Philip Seib, professor of journalism at Marquette University, has published what I believe to be the first review of Voices of the New Arab Public in today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (and can I say how cool it is that the first review of my book was published in my hometown newspaper - my parents probably saw it before I did!).
Throughout the world, the news media have significant influence on the agenda and tone of politics. This is particularly true in the volatile Middle East, where the proliferation of new media - most notably the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera - is profoundly changing how Arabs view their own countries and the rest of the world.
In "Voices of the New Arab Public," Williams College professor Marc Lynch does an excellent job of appraising the impact of this change. Lynch did a tremendous amount of work in writing this book, translating hundreds of transcripts and articles from Arabic and scrutinizing their content. The result is a fascinating look at media-driven political discourse.
Lynch focuses on "the Arab street" as the center of public opinion, which is both shaped and covered by Arab media. The new Arab public, he says, "has already conclusively shattered the state's monopoly over the flow of information . . . (and) rejects the long, dismal traditions of enforced public consensus."
A key part of this change is the rise of political talk shows, which are often even livelier than their counterparts on American television. Americans take for granted this kind of public give-and-take, but in countries where debate has long been restricted by government, the rise of the political talk show has a transforming effect. This is something American policy-makers should pay attention to because these programs - the on-camera discussions and callers' questions and commentary - provide valuable insights about the Arab world.
Lynch's analysis of these programs reveals that much of the resentment toward American policy in Iraq was based not on support for Saddam Hussein, who was widely despised, but rather was rooted in anger about the long-running U.S. economic sanctions that did terrible damage to the poorest Iraqis, with many children dying of hunger and disease. Perhaps the sanctions could be blamed on Hussein's intransigence, but that rationale could not compete with horrifying news stories and images.
Most Americans paid little attention to the sanctions' effects and have also failed to understand the extent of Arab sympathy for the Palestinians, who are seen as being oppressed by Israel, which is considered an American client-state. Pan-Arab opinion about these and other issues grew more cohesive after the 1996 birth of Al-Jazeera, which, says Lynch, brought "into the public eye not only graphic footage but also arguments that had previously taken place only in the elite press and private forums."
By the time of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, says Lynch, extensive war coverage by many new Arab media organizations "posed a serious challenge to the American strategic objective of maintaining information control." This was a big change from the 1991 Gulf War, when Western media coverage was far more dominant.
Looking ahead, if American policy-makers would cease their reflexive denigration of Arab media, they might realize that, as Lynch says, "Al-Jazeera and the new Arab public have been consistently and forcefully insistent on discussing reform in the Arab world, putting almost every issue - social, economic, cultural, political - and every regime under fierce public scrutiny." This can lead to constructive change, and Lynch thoroughly and thoughtfully illustrates why this is so important.
Thanks to Philip for the kind review!
(cross-posted to the Voices Blog)