President Bush offered up some 2004-vintage Arab media bashing the other day in response to a question about anti-American attitudes in the region, as he "blamed what he called “poisonous” state-run TV stations in the
Middle East for spreading false information." That's disappointing, considering how far the debate over the Arab media has come over the last few years. Most of the 'war of ideas' community (as well as the public diplomacy community, which isn't quite the same thing) has developed a much more sophisticated approach to the Arab media, with far greater appreciation to its nuance and complexity. Especially during the Karen Hughes tenure as public diplomacy czar the American approach has evolved from confrontation to engagement. It's a shame seeing Bush fall back on the old mentality, in the face of what the public diplomacy community has been trying to do for several years.
It's also ironic, given what has been going on in the Arab media over the last year (and given that I just happened to have been talking about this to a workshop a few days ago). The Saudi media has been actively promoting American policies for years, with al-Arabiya having evolved virtually into a Saudi-branded al-Hurra (with viewers) - which is likely why Bush's advisers sent him to be interviewed by al-Arabiya rather than by al-Hurra for his trip to the region - and has been an active part of the Saudi post-2003 campaign against al-Qaeda. Al-Jazeera has never been the hotbed of anti-Americanism portrayed in the popular media, but over the last year even its coverage has by many accounts changed in a more accommadating (to the US and Saudi Arabia) direction. While the changes in al-Jazeera's coverage are often exaggerated, I think its fair to say that observers of the Arab media these days are more impressed - positively or negatively - by the choreographed support for American policies (especially in Lebanon) than by its critical edge. Bush's complaint was misleading five years ago, and is really out of right field now.
To really see this, take a look at what al-Qaeda and its supporters say about the Arab media these days. Far from praising it, they regularly complain about the "crusader media" tarnishing their image and failing to spread their message. The jihadist-oriented forums have been full of grumbling about the Arab media in general and al-Jazeera specifically. Al-Qaeda finds itself deeply frustrated with the current state of the Arab media, unable to get its message out through the din of competing stations and unable to dominate the news agenda or the political discourse. In Iraq, for instance, al-Arabiya promotes the Awakenings and tries to undermine al-Qaeda (especially on its show Death Makers), while al-Jazeera often features representatives of the anti-AQ insurgency factions (especially the Islamic Army of Iraq). Al-Jazeera and other stations long ago stopped broadcasting al-Qaeda tapes in their entirety. The howls of outrage from jihadist forums over al-Jazeera's treatment of bin Laden's Iraq tape a few months ago - distorting its meaning by airing clips making it appear that bin Laden was criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq when quite the opposite was the case - are still echoing (as in the ongoing "al-Jazeera watch" cataloguing the station's alleged sins). Back to the days of Zarqawi, the fact that al-Qaeda manifestly couldn't rely on the televised media is clearly one of the reasons it turned to the internet to disseminate its tapes and messages.
The extent to which al-Qaeda now sees television as a problematic front can be seen in a new monograph entitled "The media war on the people of Islam", released by the Global Islamic Media Front under the name of Mohammed ibn Zayd al-Muhajir (a name with which I'm not familiar - he also signs with the name "Abu Osama", which is the tag of a frequent contributor to the jihadist forums but obviously not exclusive).
Image courtesy of William McCant's valuable new blog, Jihadica, here (where it can also be downloaded).
Under a cover depicting the Muslim world in chains emblazoned with logos including CNN, the BBC, al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera and LBC, the book offers a 25 page summation of the Arab media's role in furthering the American and Israeli psychological warfare campaign against Islam. It blasts al-Arabiya for undermining the jihad, spreading lies and disinformation, supporting American crusader wars, supporting the Shia (as if!), and corrupting ethics (by association with the MBC group which broadcasts a lot of Western entertainment programming). The book is even harder on al-Jazeera, which he warns is trading on its false credibility to deceive honest Muslims who don't know its real agenda. The bill of complaints against al-Jazeera runs to 8 items (compared to al-Arabiya's 5): broadcasting lies and false news, dividing the Iraqi jihad, favoring the Shia and Iran (Ghassan bin Jidu, who has interviewed Sadr, Nasrallah, and others comes under particular attack), taking part in American media campaigns, normalizing with Israel, and insulting Islam in the name of free speech (a reference to Wafa Sultan's notorious second appearance on Faisal al-Qassem's program, for which he and the station were forced to apologize). It's a grim picture of an overwhelming global media conspiracy against the jihad.
In short, Arab television continues to be a zone of intense political conflict, but it isn't one where al-Qaeda currently finds much comfort. (The one exception is over Sunni-Shia relations, where the Saudi-backed media campaign to inflame Sunni-Shia tensions as part of its campaign against Hezbollah and Iran is perfectly compatible with al-Qaeda's vision... but neither side seems eager to claim that alignment, for some reason.) I'm not surprised that the more positive media coverage hasn't translated into more support for US policies or pro-American attitudes in the surveys, since I've always thought the media was overrated as a causal factor. But it probably does hurt al-Qaeda, both in denying them opportunities to reach a mass public and in harming their image among Arab audiences.