Recently, I was invited by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent federal agency that supervises all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media such as Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, to discuss along with my colleague Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera TV, “The U.S. through Arab eyes.”
Former ambassador Ryan Crocker, a member of the BBG, led us through a freewheeling 90-minute intense exchange where we critically examined the role and perception of U.S. policies in the Middle East, how the media in the Arabic speaking world perceive or imagine the U.S. and how the U.S. media‘s coverage of things Arab or Muslim has evolved over the years.
Anti-Americanism in Arab World
I began by quoting a memo from the State Department to U.S. embassies in the region dealing with “Anti-Americanism in Arab World,” in which the Secretary of State bemoans “resurging” anti-Americanism where U.S. diplomatic posts in Arab capitals were being bombed against the background of “vitriolic public statements” by local senior officials and “diatribes and fantastic rumors” in the Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi press.
The memo adds that whether prompted by “Muslim Extremists, whether encouraged by irresponsible journalists, or by weak government officials who seek to divert attention from their own inadequacies…The current emotionalism bodes no good for the interests of the United States, nor for that matter for the best interests of the Arab states themselves.”
Many in the audience sighed or laughed when I said that the date of the memo was two weeks after my birthday, May 1, 1950 and was signed by then Secretary Dean Acheson. Given the bleak conditions in the Arab states today, and the precipitous decline in the stature of the United States in the region, where the cheap demonization of America has become a national sport in some “friendly” Arab States such as Egypt, one is forgiven if one yearns back to those days of “light” anti-Americanism described by Acheson’s memo.
Washington discovers the “New Arab Media”
In recent years and after long neglect, the U.S. has discovered and even courted the “New Arab Media,” best represented by the proliferation of influential satellite television stations in order to reach out to millions of admittedly critical, angry, not to mention hostile Arab public opinion, particularly in the East.
At the same time, the American coverage of the Arab world has become more nuanced, and the Arab coverage of the United State has become more sophisticated, although both could and should do better. At the time I began my career as a print journalist for Arab media in Washington more than 30 years ago, American officials treated most Arab newspapers understandably as mouthpieces for their autocratic governments to serve as mobilization tools in their hands.
The handful of Arab correspondents in the U.S., mostly in Washington, were seen, with few exceptions as extensions of their embassies, or self-appointed advocates of Arab causes, with very little knowledge of America’s political culture and society, and lacking the intellectual curiosity to cover a very complex continent beyond the Washington Beltway. In those ancient days Arab public opinion- as a force capable of influencing governments- did not exist in the minds of American policy makers.
Today, the situation is fundamentally different. In the post 9/11 world and in the aftermath of the calamity in Iraq, the despair in Palestine, the rise of the influence of extremists Islamists along with their sophisticated mobilization tactics and appeal, and in this long tumultuous season of uprisings and fragmentation, American officials cannot ignore Arab public opinion. Even in a largely autocratic and politically adrift Arab world, public opinion does matter and it can be measured.
That is why both President Bush and Obama and their secretaries of state and defense have been interviewed by pan-Arab satellite television stations such as Al-Arabiya, Aljazeera, and other networks watched by tens of millions of Arabs.
America in the mind of Arabs
While the coverage of the Arab media in America remains focused on the politics of the Middle East and on Washington, and less so on society and culture, it is more informative and complex than it used to be, with occasional lapses into the old stereotypes, generalizations and conspiracy theories about the real forces that control Washington and how decisions are made and opinions are shaped.
Today, Arab journalists discuss and debate U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East routinely with their American counterparts in conferences, on campuses, and on Arab and American television stations.
Yet covering America, even for a seasoned Arab journalist, is no easy feat. While journalists from other parts of the world covering the U.S. would have to contend with its overwhelming political, economic and cultural influence in their countries, Arab journalists on the other hand are addressing societies that see or perceive America as a hegemonic colossus, involved directly, and in some cases militarily in transforming their political cultures, and in shaping their present and their future. For some Arab journalists, covering the United States ‘objectively’ or 'dispassionately’ is almost mission impossible.
While journalists from other parts of the world covering the U.S. would have to contend with its overwhelming political, economic and cultural influence in their countries, Arab journalists on the other hand are addressing societies that see or perceive America as a hegemonic colossus, involved directly, and in some cases militarily in transforming their political cultures, and in shaping their present and their future.Hisham Melhem
Here, the legacy of America is that of the country that identified itself, particularly since 1967, with Israel and its brutal policies in the occupied territories, the supporter of Arab autocracy, and for eight years, the occupier of Iraq. The old reality of America -- the educator that built the American University of Beirut (1866), the American University in Cairo (1919), the country that welcomed immigrants from Lebanon and Syria since the middle of the 19th century and allowed them to excel in every field – and the only enlightened, progressive, democratic western power with no colonial legacy in the Arab world; that reality is ancient history now.
The new public space
The public space created by more than 700 free-to-air satellite television stations and scores of privately owned radio stations has had a profound impact on the Arab media and on how it sees itself and how others see it. However, “private” should not be confused with “independent “or fully free. In terms of ownership, most of the new media is either financed by governments directly, or owned by wealthy individuals some of whom are close to the powers that be, (still some are owned by political or militant parties, such as Hezbollah) while others are more willing to push the boundaries of expression.
Nonetheless, this new media (including the fantastically growing influence of the bloggers, who are being harassed with vengeance in some societies) has allowed Arabs to breakdown artificial barriers, giving them a chance to see the world and themselves through “Arab eyes” and to have virtual as well as real conversations across political boundaries.
During the early heydays of the peaceful demonstrations that launched the Arab uprisings in the public squares in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria were transformed into virtual town hall meetings where issues of good governance, freedom, empowerment, and accountability were discussed openly.
Millions of Arabs with access to satellite television, from Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east, watched with awe these scenes on their television screens. As media critic Jon B. Alterman convincingly showed, “It was not Twitter and Facebook, but television that was absolutely fundamental to the unfolding of events, playing a decisive role in expanding protests of thousands into protests of millions.”
A strange conflicting creature
The Arab media has improved markedly in the last 20 years, although the road to free media is still very long, arduous, and full of deadly mines. The media scene in the Arab World today, even after the uprisings, is a strange conflicting creature, where crude, sensationalist mobilization media live side by side with more responsible, professional, even self-critical media .
The journalist as a hired gun to mislead and to demonize versus the journalist who seeks to inform and enlighten; this is a media in transition and flux. Rarely a week passes by without an Arab journalist being harassed, banned, tortured or killed. The bureaus of satellite television stations such as Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera are threatened and even attacked or banned in some capitals.
In the Arab world they still shoot journalists in cold blood. Bahjat Atwar of Al-Arabiya fell to the assassin’s bullets while she was trying to make sense of life in the shadows of hell in Iraq. My friends and colleagues, columnists Samir kassir and Gibran Tueini of Annahar newspaper in Beirut, whose columns galvanized the movement that forced Syria to end its suffocating military grip on Lebanon, were assassinated in car bombings. Scores of local and foreign journalists were killed, wounded or abducted in Syria in the last three years.
Reporters, citizen journalists and bloggers are routinely jailed, harassed or banned in many Arab states, including those that went through the uprisings such as Egypt -- where media intimidation during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim regime that followed has been particularly egregious -- Yemen, Bahrain as well as those countries that escaped the uprisings from Saudi Arabia to Morocco.
We tolerate your opinions but spare us the facts
There are more debates to be sure. Yet, much of it is grandstanding and absolutist in nature. And while some social and political taboos have been broken, the circle of freedom has not been enlarged sufficiently. This is a media world full of contradictions: there is a wider margin of freedom of expression with much less freedom of serious reporting.
You are free to criticize and condemn corruption and graft in the abstract, but beware of reporting specific cases of abuse of power, torture, and embezzlement, especially if your targets are the ruling political class, the military or the security apparatus. Even in the unlikely event your information has been published or aired, you are essentially on your own.
That is why investigative journalism cannot flourish in the Arab World in the absence of political reform, democratic institutions, and independent judiciary.
Only the rule of law makes it possible for the “whistle blower” and the intrepid journalist to cooperate without the fear of retribution from those engaged in corruption or abuse of power. The above begs the question, an old fundamental question indeed: is it possible to have a free media in only partially free societies?
Nuance and lapses
America’s media coverage of complex Arab and Muslim issues has improved radically in the last three decades. Offensive references to the “Dark Side of Islam” the “Islamic threat” or the “green menace” are the exceptions now and are challenged immediately.
The mainstream media today tries to avoid treating Muslims who live in most countries of the world as an undifferentiated group of people, focusing instead on the diversity of Muslim societies and historical experiences.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the first Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980's, revealed the imperial face of Israel and its odious policies of discrimination not only against the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but towards its Palestinian citizens, reminded American journalists of the old American South.
Yet sometimes the coverage of the Palestine-Israel conflict is marred by thin knowledge of cultural-religious nuances and influenced by the way Israelis frame and conceptualize the issues, including the use by American journalists of Israeli terms and paradigms. In this Orwellian world, assassinations become “targeted killings” and ethnic cleansing becomes “transfer” and building Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories is described as housing projects.
The invasion of Iraq, occurring in an environment shaped by the shock of the 9/11 attacks, and the fear of the long arm of terrorism in a globalized world, has weakened and muted the skepticism and the need for critical enquiries regarding the assumptions and intentions of the Bush administration in the days leading to the attack.
The initial coverage of the war, particularly by the television networks had a triumphalist, even a jingoistic tinge to it.
When no weapons of mass destruction were to be found, and the mismanagement of the occupation became glaring, the American media became more critical of the administration in Washington and in Baghdad. Some media, albeit reluctantly, engaged in a brief chest beating-mea culpa ritual.
It is also true, that in times of wars and crisis, old stereotypes and entrenched negative images and biases are resurrected, dusted off and put to use as we have seen on occasions since 2001. The U.S. media’s coverage of Arab uprisings, particularly the early phase was on the whole comprehensive and even sympathetic. This was true both in the dispatches from the field and in the columns of commentators.
The reporters covering the Arab world for major American media outlets have done a commendable job going all the way to their coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982, and the first Intifada.
After the initial stumbling in Iraq, publications such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the New Yorker magazine, and the three major television networks and others have uncovered, the abomination called Abu Ghraib, the premeditated killings of civilian Iraqis at the hands of American soldiers, the secret prison network in the world managed by the CIA, the National Security Agency's monitoring of some American citizens international calls, just to name a few.
That is why my old observation of the American media, that it invariably gets the story right, even when not getting it right at the right time, still holds true.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem