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Letter from the Editor: Al Jazeera is Not a Medium!

The Al Jazeera Television Network captures the attention of those interested in Arabic-language satellite television broadcasting like nothing else. Approximately half the articles submitted to Transnational Broadcasting Studies over the past two issues were about Al Jazeera. To some degree this is understandable. The network is important and influential. Observers claimed an "Al Jazeera effect" as early as the late 1990s, though it was a rather different "effect" than the one many Americans were writing about a few years later. In the late 1990s, many an academic conference in the US promoted Al Jazeera as the Great White Hope of civil society in the Middle East. Even then, I suspect there was a considerable gap between what Americans and Europeans were seeing on their screens, and what Arab viewers saw. Initially, Americans saw Al Jazeera as more truthful because it dared to broadcast debates and to criticize Arab governments. The "Al Jazeera effect" was putatively to spread such truthfulness to other stations, and, as the reach of satellite broadcasting extended to more and more homes, to the social grassroots. But all along there was another "Al Jazeera effect." It was to break the news monopoly of the Western media. That was certainly the operative "effect" in my first encounter with Al Jazeera, which came before the satellite dish had penetrated deeply into the Egyptian market, and long before 9/11 changed the dynamic of discourse on Al Jazeera. An Al Jazeera broadcast was playing in the house of an Egyptian film director to whom I paid a visit in 1997. He was positively gleeful about Al Jazeera, and told me proudly that he had switched off CNN. He was very clear about his reason for the switch: It was largely because he saw the new station as reporting from an Arab perspective, and not because he endorsed its debates or criticisms of Arab governments.

Of course it was all a matter of whose ox was being gored. The faultline between those who saw Al Jazeera as an Arab voice and those who saw it as a critical voice in the Arab world was revealed soon after the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is rare for a precise turning point in a discourse to be so evident, but this was one such case. In the Western—particularly American—news media, the moment of change came when Fuad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, published an article severely critical of Al Jazeera in The New York Times Magazine a little over a month after the 9/11 attack. Ajami saw Al Jazeera not as a harbinger of civil society, but as an irresponsible promoter of pan-Arab or—even worse—Islamist radicalism. The effect of Ajami's article on the US news media was striking. For American journalists and politicians, Al Jazeera suddenly became a Public Enemy not far removed from Osama Bin Laden himself.

The turn away from Al Jazeera was so sudden that Ajami's article might well have been identified as the source of an "effect" in much the way that Al Jazeera has been labeled. Call it the "school of fish effect." Certain species of fish swim in large groups, which can, astonishingly, change direction instantly as if all the members of the group were a single organism. It is easy to see why they do it. Predators have a harder time singling out weak individuals for the kill; in a more offensive mode, fifty or a hundred fish turning on antagonist as if one are far more intimidating than a single fish doing so. How they do it is less well understood. Pheromones? Eyes in the sides of their heads? Fish telepathy? So it is in nature. We just don't understand every mystery. But fish are one thing, and journalists another. Journalists displaying schooling behavior—all changing directions as if telepathically connected—is, well, fishy. Journalists are supposed to be an independent species, and yet the schooling behavior of was unmistakable. With regard to Al Jazeera it was as if all the mainstream print and broadcast news media in the US were hardwired to the same brain. Al Jazeera the Mouthpiece of Bin Laden was born, and Al Jazeera the Great White Hope of Arab civil society died in the same instant. Did Ajami's broadside against Al Jazeera somehow cause the change? Or was Ajami simply the first observable instance of a collective phenomenon?

My point is not simply to defend Al Jazeera against false charges, but rather that if such charges and counter-charges ever led to any real understanding of what the network does, they no longer do. The notion of "Al Jazeera-as-mouthpiece-of-Bin-Laden" should never have carried much weight beyond mainstream American print and broadcast news. And indeed, all intelligent analyses of Al Jazeera do acknowledge that the biases of the network are roughly on par with those of American television journalism. But why, if Al Jazeera politicizes no more than Fox News or NBC, should the network be given the task of creating a civil society, or burdened with the charge of politicizing the masses? As for distorting truths, surely Al Jazeera is no more guilty than its American counterparts. Indeed, by the time George Bush was re-elected a majority of Americans believed the Bush administration's demonstrably false claims that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, and that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. Misinformed Americans are not a natural phenomenon. They have to be actively created. It would be almost impossible to explain misinformed Americans without reference to television news. And yet virtually all articles about Al Jazeera implicitly measure it against an imagined standard of American or European television journalism that is presumed to inform its audience more objectively and more effectively than do Arab news networks.

In fact, politically crucial Arab elites, such as the film director who was my first "informant" about Al Jazeera, have access to a greater range of news broadcasting than American elites do. It is telling that he framed his opinion about Al Jazeera in terms of switching. Arab elites know our languages better than we know theirs. They can choose to switch from CNN or BBC to Al Jazeera, or indeed, to simply watch them all. Our elites do not have this choice. If choice is what it takes to create a better informed viewer, then Americans should be told that they could do worse than to emulate the Arab world. The "friend or foe" logic applied to analyses of Al Jazeera—and the implicit assumptions made about the nature of Western television journalism that go with it—is an inadequate framework for asking interesting questions about what the network does. It bears mentioning that TBS is meant to be in the business of analyzing public culture, and not merely dedicated to adding its voice to those of The New York Times and Fox News. And yet virtually all articles on Al Jazeera submitted to TBS over the past two issues—both those of sufficiently high quality to publish and those we declined—have been structured by the same dynamic that shapes American public discourse: Is Al Jazeera a force for promoting civil society, or is it an irresponsible voice of anti-American radicalism tinged by anachronistic pan-Arab or (according to the perspective of the observer) Islamist sympathies?

One reason that the stakes became so high in the cottage industry of Al Jazeera analysis is that the network was made to stand for all of Arab media. Almost every article on Al Jazeera submitted to TBS over the past two issues has casually used "Al Jazeera" and "the media" interchangeably. One can grant that everyday English does sometimes refer to "the news" as "the media." But more precision is required in a thoughtful analysis. Al Jazeera is not "the media." It is not even a medium. It is a television news network, and news is a television genre. Simply thinking about Al Jazeera as an instance of a television genre puts the superheated rhetoric of Al Jazeera as the Great White Hope of civil society versus Al Jazeera as the Great Satan of Anti-Americanism in a more useful perspective. Even if either extreme were true, one could not plausibly claim the kind of "effect" that some observers want to see, because the effect takes place on a vastly different stage than we have been led to believe. "Al Jazeera is an important television program" sounds so much less impressive than "Al Jazeera is Arab media and all else is just entertainment." There is, of course, no such thing as "just entertainment." Al Jazeera is also entertainment, and entertainment is just as embedded in political, economic, and cultural processes as news.

None of this is to say that one cannot still discuss what makes one television viewer better informed than another, or how one way of constructing the truth might be superior to another. But we should always be clear: Al Jazeera is a news network, not a medium. As a genre, the news disseminated through Arabic-language satellite broadcasts has unique characteristics, but these will never be well illuminated by always referring back to a false dichotomy between civil society and anti-Americanism. The television news also shares with other television genres common features such as structures of ownership, relations with states and nations, markets, and audiences. One hopes that if TBS continues to receive about fifty percent of its submissions on Al Jazeera as it has over the past couple of issues, then both the uniqueness and the broader context of the network will be more effectively analyzed. A new wave of Al Jazeera analysis must break away from the "school of fish effect" and start looking at this news network for what it is: an interesting news channel, not a high-stakes contest between democracy and radicalism.

-Walter Armbrust, chairman, TBS editorial board

About Walter Armbrust

Walter Armbrust, publisher and senior editor of TBS, is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford. He is a cultural anthropologist whose research interests focus on popular culture and mass media in the Middle East. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, and editor of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. Dr Armbrust is currently working on a cultural history of the Egyptian cinema.

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