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The Impact of Arab TV News: Two Perspectives :: Abdallah Schleifer

Al-Jazeera, the all-news channel broadcast from Qatar, has been the hottest, most popular satellite channel in the region for the past two years. But it has its critics; even its Ramallah bureau from where it has provided some of the most dramatic coverage of Intifada Al Aqsa was shut down for 48 hours as a demonstration of the Palestinian Authority's heavy hand.Yosri Fouda, Al-Jazeera's award-winning investigative reporter ("Top Secret"), defends Al-Jazeera, and TBS Senior Editor Abdallah Schleifer tempers his praise with strong reservations.

Looks Are Deceiving: Arab Talk Shows and TV Journalism

Looks are deceiving. Right now the mood among Western journalists taking a fleeting look at the new Arab public affairs talk shows that have become the hottest popular format throughout the region in all their variations is upbeat, amazingly positive. A new world of free speech is dawning in the region and according to the columns appearing in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and other arbiters of global opinion, most of the credit goes to Al-Jazeera channel. Well, there are a number of ironies right there.

Al-Jazeera does deserve credit--but not necessarily or solely for all the waves it is making as a non-stop free speech forum. The channel does have very real and less ambiguous accomplishments which I will touch upon later on.

In fact the trail-breaking public affairs talk show program in the Arab world has been on the air for years, indeed several years before Al-Jazeera. I allude to Emad Ad-Deeb's Ala El Hawa ("On the Air") on Orbit. This veteran journalist's experience--he has years at al-Al-Ahram and a nearly day-by-day active "news consultant" role at the ABC News Cairo bureau in the late seventies and early eighties, plus the experience of working with the international Arab press in London, and then back in Cairo to establish al-Alam al-Youm, one of the best daily newspapers in the Arab world—provided the edge for what he did. What Ad-Deeb did was borrow a successful formula, that of "The Larry King Show," and recast it in Arabic. But while anyone with eyes for a successful vehicle can borrow (indeed one might say most if not all development of any art medium or medium of expression is based on creative borrowing and further elaboration), few are necessarily qualified to apply format or formula with intelligence, relevance, and the ability to elaborate. Precisely because Emad Ad-Deeb is an experienced and intelligent journalist who has interacted in a world with international standards, he could do so and treat his guests with dignity and respect, however "hardball" his questioning might be.

And this points to but a few of the problems with the rage for Arab "public affairs" talk-shows. Many hosts, in contrast to Ad-Deeb, are not necessarily well prepared. But according to the first prime-time woman anchor in major-market American television, Marciarose--veteran American local TV journalist (KYW and WNBC) and initiator of the serious public affairs talk show format back in the late 1960s (and original source of the fashion for one-name only talk show hosts)—the secret of interviewing and serious talk show hosting is "research, research, and research."

Nor is "respect" and "dignity" necessarily apparent as the model for these talk shows as they drift from the archetype "The Larry King Show" to the model of "Oprah" and from there into the various American and British daytime TV horrors of ill-mannered confrontation, in which interrupting fellow guests, shouting, and violent gesticulation just short of actual violence has become increasingly common and regretfully popular.

It is regretful not just for the vulgarity that is cheerfully migrating from the West to the Arab East (that may be in the nature of things, if we look at most patterns of cultural migration--my AUC students are up on MTV and oblivious to Dante, or Umar Ibn Faard for that matter) but also because the whole justification for the public affairs talk show, with its aura of free speech, is presumably not to titillate or provide viewers with the intellectual equivalent of TV wrestling, but rather to inculcate an informed public opinion, as a requirement or hallmark of civil society and the democratic experience. And the drift of TV talk shows, while theoretically opening up new channels of public discourse on previously taboo subjects of social import, to quote the favorable literature, is receding away from opinion that is informed to opinion that is sensationalist.

Where is all of that going? It's very interesting that at a seminar held at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in February 2000 under the title "Opening the Channels: Columbia Forum on Television and Society in the Middle East" in which some of the most outstanding talk show hosts in the Arab world participated (Sami Haddad of Al-Jazeera, Moataz Demmurdash of MBC News, Hala Sirhan of ART but not, unfortunately, Emad Ad-Deeb or Egypt TV's Hamdi Kandeel)—a seminar in which the mood was distinctly self-congratulatory—the only troubled, critical note was struck by the very thoughtful American movie star Richard Dreyfus, whose foundation funded the seminar. Dreyfus noted how the talk show, at least in America, has been one of the major forces in the destruction of good manners, dignity, and decency in contemporary culture, fostering violent confrontation in the name of free debate and encouraging embarrassing personal confessions of personal vices that civilization in all times and places consider unspeakable (as once upon a time we spoke, even in America, of "unspeakable crimes" and "all the news that's fit to print").

Opinions are indeed a dime a dozen. It's an intellectual vice that the modern Arab world suffers from. Presumably what makes an opinion informed and thereby contributes to informed public opinion is the acquisition at least of relevant and substantial fact, and ideally of knowledge and wisdom. These ingredients of an informed opinion must be sought, and in the case of contemporary events, that means real journalism, serious field reporting: a journalist who has researched the historic background of the ongoing event and then goes off into the field to report on the unfolding event.

In the Arab East there was never any TV journalism until the Gulf War. Until recently only cameramen would cover official events, editing their footage in camera, footage which would then be aired while the news reader read wire copy from the official news agency, approximating the event without any organic relationship of image and voice that is intrinsic to an edited TV news report script. There were reasons for this. The field report or "spot" which requires a correspondent with reporting, field producing, writing, and narrating skills is a relatively new art form dating back perhaps to the fifties, and it is relatively expensive compared to the way news reports were (and on many of the national channels still are) assembled and broadcast.

Second, TV news broadcasting in the Arab world did not even have the tradition of privately-owned journalism as was the case of Arab print journalism prior to the nationalizations and the extreme politicalization and partisanship of Arab news media from the mid-fifties and particularly the early sixties on.

And part of the problem is the tradition of press partisanship, in which holding the correct opinion and spinning instant coffeeshop analysis of distant events was more historically appropriate. In the region's cultural history, journalism evolved from the French tradition of partisan journalism married to the Levantine fondness for belles lettres "adab" literature rather than the alternative Arab literary tradition of "hadith"—the canonic collection of the Prophet Muhammed's sayings, in other words sacred reporting, with its seemingly obsessive stress on reliable sourcing and research to ensure objective accounts of what the Prophet Muhammed really said and did. The guarantee that the chain of transmission of sourcing—from the first eyewitness down the chain of oral transmitters to the classic and canonic collections--is sound constitutes one of the basic disciplines in the traditional Islamic sciences along with Quranic exegesis and theology. The hadith tradition would have interacted very well indeed with an alternative historic Western model: Anglo-American business journalism, with its own, if more worldly, stress on objectivity and accuracy.

Perhaps that is one of the factors that contributes to our growing sense of the Gulf, in particular the Emirates and most particularly Dubai, as an increasingly viable alternative center of Arab media gravity. It is the Dubai Business Channel that quietly but consistently provides examples of competent field reporting as the core of TV journalism, with very little of the reasonable glitter and glitz of frequently violent hard news coverage that predominates on any of the general news shows, particularly in the private satellite TV channels (which are spared de rigeur, in the Arab world, endless coverage of heads of state and prime ministers drinking coffee with visitors).

Now I realize there are other reasons for Dubai's success-its history as an opening trading society interacting intensely but easily with India, Iran, and Africa as well as the West, and the quiet and modest sense of confidence based on real accomplishments that historic experience has generated in the Dubai-Emirati elite. But it is also Dubai's relative freedom from a Levantine culture that so fixed Egypt and Fertile Crescent journalism into that mode where florid style, assertive opinion, and "self-expression" took precedence over hard fact and a detached sense of what was real. It cannot be a coincidence that it is Dubai society which produces such an extraordinary figure as the Crown Prince, Sheikh Muhammed—warrior, poet, sportsman, media and Internet pioneer.

During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-76), which I covered intensively for NBC News, I noticed the almost total absence of Arab journalists, aside from the Lebanese press reporting on their own tragedy. The Lebanese Civil War was the biggest Arab-world news story of the year, but nearly nobody bothered to send a correspondent to dig in and cover that war save Rose al-Yousef magazine. Aside from marginal issues like the expense, and the absence of life and disability insurance at the time for Arab journalists who might have been otherwise willing to go, the real reason was that it simply wasn't necessary. If the paramount importance in journalism was correct opinion rather than acquired fact for an informed opinion, then why bother going?

Of course the Arab satellite television channels (and we like to believe, as I will note in more detail later, the impact of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo) has turned that all around. During the most dangerous moments of the Intifada Al-Aqsa it was the Arab satellite channel correspondents and camera crews who were in the thick of the action. The European TV channels and TV news agencies relied to a great degree on a new generation of Palestinian video cameramen for their own coverage.

But perhaps the most important problem that delayed the emergence of television journalism has been the parochial nature of medium prior to satellite TV. An Arab print journalist, even in the worst years of state censorship, generally still had access to the Times, Le Monde, and the New York Times, which gave him or her something of a sense of internationally recognized standards, of the paramount importance of accuracy, of the virtues of detachment, of the obvious fruits of research. But until the age of satellites--which in the Arab world is but ten years--television transmission had a range of only 50 miles, which means the Arab TV broadcaster, often with no experience in print journalism and limited (if any) travel abroad, simply had no idea what international standards, based on the experiences of free TV journalism, were. There could be no creative borrowing and adaptation.

The Gulf War and the sudden access throughout the region to CNN coverage, for all its weaknesses and alleged partisanships, changed all of this. The creation of MBC was the first response, and to this day MBC, with its expensively constructed news bureaus throughout the Arab world as well as in major global capitals, has consistently provided the region with news shows built around its own field reports that meet international standards. BBC Arabic News was the next entry - not as successful as MBC if only because too much of the material was simply BBC reports translated and turned around for editing, so while BBC Arabic very much met international production standards and as such was a very positive experience, it lacked the warmth or cultural relevance of MBC's news. That lack of sensitivity to cultural relevance was one of the factors that contributed to its sad demise.

The banner of Arab TV news at international standards has also been picked up elsewhere. Nile TV's English- and French-language news under the formative leadership of Hassan Hamid took major steps to introduce the field report formula on Egyptian TV, as has ANN and the most recent satellite broadcaster, Dubai Business Channel. But it is here where Al-Jazeera deserves particular credit: in supporting the award-winning investigative journalism of its London bureau chief Yosri Fouda and the ongoing work of his colleagues generating daily field reports, reporting which has done far more for developing an informed public opinion than most talk shows put together.

TV field reporting is expensive and it is an acquired art. At the Adham Center for Television Journalism we are proud that over the past decade we have been able to train a small but serious cadre of young Arab journalists in this art, and these graduates apply their training almost entirely to the Arab satellite channels rather than the terrestrial Arab national channels. Al-Jazeera's Yosri Fouda is a graduate of the Center, as is Lamees El Hadidi, Al-Jazeera business correspondent and managing editor of Alam Al Youm. Hani Koneisy, formerly one of the few Arabic-language reporters (rather than translators) with the short-lived BBC Arabic TV service, and then an anchor with Abu Dhabi TV, is now, based in London, responsible for APTN's intensive and successful Middle East coverage. APTN's Nairobi bureau chief and Adham Center graduate Khalid Kazziha covers East Africa for the world. Last year when President Mubarak traveled two Egypt TV correspondents alternated in accompanying the President and providing both Arabic and English coverage. Both were graduates of the Adham Center, as indeed are a small but critical and growing number of reporters and producers at such Egypt TV channels as Nile TV, Nile News, and now even Egypt TV's terrestrial Channel 2. In Jordan, one of the Adham Center's most recent graduates, Dana Zureikat, has introduced the most demanding standard of field reporting to Jordan TV, editing her own pieces as well as functioning in the field as correspondent.

The recently established Orbit Field Production unit (OFP), which provides daily non-political news reporting on culture and entertainment for the three-hour Orbit Arabic language show "Al-Qahira Al-Youm" ("Cairo Today") is headed by Adham Center graduate Ali Belail and staffed with producer-reporters who are mostly his former classmates. The OFP is the brainchild of the veteran TV director Tarek El Kashaf, who is not only Orbit's Executive Director in Cairo but also an Associate (honorary faculty member) of the Adham Center, an honor he shares with Ted Turner, Peter Einstein, Sheikh Saleh Kamel, Hassan Hamid, Alex Zilo, Moataz Demurdash, Hamdi Kandeel, Milad Besada, Bob Jobbins, and Chris Forrester).

Besides the Adham Center MA graduates, there are many AUC alumni who have taken special courses at the Center and are to be found in Arab satellite broadcasting as well as other media. One such Adham Center affiliate alumni, Tamer Abdelaal, was signed on by Dubai Business Channel as their manager of production.

But all of this progress in the development of an authentic Arab TV journalism meeting international standards over the past decade has been overshadowed of late by the glitz and glitter of the public affairs talk shows. The talk shows are conveniently far less expensive to produce than ongoing, day-in day-out field journalism, and all too often they deflect attention from field reporting -- the very journalistic lifestream of an informed public opinion. And all too often, the new talk shows appeal to a popular taste for sensationalism and confrontation that is already, in its most extreme form, taking a terrible toll in the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of the West.

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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