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A Lesson from Al Jazeera - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The Iraq War documents, revealed by the ‘Wikileaks’ website on Saturday, accurately represent the new and changing media world in which we now live. Furthermore, they prove that it is not true to say that new forms of media might render older means as obsolete.

The website obtained a major scoop when it received 400,000 secret documents at the push of a button, via the Internet. Had these documents been in paper form, ‘Wikileaks’ would have needed a fleet of trucks, an army of workers, huge storage space and many long months just to transfer them.

Following the previous commotion that surrounded the leaked documents regarding the war in Afghanistan, ‘Wikileaks’, a website that specializes in leaking confidential documents, published almost 400,000 documents about the Iraq War. This represents a new form of media, and different media outlets each have a role to play [in its distribution].

These documents contain a wealth of ‘raw’ information, and the Internet has its limits, despite its vast size. A website cannot single-handedly deal with the analysis and interpretation of these documents. In fact, no media organization or outlet could deal with this volume of raw material in a matter of hours, even if it employed an army of researchers and analysts. Therefore, as ‘Wikileaks’ sought the greatest impact and commotion from the material, it was imperative to form an alliance with newspapers and television channels across the world. Global media outlets were provided with the documents in advance, so they would have enough time to review them and extract the most important points, and present them in a beneficial manner for their audience. As often happens in such cases, a set date for publication is agreed upon by the participating [media] institutions, under such a deal.

In the Middle East, the television channel ‘Al-Jazeera’, based in Doha, was the only [media] institution able to access these documents in advance. Thus, it secured a scoop when it became the first television channel to broadcast excerpts from the Iraq War documents on Friday night, one day before the ‘Wikileaks’ website uploaded the documents, following a press conference from its founder [Julian Assange].

Television channels – despite their advantage over the printed press, in being able to show moving images – have limits to their power, as we can see from what happened. When faced with such a huge number of documents, ‘Al-Jazeera’ had no option but to issue a press statement on its website, of about 400 or 500 words, consisting of the main headlines and an overall summary of the most important points. The channel then aired a one-hour television talk show, for guests to comment on what was stated in the summary. It was likely that these guests had not previously seen the documents.

What ‘Al-Jazeera’ did is what any television channel would have done in such a case, for there are limits to television broadcasting, whether satellite or terrestrial. Even if all the documents were available, read, and analyzed, a television presenter could not read them for hours on screen, without making the viewers tired and bored.

The following morning, it was the turn of the printed press to prove that it is still the best domain capable of publishing documents and information of this magnitude. The newspapers participating in the agreement, such as the ‘New York Times’, and the British ‘Guardian’, devoted internal supplements for interpretation and analysis of the documents, in excess of tens of thousands of printed words. This was in addition to millions of words on their websites, complete with [reader] responses of course. This is something that no television channel would be able to undertake.

The lesson here is clear. The wheels were set in motion by a website posting a huge amount of raw documents, which would need an army of analysts and researchers to study for months. Thus, the website turned to television, newspapers, and the traditional media, which have the power to publish information and make it available to the public, with editorial capabilities and the resources to effectively deliver the message. The lesson from the experience of the Iraq war documents lies in the limit of television. Often the picture stands helpless in front of written text, whilst the ‘newspaper’ is still the real domain for such information.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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