Last night, as part of the launch of our new Institute for Middle East Studies here at GW, I chaired a panel discussion at GW about the role of the Arab and American media in shaping mutual perceptions and misperceptions. It featured two of the finest and most experienced journalists working in their respective media. Hafez al-Mirazi, the long-time Washington bureau chief for al-Jazeera and host of the extremely popular talk show From Washington, and Robin Wright, one of the senior diplomatic coorespondents covering the Middle East for the Washington Post. Rather than have each give canned lectures, I ran it as a real dialogue, posing them questions and bouncing them off of each other (figuratively speaking).
I first asked Mirazi about Arab coverage of the United States. He described al-Jazeera's heavy coverage of the 2004 Presidential election, which really was extraordinary - weekly programs which went daily by the end of the campaign covering the primaries, the nomination process, fundraising, and even the basic contours of the American political system. Since few Arab universities really offer detailed coverage of the United States, it was often said at the time that Mirazi's 2004 programming represented a tutorial in American political system at "al-Jazeera university". The high ratings for the programs suggests a real hunger among Arabs to understand American politics - in no small part, as Mirazi pointed out, because for Arabs today what happens in the United States really is domestic politics, not foreign policy, and the US has very much become a highly present Middle Eastern power rather than a distant great power.
But after he described that coverage with justified pride, I asked him whether that represented a single moment, the exception rather than the rule. He somewhat ruefully agreed. Other than the heavyweights like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, most Arab media lack the staff, money, or expertise to cover all of US. Coverage therefore tends to focus on the issues of direct concern to Arabs - American foreign policy towards the Middle East, overwhelmingly. That's understandable, but paints a distorted picture of the priorities of the American people and the working of the American political system. He suggested that the American Arabic-lanugage TV station al-Hurra would have been far more useful to American foreign policy if it had simply concentrated on presenting America in all its complexity and diversity to the Arab public, instead of trying to compete with al-Jazeera in its coverage of Palestine or Egypt. I happen to agree with that suggestion, and have made it myself many times, but that doesn't mean that he isn't right!
Mirazi also pointed out something which came up repeatedly throughout the discussion, and which Ambassador Skip Gnehm later spoke about quite eloquently: it is very difficult for Arabs from afar to to discern who matters and who doesn't or the political context of statements. Stupid comments by an obscure preacher mocking Islam are given equal weight as a Presidential statement, and all of them appear to be "America." While Mirazi didn't say so, this is the exact mirror image of the MEMRI problem, with incendiary comments taken out of context and presented as representative of the wider public - and in today's information saturated world, such comments will always be easy to find if one cares to look. In a year of election campaigns, there's going to be a lot of "cheap talk" for domestic political consumption which won't necessarily look that way to Arab audiences.
Robin Wright, in her answers to my questions about the performance of the American media in covering the Middle East, argued that journalists often get caught up in the crisis du jour and don't have the time or the incentives to work outside the conventional wisdom or framing of the issues. The pre-existing narrative can capture journalists, who need to provide the latest news and information concisely and don't usually have the time or inclination to work outside the convenient existing narratives within which the new information will make sense to readers. She complained about the shortage of coverage of the diversity and cultural complexity of the Arab world in the American media - not because journalists don't know about it, necessarily, but because journalists need to file stories about the major crises of the day and there is rarely room left over for anything else. She also said several times that the media reflects the public mood: in general the public is not really interested in foreign news, and there are only a couple of pages even in the Washington Post of foreign coverage each day, and this also colors what they can do.
I asked both Mirazi and Wright to reflect on their media's coverage of Iraq. Mirazi largely rejected criticisms of al-Jazeera and the Arab media in 2003 and beyond: given how horribly Iraq turned out, if anything the Arab media wasn't critical enough of US invasion. He did say, however, that the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, should have been more of a moment of self-criticism for the Arab media: how could it have been so mistaken in its reporting of the balance of forces and the military situation? Beyond that, however, he didn't seem to think that the Arab media had a lot of accounting to make for its performance in Iraq. The biggest problem, he argued repeatedly, had to do with the continuing domination and ownership of the media by Arab regimes - as long as terrible, undemocratic governments controlled the Arab media, directly or indirectly, there would be harsh limits on its ability to really progress.
Wright admitted that the media performed poorly in the runup to the Iraq war, but offered the defense that at that time it was hard to challenge the official narrative. As above, the public mood mattered: critical stories were met with a deluge of emails and letters and criticism, editors were cautious, and reporters were in a sense bound by their sources. She argued that the press would not likely repreat its mistakes in the face of a campaign for war on Iran. The public environment has changed, making it easier to challenge the administration's rhetoric, and reporters are more skeptical of official sources.
But after that appropriately self-critical opening, Wright surprised me by offering a chillingly persuasive argument about how the rationale for war with Iran had shifted from the nuclear program to its role in Iraq. To support this, she rattled off a series of examples of what "we know" about Iran's role in the violence, with her voice taking on a stacatto rhythm of seemingly hard facts about the Iranian role (to be clear, I don't mean that she offered these in support of war with Iran - only that she offered these facts in support of her interpretation of the administration's current thinking). So I challenged her a bit: how is this not business as usual? What lessons have really been learned, if you (somewhat unfairly being asked to stand in for "the media") will now simply repeat the administration's claims about Iran's role in Iraq as uncritically as you/they did the administration's claims about Iraqi WMD? Why isn't the media more critically delving into the factual basis of the administration's claims about Iran's role in Iraq? After all, otherwise the lesson of 2002-2003 will simply be "the media will never again be fooled by the Bush administration's claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." That's not very useful. Wright seemed a bit put out by this, but I think it then generated an interesting exchange among the panelists. Certainly food for thought - and the talk of the dinner table afterwards.
Ambassador Skip Gnehm wrapped things up with an incisive critique of the Bush administration's approach to the region: tactics without strategy. As a diplomat, he would always want to know the endgame, the purpose of various tactical moves - but with this administration, they seem to shift with events and make it up as they go along. Do they want a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship or not? Do they want a unified or a partitioned Iraq? He also worried about the system-wide effects of lost American credibility, pointing to his own long experience as a diplomat to suggest how difficult everything becomes when the US has lost credibility and when its allies - not only its enemies - can't figure out what it is trying to achieve.
I thought it was a fascinating event, and hopefully this post conveys some of that to those who weren't able to make it to the Elliott School last night.