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Is Al Jazeera Alternative? Mainstreaming Alterity and Assimilating Discourses of Dissent

In its nine-year history, the Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera has been the subject of much debate. From glorification to vilification, the station has been described as “radical” by its detractors and as an “alternative” medium by its admirers (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003, Miles, 2005). Since the launch of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, Al Jazeera, already of immense popularity in the Arab world, solidified its reputation as the go-to source for “alternative” news for much of the Western hemisphere. Currently, the station is in an ambivalent position "vis-à-vis" its regional and global audiences --in some instances serving as the sole voice of discursive dissent and in others acting as the major mainstream broadcaster in the Arab world. This paper assesses the narratives of “nativity” and “alterity” as they pertain to Al Jazeera, thereby comparing its corporate institutional “wholesaler” properties to the station’s seemingly contradictory role as an alternative news provider. Does Al Jazeera fall into the category of “alternative media?” In its current structure, how do characterizations of the station as “counter-hegemonic” fare?

Any definition of alternative media must encompass distinctions of the “alternative press” that position such media in relation to the mainstream media. Once this contrast is established, the task is to highlight the frequently overlooked yet common chiasms between the mainstream and alternative media. It is precisely these chiasms that contribute to the loose categorical groupings of mainstream and alternative. How does this vague territory help assimilate “alternative” media into the mainstream? Conversely, how do mainstream media employ strategies of alterity to create the image of alternative media entities?

The characterization of Al Jazeera as an alternative medium, prior to its employment by the station and its advocates as a promotional tool, seems to have emerged from early writings in the West. Aside from providing succinct analyses of Al Jazeera’s history and development, the writings of Arab media scholars (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003; Miles, 2005; Sakr, 2002; Zayani, 2005) have inadvertently contributed to the image of the “alternative” network, making Al Jazeera more attractive to activists in the West.

Alternative Media and the Counter-Hegemonic

For decades, the terms “mainstream media” and “alternative media” have been used loosely and frequently by commentators, pundits, and the public to refer to widely divergent entities. The nature and definitions of alternative media have often been contested terrain. From their responsibility towards a viewing audience, to their ability to reflect the aspiration of a socially-conscious citizenry, the characteristics attributed to “alternative media” have undergone a process of continual self-identification (Downing, 1984). However, the literature indicates several common definitional themes, most of which arise from their contrast to mainstream media.

Unlike their mainstream counterparts, which serve as sizable information-processing inventories, alternative media’s values tend to revolve around participatory democratic ideals of a mobilized citizenry. Not simply venues for the dissemination of information, alternative media are often identified as “facilitators of social communication and change” (Tomaselli and Louw, 1989, p. 213). This theme of alternative media’s responsibility towards social change is pervasive throughout the literature.

Under authoritarian regimes, publics tend to hold overwhelmingly cynical and predominantly untrusting views of political and economic establishments. Therefore, Al Jazeera’s dissenting discourses are potentially a verbalization of Arab publics’ critiques of government. To a large extent, Al Jazeera’s programming meets does meet this criterion as the station targets monarchical regimes in the region, fielding attacks against political and economic corruption throughout the region, and serving as a voice of dissent and forum for various national opposition movements.

Coupled with a radical political agenda, another common theme of alternative media definitions is an affirmation of their responsibility towards, and relationship to, social movements (Downing, 1984). Examples of these are pervasive, including: the opposition press of the suffrage movements (Kelly, 2004; Lumsden, 1998), the abolitionist press in the US (Rhodes, 1998), the “underground” media’s role in the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto, and the Zapatista uprising’s cyberprotest (Russell, 2005). The common alignment between alternative media and a respective social movement often develops into a symbiotic relationship. This affiliation is produced by news organizations’ efforts to engage and activate audiences. Their presentation of “[m]obilizing information” (Stanfield and Lemert, 1987) produces mediated content with the intention of promoting social involvement in a respective movement. The overarching desire for such media is to instigate social change by enticing audiences to become responsive, reactive, and engaged with ideological social movements. This symbiotic relationship between “alternative” media and activism often elicits accusations of bias and partisanship.

Similar criticism is lobbed at Al Jazeera, with critics pointing out the channel’s incitement of activism against Arab regimes, violence against US interests, and hatred of Israel. While the station has provided a platform for the broadcast of radical voices, Al Jazeera doesn’t appear to align itself with any social movement directly. Conversely, there are no definitive signs of an ongoing, coherent, and cohesive relationship between Al Jazeera and any one issue, ideology, or group in the Arab world or beyond. While the station has been called “Bin Laden’s mouthpiece” by critics (Bin laden alive, 2002; Darwish, 2001; Taylor, 2001), Al Jazeera, in fact, does not appear to have internalized or adopted the ideologies of any specific social movement in its coverage.

The common criteria that define alternative media focuses on their unique operational characteristics. Definitions of mainstream media as an antithetical structure view them as largely monolithic, centered on profit, hierarchical organizations which, by virtue of their professional routinization and codification, are implicitly exclusive (Downing, 1984). On the other hand, more radical alternative media are democratic in terms of access and political aims, distancing themselves from the “elitist professional” ideals of the mainstream press. This characteristic of alternative media cannot be met by Al Jazeera, as the station functions much the same way as most mainstream institutions function -- it is a non-collective media enterprise.

Aside from following prescribed Western mainstream media formats and styles, the station’s news values, as enshrined in the broadcaster’s recently released code of journalistic ethics, differs little from those of major transnational broadcasters CNN and the BBC. A sizable number of Al Jazeera’s staff responsible for producing marketing and publicity for the station are Western-trained and educated. This has led to a rapid growth in Al Jazeera’s operations including the incorporation of a sports channel, children’s channel, and an upcoming English-language news station. Such franchising operations and the expansive reach of Al Jazeera’s commodified brand name raise some doubts about the extent to which Al Jazeera can be characterized as an “alternative” medium.

Downing (1984) also identified “non-hierarchical” structure as a characteristic that distinguishes alternative institutions from their mainstream counterparts. This involves mostly collective modes of organizational operation. He defines the radical media’s operations as produced and composed primarily by non-professionals. Instead, groups that are primarily activists working for progressive social change are the purveyors of alternative media content. But overall, Al Jazeera is in fact structurally on-par with its Western mainstream counterparts in terms of organization and planning. The station’s operations are no more collective than network television stations in the US. In fact, Al Jazeera’s reporters and editors have years of experience in the industry. They possess extensive training from some of the world’s leading news agencies. Therefore, the image of an amateur staff operating an alternative medium is not applicable to Al Jazeera.

Atton (2002b) further explicates Downing’s criterion of non-hierarchical structure, suggesting that alternative media function first and foremost as journalistic operations. In his discussion of the British anarchist press, Atton observed that these media are characterized not just by their critiques of mainstream media, but also by the alternative values and frameworks that underpin their news coverage (p.10). From the accommodation and employment of the “native reporter” as an integral component of message-construction to emphasis on “active witnessing” and the transformation of “social movement news,” the mainstream conventions of media structure are eschewed by such institutions. Compared to other global media institutions, Al Jazeera does exhibit the criterion of “native reporter” to a great degree in its coverage of the Arab world, but it is not applicable to coverage of other geographic locales. Hence, the notion of "native reporter" while evident in some instances, is not a strategic approach employed by Al Jazeera. Furthermore, the Western professional training of Al Jazeera staff and their increasing cosmopolitanism complicate the naively-conceived notion of "native reporter." Nonetheless, at times the appeal of Al Jazeera for Western media and audiences has much to do with the perception of their coverage as regional, indigenous and “native.” Less applicable are the other two criteria of "active witnessing," and “social movement news."

But perhaps the most striking feature of alternative media is their “perceived” counter-hegemonic” agenda. An emphasis on providing counter-information (Downing, 2001) that is nonhierarchical (Atton, 2002b) and collectivistic-democratic (Hochheimer, 1993) is a crucial defining feature of alternative media.

In fact, alternative media could be defined distinctly as those that provide representations of issues and events that are in opposition to the portrayals of the same issues and events in the mainstream media. Although some scholars divide alternative media into “oppositional” and “advocacy” media, depending on which of these goals is most central to their mission (e.g. Jacubowicz, 1990, Sholle, 1995), it might be useful to conceive of these as different goals of alternative media. Downing (2001) argues that such media typically perform dual functions as “counter-information institutions” and “agents of developmental power.”

Early manifestations of such radical media suggest the existence of specific and coherent goals. However, in today’s anti-capitalist movement, Downing (1984) argues, such goals are less rational, creating a diffuse alliance of anti-establishmentarian narratives.

Going beyond this binary construct of radical-mainstream media relations, Atton (2002a) employs Gramscian hegemonic criteria to illustrate the interchanges between the two types of institutions. In doing so, Atton (2002a) suggests that the categorical distinctions between the two are loose and vague. The lines, he argues are not only dull already vague, but continue to blur more. Rather than view the two entities as discrete fields of symbolic production, it is more evident that they are situated within the same landscape of cultural construction (Couldry & Curran, 2003). Hegemonic structures dictate relations between the two. In Gramscian terms, the structure is maintained based on by a bourgeoisie logic that intends to contain and incorporate dissident values of subordinate groups within the same ideological space. Hence, alternative discourses are assimilated into the mainstream, appearing permanent, natural, and common-sense despite continual redefinition and mutability (Couldry & Curran, 2003).

Bearing in mind Downing’s (1984) presentation of alternative media as modern, anti-capitalist institutions, it is clear that Al Jazeera is instead situated in the mainstream media realm. Al Jazeera is even less rational than much of the media described by Downing and Atton (2002a, 2002b) because it does not represent a movement of any kind. Furthermore, since the station’s inception in 1996, the broadcast of such dissent has been emulated by other satellite broadcasters in the region, thereby mainstreaming most of the station’s news discourses.

Alter(native) Media

To best situate Al Jazeera’s discourses of self-promotion directed towards Arab and Western audiences, definitions of alterity must be investigated. Schutz (1998), whose discussion of alterity in the educational context is quite revealing, described alterity as “absolute otherness” and argued that narratives can provide a form with which to "grasp" the alterity of an individual's past without reducing it necessarily to the "shared," or the "same."

One can also employ a post-colonial definition of alterity which is informed by the institutions of power and colony. Loomba (1998) characterizes alterity as a cooption by westernized postcolonial intellectuals and institutions that run the risk of becoming what she calls “otherness machines” and whose primary role is to manufacture alterity. Such criticism is especially pertinent to media institutions.

Both Schutz’s (1998) and Loomba’s (1998) definitions are congruent in their portrayal of the alternative as overwhelmingly intriguing and attractive. Hence the popularization and mainstreaming of alterity is endemic to both the colonial enterprise and the non-opportunistic exoticization of the “other.” In either case, the incorporation of all or part of the subaltern into the larger mainstream establishment is an act of cooption. Some scholars such as Jacobs (2001) even advocate the assimilation of alterity to the establishment to encourage multiculturalism within it. Jacobs discusses the assimilation of marginal alternative narratives in the public administration sector indicating that transplantation and internalization of these narratives into the dominant discourse is beneficial. This assimilation is both intentional and beneficial for the mainstream establishment’s success and continued appeal.

Applied to the media institutions and their content, the cooption of alterity by the mainstream media is both prevalent and strategic. And while the subaltern is subverted and incorporated into the larger hegemonic narrative, the hegemonic succeeds in asserting its domination over the subaltern while appearing to embody a renewable, cosmopolitan, diverse and alternative other. The successful assimilation of the subaltern into the mainstream ensures that hegemonic structures remains invisible.

Al Jazeera’s successful incorporation of subaltern discourses into their programming content is both prevalent and noticeable. The station’s news coverage of opposition groups and dissident currents regionally and international are widespread and reflect a substantial concentration on counter-hegemonic discourses. However, because of the station’s motto “the opinion and the other opinion,” these discourses are often balanced with establishmentarian narratives that affirm and reflect the status quo in each respective case. These attempts to strike an equilibrium between mainstream and subaltern messages affirm the station’s distance from the ambitions of any particular social or political movement. Like most mainstream media, disconfirming any perceived political or social loyalties ensures immunity from criticism.

Dissident narratives cannot be incorporated within a mainstream system without losing their ideological, counter-hegemonic purpose. Atton (2002a) asks: “is a counter-hegemonic discourse inevitably diluted by the adoption of its primary features in the mainstream press?” (p. 491) While radical media appear to gain strength from their borrowings from mainstream media the adoption of mainstream media values, practices, formatting, and style often streamlines narratives eventually eliminating alterity altogether (Herman and Chomsky). Therefore, the mainstreaming of alternative discourse defangs the alternative narratives without promoting their agenda.

The perception or presentation of a media outlet or its content as subaltern tends to be the product of a perceptible image. This image of an alternative medium can be produced and reproduced based on two overlapping and interdependent parameters: audience-attribution and self-attribution of alterity.

In the case of Al Jazeera, for example, audience attribution means that viewers of a news outlet or product characterize it as “alternative” in comparison to their customary press environment. These definitions and attributions tend to be anything but reliable. Audiences differ in their interpretation of news and analysis content and there may be little or no consensus on its status as "alternative." Instead, most characterizations and attributions of alterity to a media product are constructed by media producers themselves. What constitutes an alternative production tends to depend on whether its employees define it as such. Self attribution may be a product of either corporate strategy or a genuine desire to meet the conditions of alternative media described by Downing (1984) and Atton (2002a, 2002b).

In fact, alterity, as employed by Al Jazeera, resembles the marketing strategy for a corporate brand. Alterity is manufactured by the station to promote its image as an alternative news provider. Self-attributed alterity itself is not an uncustomary practice among mainstream media organizations who market their brand by emphasizing uniqueness, distinction, and contrast to their competitors. A station like Al Jazeera has, despite being a large-scale institutionalized media establishment, effectively co-opted and constructed the “image” of alterity to serve purposes of audience and profit.

Institutions achieve variable degrees of success in self-attributing alterity. For example, Newscorp’s Fox News Channel and American right-wing talk radio conglomerates have been successful in disseminating an image of alterity and arguing their status as alternative outlets compared to a liberal mainstream media (Viguerie & Franke, 2004). Most striking are the contradictions between the denotative definitions of alternative media and the usage of the label. For instance, Bill Clinton was once proclaimed the “King of the alternative media” by the "American Journalism Review"because he was the first US presidential candidate to give an interview to MTV, the Arsenio Hall Show, and local television affiliates of the major networks. In Alicia Shepard’s article, all those sources, along with satellite television, were defined as alternative media sources (1997). A "USA Today" article on the new age of alternative media described Fox News Channel, the National Rifle Association's NRANews.com, and a holistically labeled “Internet” as growing alternative media sources.

Al Jazeera has been employing an internally circulating slogan that reiterates and emphasizes their contrast to the mainstream. The marketing statement -- “Everyone watches CNN, but who is CNN watching … Al Jazeera” -- is placed on a mosaic background of tiny images from the station’s programming that together create an oversized eye, suggesting a more authentic view of the news. By juxtaposing the mainstream global media establishment (in this case CNN) with the dissident, Al Jazeera not only confirms its alterity, but also suggests it has a more indigenous connection to reality.

In fact, “alternative” media do not have a monopoly on alternative narratives. Instead, mainstream media organizations are often judged based on their ability to reflect alterity. Before becoming a mainstream medium with immense popularity, Al Jazeera started as an alternative medium and effectively mainstreamed many previously-subaltern narratives. While the station’s programming contrasted with the majority of regional networks in content and editorial policy (at times even verging on the counter-hegemonic), its institutional structure did not meet Atton’s (2002a, 2002b) and Downing’s (1984) definition of alternative media.

Al Jazeera is "the" social movement

The most evident signifier of Al Jazeera’s status as an alternative media source is a growing appeal by US-based activism to defend the network against government and public criticism. The "Friends of Al Jazeera" is one such group that emerged in recent months. The group’s Web site details Al Jazeera’s quest for a voice in the global media scene. Created by self-proclaimed veteran student activists from Canada, South Africa and Jordan with a grassroots agenda, the group even developed a so-called “manifesto” in which they coupled Al Jazeera’s effort at world recognition and access with other grassroots media such as Indymedia and "Adbusters" etc. The station is referred to as a “bastion of hope for a mainstream press.”

Such efforts humanize and personify the media organizations themselves, allowing them to possess human rights. Transplanting human rights discourse to news organizations is perhaps the most effective way of maintaining and promoting alterity. Such practices have been effectively employed by right-wing media in the US. Conservative talk-radio has for many years maintained its alterity from the perceived “liberal” mainstream media (Viguerie & Franke, 2004). Similarly, campaigns to support Al Jazeera characterize the station as a conveyer of postcolonial resistance to Western hegemony. One article from the "Friends of Al Jazeera" inventory was headlined “The Empire writes back!”. Al Jazeera is described as an anomaly, the first “company from the ‘Third World’ to break into the mainstream.” The creation of a narrative of counter-hegemonic alterity along the post-colonial model helps propel Al Jazeera’s image as an alternative voice that “represents the other” and the “first significant challenge to Western hegemony and its monopoly on truth.” In essence, the station is seen as representing its constituency -- if Arabs are subaltern, so is “their” station. Without a clear agenda or ideology, Al Jazeera itself becomes the social movement for which the station and its supporters are advocates.

Through Western eyes, Al Jazeera sometimes appears to be alternative because it is the “only alternative.” That is also the case in the Arab world where the station provides a contrast to most authoritarian, totalitarian media stations run by domestic governments, with institutional barriers of monitoring and censorship restraining their practice and ministries of information serving as clearinghouses for news. While Al Jazeera has become in some respects the "de facto" alternative media source for the Arab world (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003; Zayani, 2005), Arab news media are sometimes inaccurately characterized as alternative simply because of their contrast to mainstream Western counterparts.

As Downing (1984) argues, “commercially viable audience is discovered and alternative media become specialized additions to the established media. This only happens when the newcomers are also within the general spectrum of established politics.” (Downing, 2001, p. 35) Likewise, for many Westerners, Al Jazeera has become emblematic not only of an alternative voice, but also a “native” voice from the Arab world. Al Jazeera quickly became the go-to alternative for alternative press on US policy. And yet institutional and political-economic characteristics of Al Jazeera as a station have instilled in the station it the very attributes that identify corporate media in the West. To activists, in comparison to the products of US-based media organizations, Al Jazeera’s discourses appear to be dissenting. But in a substantive analysis, the station in fact meets few standards of alternative media.

While there are two locales of debate--the Arab audience and the Western audience--that must be disaggregated for any clear understanding of Al Jazeera’s role as an alternative press to be identified. Al Jazeera continues successfully to construct the image of an alternative medium. Diasporic Arabs in the West who may disagree with some of the station’s programming are reluctant to voice this criticism in their respective countries. Acutely aware of the representational dynamics of alterity, they arguably prefer to acknowledge the benefits of Arab media like Al Jazeera over any antagonistic views. Broad statements such as “Al Jazeera reflects our values and view of events and the world” tend to outweigh accusations against the station. Fear of further misrepresentation in the Western press and an underlying desire to substantiate a positive image in the West contribute to this stance among Arab migrants. Defense of Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets in some diasporic Arab communities is a response to a “perceived” call of duty to support the station not simply because it is seen as “alternative,” but also because it “represents them.”

From a political economic standpoint, the narrative of Al Jazeera as an “alternative” medium is problematic for several reasons. Since its inception, the station’s funding has come primarily from the Emir of Qatar, Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Aside from the degree of editorial independence, the very notion of complete government funding of a news outlet negates the notion of alterity. Furthermore, as stated above, the commercial nature of the network makes it similar in structure and hierarchy to the operations of major US and global satellite networks, generating revenue from exclusive sales of footage, documentary, direct feeds, and advertising for large global corporations.

Perhaps the only characteristic that still articulates Al Jazeera as an alternative network is the station’s editorial approach. This is described elsewhere as “contextual objectivity” (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003; Iskandar & El-Nawawy, 2002). However, even this characteristic of news delivery is heavily borrowed and emulated by other broadcasters in the region in the same fashion that Al Jazeera’s talk shows, news reporting style, and formatting are copied. The overwhelming extent of stylistic borrowing and imitation by other regional networks is a confirmation of Al Jazeera’s increasingly mainstream position among regional media.

While acknowledging Al Jazeera’s accomplishments in broadening the media discourse in the Arab world and raising the bar for investigative journalism in the region, it is naïve to suggest that its content, institutional operations, values, or political economic conditions qualify it as an alternative media source in the region. In a broader frame of global media outlets, Al Jazeera offers -- through the prism of Western media programming – what amounts to alternative content from the Arab world. That is why many US audiences often mischaracterize foreign mainstream broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutche Welle, and others as “alternative” media. Even media studies Professor Dorothy Kidd, in an article to "Peace Review", refers to mainstream stations in other countries like the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as alternative. Likewise, as revolutionary as Al Jazeera has been for political discourse in the region, its virtual monopoly on Arab mainstream news consumers negates any coherent definitions of alterity.

Instead, Al Jazeera’s self-promotion as a counter-hegemonic news provider is an example of alterity mainstreamed. In the current state of affairs, many media organizations use the image of the sub-altern in an attempt to contrast themselves from “mainstream” competitors. The title “alternative media,” therefore, becomes a misnomer -- often a self-constructed label employed by a news provider to target a niche audience. Rather, Al Jazeera derives its “counter-hegemonic” narrative from the construction of Arab identity as an “other.” The very representation of Arab-centric media reflects the image of the frequently fictionalized authentic “native” voice.

Ten years after the station’s conception, despite a multi-million dollar budget, an extensive network of world-class global bureaus, a growing multi-lingual enterprise, and virtual news monopoly in the region, Al Jazeera’s discourse of alterity still predominates. While most alternative media tend to have limited outreach and smaller audiences, Al Jazeera is a regional behemoth with growing international influence and is accessible worldwide. In fact, although approximate and unconfirmed, most audience ratings of news providers in the Arab world indicate Al Jazeera’s demographic dominance. While acknowledging its humble and ambitious origins; it is no longer suitable to discuss Al Jazeera, a global news behemoth, as an “alternative” news medium, both discursively and structurally. Despite the station’s expansive reach and growing operations in multiple sectors, the station must continue to balance and manufacture the brand image of a fledgling alternative counter-hegemonic medium coupled with a global source of “reliable” news.

Until recently, Al Jazeera served as the venue for dissent in the region. Compared to state-run and terrestrial channels in the Arab world, it still serves as an alternative medium. However, with other satellite stations’ emulation of Al Jazeera’s style, approach, and programming, the Qatar-based network’s formula has been heavily mainstreamed. Conversely, in the eyes of some Western audiences and in comparison to Western news channels, Al Jazeera continues to represent alterity. This perception of the network’s alterity in the West may be viewed as the rationale for the new English-language station Al Jazeera International.

Nonetheless, the station’s regional and international image as alternative and subaltern is self-attributed and affirmed through strategic marketing campaigns. Nonetheless, by definition, the term alternative media appears contradictory to the operations and practice of Al Jazeera as a broadcaster. Almost 10 years since the station’s inception, with the discourse of Al Jazeera as alternative and subaltern becoming outdated and irrelevant, a new conceptualization of the station’s new role and impact is imperative. At a time of exponential growth for the network in all broadcasting markets, its new role as a global news station requires radical reevaluation. An assessment of this sort would instead highlight Al Jazeera’s impact as a major “mainstream” political, social, cultural, and economic playmaker on the media landscape, not just in the Arab world, but globally.

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About Adel Iskandar

Adel Iskandar is a scholar of Middle Eastern media with research interests in Arab diasporic identity, popular culture, and critical theory. The co-author of Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism (Westview, 2003), Iskandar is currently editing an issue of Social Identities (Routledge) on media and Arab identities. His forthcoming work is an edited volume on Edward Said.

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