Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Opinion and the Other Opinion"

Of all of this week's readings, I found "The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera" especially interesting. I freely admit that prior to this course, I knew next to nothing about Al Jazeera, save for the fact that they broadcast messages from bin Laden after 9/11. I feel like we've been building up to a more in-depth discussion of the news network all semester, and this piece by Shawn Powers and Eytan Gilboa brought up many relevant points and got me thinking about the role of news media in the Arab world, especially in comparison to news media in Western society.

I appreciated the authors' brief history of Al Jazeera--its inception in 1996 with (very) generous funding from an emir in Qatar, its debut on the world stage in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox, and its promotion to lead player in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when it was the only transnational news organization with a bureau in Kabul. They also identify the internal and external focuses of Al Jazeera: internally pushing the envelope by spotlighting on controversial subjects like sex, corruption and politics, and externally focusing on regional and world events from the Arab and Muslim perspectives. Both of these have of course caused various uproars in the Middle East and in the rest of the world, particularly the West. Government leaders in the former (Saudi Arabia for example) have blocked Al Jazeera in some cases because of its dynamic internal content, seeing it as a threat to their authority. In the West, meanwhile, especially in the United States, the network's internal programming is supported, since it's viewed as supporting the ideals of democracy and free speech. But its external programming--the bin Laden broadcasts, and showing the negative human effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts--has caused much consternation and outrage.

Powers' and Gilboa's outlining of Al Jazeera's dual focus segues nicely into their next point, which was for me the most important and most vital to comprehending the network: Al Jazeera has a definite political agenda. There are a couple of reasons for this, according to the authors. First, the national media systems in the Middle East leave much to be desired. They are marred by corruption, as they are controlled by government regimes and do not even attempt to present a balanced account of domestic and regional events. Al Jazeera looks to fill this void by providing a counterpoint, and in doing so takes a stand against the corrupt political establishment. It also challenges the notion of the nation-state "as the primary actor in international affairs," which we've discussed at length earlier in the semester. This is somewhat ironic considering that the Qatari government still pours money into Al Jazeera, but I think it proves the network's mission of presenting an independent voice and acting as an advocate for Arabs, no matter the monetary or political cost.

Powers and Gilboa aptly contrast Al Jazeera with its Western counterpart, CNN. They speak of the now-familiar "CNN effect" and address the natural next question: is there also an "Al Jazeera effect?" I think after reading the piece that comparing the two would be ultimately futile because they operate in such different environments. In Al Jazeera's case, as the authors point out, it is not just there to report events objectively but also, in view of the political climate in the Middle East, " take over the tasks that are usually fulfilled by political parties." It is not just a news network--to say so would be quite an understatement. Al Jazeera is there also to effect change in the region through its programming and above all to be "an agent for democratic governance." This piece certainly gave me a greater understanding of this media organization and also made me realize the degree to which it's misunderstood in the United States. I'm not saying I'm going to replace my cable news network of choice with Al Jazeera English, but I will no longer dismiss it as irrelevant either.

1 comment:

  1. Great job summarizing some of the major points from the Powers and Gilboa piece. Similarly, I didn't know too much about the news source, but after reading the article I see why and how it has become such an active player in both the Western and Arab world. It is crucial that it has played upon its image of being a truly reliable news source by providing an area where opposing arguments are heard, but of course as the authors point out, we must remember that as with any other major news source have an agenda and target audience as well.