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December 17, 2005

Comments

Ghurab al-Bain

One interesting tidbit was Al-Jazeera carrying Saddam Hussein's last Ambassador to the UN (Muhammad al-Duri) as a quite hostile talking head on the elections, identified only as a "political analyst and writer." Quite ironic to see this Baathist stooge spouting his venom with inpunity on free elections. Not the station's best moment of professionalism. At the very least they should have identified him.

the aardvark

Good catch - I missed that one. I've been careful to avoid saying too much about the TV coverage itself since I've only been able to watch it sporadically. Al-Duri used to be on al-Jazeera a lot back in the pre-2003 days, as I recall, but I hadn't recalled seeing him much lately.

Jeffrey

I'm a teacher here in New York and have been following your blog since you began keeping it back in March. I agree to some extent with your main thesis: despite its obvious current limitations, the new Arab media is a force for creating more space for free speech within the Arab-speaking world.

But then you write about the recent parliamentary election on December 15 in Iraq in which around ten to eleven million Iraqis voted:

I'm still not sure exactly why the Arab media seems to be paying such relatively little attention, or why the columnists aren't sinking their teeth into it.

Are you being serious here? You mean that you can't see why the Arab media -- news outlets like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, whose coverage is often not only anti-American but also anti-Iraqi (and to such an extent that many Iraqis have protested against Al-J and in opinion polls exhibit extreme dislike of their coverage in Iraq) -- would NOT be very enthusiastic about the overwhelming turnout at Iraq's free democratic elections?

I hope that you were just attempting to be ironic when you said that you cannot understand why Al-J among other outlets are not very enthusiastic about covering the election in Iraq.

If you ARE serious, then you've just diminished your stature and reliability as a respected commentator on Arab media.

This is a criticism, but I am more than willing to learn from you. Just argue your case and I'll respond accordingly.

Full disclosure: I am the founding member of Iraqi Bloggers Central, which has been covering the Iraqi blogosphere from an American perspective for almost two years now and has been referenced by such media outlets as the New York Times on more than one occasion.

Although we mostly cover the daily output of the Iraqi blogosphere, we do periodically address related issues.

Here's an example:

Kudzu in the Lead Paragraph.

This was written by me, but I work with three others.

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Jeffrey

Sorry, mangled link for Iraqi Bloggers Central.

The "Kudzu" link is fine.

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the aardvark

Jeffrey -

In the January elections, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya alike went full throttle, full day coverage. Their coverage was positive, even celebratory, for the most part. Even Condi Rice and others argued that their coverage had helped to turn those elections into a Arab system-wide event. The Arab press also covered those elections heavily - by a comparable point in the process, I had dozens and dozens of op-eds by leading writers from all the major dailies. This time around, not so much.

If the Arab media's coverage of BOTH elections had been grudging, partial, hostile, or ambivalent, then you'd have a point. But that doesn't seem to be the case. That's a puzzle - a real one, not an ironic one.

the aardvark

By the way, al-Arabiya is ranked first among Arab satellite television stations in Iraq for news, behind only al-Iraqiya, according to the latest Ipsos survey. And it's content is neither anti-American nor anti-Iraqi - if anything, it leans toward a pro-American spin, and it seems quite taken with Allawi. So you're wrong to lump it together with al-Jazeera as part of some undifferentiated mass of Arab media.

I think your comment reflects something really important - Iraqi distaste for the Arab satellite television stations overall. One of the key themes of my book is the profound disconnect, built up over the last decade, between Iraqi and wider Arab perceptions and attitudes. The gap is real, and it's pretty toxic in both directions. It's not a surprise to me that someone primarily oriented to the Iraqi scene would perceive the Arab media as you portray them in your comment. Such views are widely held in Iraq, have deep roots, and are easy to understand. But it's also a very partial view of the Arab media, or even of one station like al-Jazeera.

Hope these two responses help put this in perspective - I sure would hate to lose stature, reliability, or respected commentatorness!

the aardvark

Last points: I actually didn't just say "I don't understand" - I offered four or five different possible explanations, and said that I didn't know which (or any) were right. I could have added another hypothesis like "now that the Lincoln Group has been exposed, the pro-American writers didn't have any material", if I had wanted to be snarky (and a bit depressed, thinking about how badly the Pentagon has hurt every Arab writer who wants to advance a pro-American position).

Anyway, your comment is implicitly offering a competing hypothesis: the Arab media didn't cover it enthusiastically because they are anti-American and anti-Iraqi, and don't want the elections to succeed. That may be true or may not be, just like the ones that I put forward. You would have to compare the evidence for each assertion, lay out the causal logic, and so forth. In this case, the fact that the January coverage differs significantly from the December coverage is just one example of the kind of data point which cuts against any argument based on a constant (such as "anti-Iraqi bias").

Jeffrey

A. Aardvark,

Thanks for the explanation and clarification. I hadn't known about the earlier coverage, and, given that, I see your point now.

I have a lot of Iraqi friends because of blogging about the Iraqi blogosphere and I try to get commentary from them on the coverage from the news outlets, but it comes in bits and pieces. I wish there were a News Watch type of website (in English) on the Arab media. Well, of course we have your blog, which is why I come here as often as I do. I hope one of the Iraqi bloggers creates a separate blog just to cover media stories and media spin.

We're definitely on the same side. Check out our weblong from time to time. We offer some interesting commentary and good interviews with Iraqis. Yesterday's interview was with Vahal Abdulrahman, a Kurdish Iraqi living in Virginia and who voted with his father on December 15. Later that day he was invited to meet George Bush. Just a little surprising.

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Jeffrey

Another point. I am not one of those people who sees "vast conspiracies" on either side. Journalists are human and have their biases. Good journalists attempt to minimize their personal views; others maximize the potential of their powerful positions. In op-eds we expect opinion and commentary. In hard-news articles we expect as little "snark" as possible.

Also note that I agree with the journalism professor Rhetorica who argues that most of the biases in journalism are structural rather than political.

But then there are the cases in which the reporting is simply very, very shoddily done. My longest research project in this area was a detailed examination of the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum.

Iraq Antiquities Revisited.

Here are few paragraphs from the conclusion:

Months later, when the truth finally surfaced and people began to ask how the reporters had made so many basic mistakes, John F. Burns would confess to Andrew Lawler that he and the other journalists were “disposed to believe the worst” and that “passion got the better of us.” John F. Burns, to his credit, was one of the few people involved in this story to admit that a mistake had been made. (21)

John F. Burns and Paul McGeough were also simply exhausted. They had been reporting non-stop for several months with a maximum of a few hours of sleep a night and trying to function under considerable and sometimes daily threats to their lives. They also were operating in an environment where it was almost impossible to verify much of the information that they gathered. (22)

If there were one mistake that overshadowed all the others it would have to be using Nabhal Amin as a reliable witness when, in fact, she no longer worked for the museum complex. John F. Burns, Paul McGeough, Hamza Hendawi, and Hassan Hafidh had neither the time nor resources -- or perhaps even the inclination -- to verify her claim of identity and position.

I'm a writing teacher, so for fun I worked on this project over last year's Christmas break. Like you, I imagine, the actual events become clearer only after extensive research and comparison and criticism of primary sources with a handful of secondary sources to guide you with basic interpretation. I was curious about what really happened at the Iraq National Museum and was very surprised by what I learned. (There are lots of newly published primary sources -- Bogdanos's "Thieves of Baghdad" for starters -- on the case of the museum, so I plan to update it again this Christmas vacation).

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Nur al-Cubicle

Speaking of elections, Ayman Nour has collaped after a week-long hunger strike protesting his incarceration by Egyptian authorities.

Dan

Why has the arab media lost interest in the third iraqi election of the year? Because the first do did nothing to end the war... and average folks don't see any reason why the third will be any different. So as long as the war is the most interesting and relevant thing going on in Iraq to average Arabs, and the elections are irrelevant to the course of the war (at least that's what they think), why should there be heavy coverage of this exercise?

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