless to turn down the volume."
If media is this significant, then it comes as no surprise that there are indeed attempts to "turn down the volume." Journalists from media organizations around the world have protested being barred from areas of the West Bank by Israeli authorities, being harassed and even shot at by Israeli forces, and in at least one instance being expelled from the country. TBS spoke with Abu Dhabi TV anchorman and executive producer Jasim Al-Azzawi, who was escorted by Israeli police from the Abu Dhabi bureau to Ben Gurion airport and put on a plane to Jordan, and spoke with Abu Dhabi TV Deputy Director Mohamed Dourrachad about how the channel is covering a difficult story in difficult circumstances.
CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan told TBS, "We're working two very, very big stories right now that have a couple of things in common. One is they're enormously costly, but more importantly or more worrying is that they're both exceptionally dangerous, because we've seen in both places that I thank God happens very rarely, and that is that in both places journalists are not only being killed but they're being targeted. There are combatants in both of these conflicts who are trying to kill journalists, and that is unusual and a very nightmarish situation."
And as BBC World News Editor Jonathan Baker told us, covering a story like the conflict in the Middle East is difficult partly because every word has a pejorative meaning for one side or the other; everyone is ready to claim that media bias is working against them. So too after September 11, when the US government pressured Qatar's ruler to tone down Al-Jazeera's "anti-Americanism" and simultaneously discussed ways to open new media channels to "reach out to the Arab world," while the Arab world wondered why they were the constant target of American media stereotypes and how this image can be combated.
In this issue David Chambers files a special report from Hollywood on the reaction of the US entertainment industry to September 11—how TV and movie producers and executives view their role in promoting a positive view of the West, in dealing with September 11. Jihad Fakhreddine argues that despite attempts between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds over the last six months to start a dialogue, neither has been successful in getting the message across—or in even learning to speak the same language. In a transcript of the panel discussion "Covering the War" held by Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, former CBS and NBC correspondent Marvin Kalb and other journalists rate the job the American and Arab media have done in covering September 11 and the war in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that the media is not just a reflection of and vehicle for what's going on in the world around it. It is a forum for public debate; a battlefield for publicity, propaganda, or public diplomacy; an arena where policies are shaped, where "the masses" find a voice. It is an actor. A historic example is Sadat's ice-breaking trip to Jerusalem, which was brokered by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. We see it now in Newsweek magazine's presenting its own version of a Middle East peace plan. In journalists being treated as a threat by the Israeli government. In raging debates in support of and against stations like Al-Jazeera. In new radio and TV initiatives forming part of the US government's war on terror. In the Arab world's wildly popular call-in shows, especially those begun in the last few weeks in response to the crisis in Palestine. Always the critical "fourth estate," the media's power, with the rise of transnational broadcasting, the Internet, and instant access to global information, is more in the midst of war than ever before.