I've complained several times over the last few days about al-Jazeera's coverage of the cartoons crisis, that its coverage is fanning the flames rather than offering a platform for calm, reasoned debate. This doesn't really surprise me, and doesn't contradict what I've written about the station. Where I often see great value in al-Jazeera's promotion of pluralism and a culture of debate (and still do), in my book I argue that the temptations of populism constantly threaten to overwhelm the Arab media's contribution to building a more liberal Arab order:
Even if the power of a new international public sphere is growing, it is not at all clear that it is a liberal public sphere. The politics of the new Arab public tend towards populism, the politics of identity, of authenticity, and of resistance... Whether the Arab public sphere develops in a liberal direction or in a populist direction, consumed by questions of identity and authenticity, is one of the most pivotal questions shaping the Arab future. (pp.26-27)
While I don't like to overgeneralize (see yesterday's discussion of the various al-Jazeera talk shows, for instance), overall the cartoons crisis has seen al-Jazeera, and much of the rest of the Arab media, embrace populism over liberalism. The appeal to identity, to a defensive confrontation with a hostile West, has threatened to overwhelm the competing impulse towards dialogue and argument.
Why? Well, there's lots of possibilities, many of which have been aired in recent days: a radical agenda; professionalism (it's a story that needs to be covered); honest reflection of Arab attitudes (rather than creating them). Into that mix, I'd throw something more structural and fundamental to the nature of today's Arab media market which doesn't get enough credit among many commentators: market competition. Four years ago, al-Jazeera could alone more or less shape the agenda. Today, it faces ferocious competition in virtually every market, with competitors trying to outflank it on both the right and the left (whatever that means in Arab political terms). Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, in particular, are locked in an intense (if not always edifying) struggle for market share - a topic much discussed here.
I was curious, therefore, if the cartoons crisis has actually had an impact on market share. Since we don't have any Arab Nielsen's to track changes in market share - a problem to which I return below - I tried to think of an indirect way of measuring the impact of the different approaches to the cartoons crisis on market share / ratings. What I came up with is far from perfect, but is at least interesting: an Alexa search comparing the reach of the two stations' websites over the last six months. Not perfect, of course, but it's a measure which al-Arabiya itself (via al-Sharq al-Awsat) used relatively recently to promote its own performance. I haven't watched much al-Arabiya lately, since I've been trying to keep track of al-Jazeera, but let's assume for the sake of argument that al-Arabiya's broadcasts on the cartoon affair have been in line with their rhetoric and self-presentation: calmer and less sensational, more liberal and less populist. (If that assumption is wrong, I hope my commenters can let me know.) Here's the result:
The two lines (al-Jazeera in blue, al-Arabiya in red) track each other almost perfectly, rising at the same times and falling at the same times. Al-Jazeera is always well ahead, usually between two and four times the reach. But look at the spike at the beginning of February, as the cartoons crisis exploded: to just under 6000, up almost 30% from three months ago, and by far al-Jazeera's highest point in the last six months (and, indeed, in the last two years), and a far greater bump than anything recorded by al-Arabiya. That's kind of a sobering indicator of the difference populism makes: it sells. Judging by this one indirect and imperfect indicator, the Danish cartoons crisis has been good for al-Jazeera.
I suspect that, based on the experience of the last decade, al-Jazeera officials already believed this. Still, it's sobering, given that the competition for Arab audiences will only intensify in the coming years. If broadcasters - not only al-Jazeera - believe that sensationalism and populism are what deliver audiences, that's the way they'll go. One could counter that since none of these stations depends on advertising revenue, their "competition" doesn't really matter. But they clearly believe that it does, and act accordingly. The 'marketization' of the Arab satellite television market does not necessarily mean its moderation, in other words.
I do think that if there were a reliable, non-partisan agency regularly measuring the ratings and market share of these stations, it would at least make the competition responsive to the real - rather than imagined - preferences of consumers. Most of the publicly available data is flawed in one way or another: using methodology designed for other kinds of questions, commissioned by an interested party and therefore by definition suspect, or else only very indirect measures (like the one I just used above). I don't think al-Jazeera, in particular, actually does much audience research, probably because it doesn't much rely on advertising revenue. This leaves them, I suspect, beholden to the intuition that populism sells. It might be that more accurate and reliable data would only confirm that conventional wisdom. But it might not, and either way at least we would know. Given how central this competition is and will be to determining what these stations broadcast, I think we need to know.