Misreading the Arab Media

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 26 17:31:09 UTC 2008

Misreading the Arab Media

Published: May 25, 2008

ARABIC TV does not do our country justice, President Bush complained in
early 2006, calling it a purveyor of propaganda that just isn't right, it
isn't fair, and it doesn't give people the impression of what we're about.

Shattering Myths: What Arab Journalists Said (pdf) The president's
statement, along with the decision by the New York Stock Exchange to ban
Al Jazeera's reporters in 2003, is a prime example of how the Arab news
media have been demonized since the 9/11 attacks. As a result, America has
failed to make use of what is potentially one of its most powerful weapons
in the war of ideas against terrorism.

For proof, in the last year we surveyed 601 journalists in 13 Arab
countries in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. The
results, to be published in The International Journal of Press/Politics in
July, shatter many of the myths upon which American public diplomacy
strategy has been based.

Rather than being the enemy, most Arab journalists are potential allies
whose agenda broadly tracks the stated goals of United States Middle East
policy and who can be a valuable conduit for explaining American policy to
their audiences. Many see themselves as agents of political and social
change who believe it is their mission to reform the antidemocratic
regimes they live under. When asked to name the top 10 missions of Arab
journalism, they cited political reform, human rights, poverty and
education as the most important issues facing the region, trumping
Palestinian statehood and the war in Iraq. Overwhelmingly, they wanted the
clergy to stay out of politics. And, aside from the ever-present issue of
Israel, they ranked lack of political change alongside American policy as
the greatest threats to the Arab world.

Though many Arab journalists dislike the United States government, more
than 60 percent say they have a favorable view of the American people.
They just dont believe the United States is sincere when it calls for Arab
democratic reform or a Palestinian state, as President Bush did again this
month in Egypt.

Make no mistake, the Arab press has many flaws, including being subject to
state control; only 26 percent of our respondents said they felt their
fellow Arab journalists act professionally and only 11 percent said they
were truly independent in their work. Nevertheless, Arab news outlets are
more powerful and free today than at any time in history. If the next
administration is going to try to reach out to the Arab people, it wont
get far by blaming the messenger.

Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism
Training and Research at the American University in Cairo and the author
of Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas.
Jeremy Ginges is an assistant professor of psychology at the New School
for Social Research. Nicholas Felton is a graphic designer in Brooklyn.




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