Washington, D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- Last week, the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired the last installment of a four-part series entitled ‘News War’, a documentary on the role of television, newspapers and radio in the war on terror declared by President Bush in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US. The final episode was entitled ‘War of Ideas’, a reference to a Bush statement five years ago in which he said, “We are fighting on various fronts – military, economic, political and intellectual. We are confident we will win on every front.”
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had laid the bases of the war on terror and recognized that the “war of ideas” was part of such war. “We are in a war of ideas, as well as a global war on terror. And the ideas are important, and they need to be marshaled, and they need to be communicated in ways that are persuasive to the listeners,” Rumsfeld said.
However, Marc Ginsberg, a former US ambassador to Morocco and a Washington expert on Middle East affairs, seems less optimistic. “On the battle of ideas, we have unilaterally disarmed. We have abandoned the playing field to the [Islamist] radicals and we have failed to empower our allies in the region with the tools they need to confront the radicals by themselves,” he told The Washington Times.
Five years ago, Tucker Eskew, the director of the White House Office of Global Communications set a plan in motion to promote American ideas in Arab and Muslim states and paved the way for the creation of Radio Sawa and Al Hurra television. “We have the money. We have the expertise. We have the ideas. No one will be able to stand in our way,” he said.
Accordingly, five years later, Greg Barker, a PBS anchor, visited the Middle East to understand, first hand, what happened to the American informational, intellectual project, particularly on account of the success of Arabic television channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. This was the subject of the fourth and final installment.
The episode had the following conclusions: firstly, Barker said: ‘Arab journalists have a different view of events to American officials,’ as if this was unknown before. The problem does not lie in speech, but rather in understanding what is being said. Secondly, Barker stated: ‘There is no such thing as one Arab media to communicate with, to cooperate with or to antagonize.’ He made that statement, also, as if it was breaking news. His comments came after finding significant differences between television channels such as Al Jazeera on the one hand and Al Manar on the other.
The program points out the existence of something that resembles “dialogue of the deaf” between the two sides because there is a fundamental difference in the key words of “moderate Muslim” and “extremist Muslim”. What is an “extremist” television channel? What is a “moderate” television channel?
However, the program, at least, had one definite conclusion, that is, that Al Hurra television, which reflects the opinion of the US government, does not reflect that of an Arab or Muslim citizen. Not one Arab or Muslim journalist stated this in the program, but Duncan MacInnes, the Director of the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centers, said: “Even if Al Hurra television showed an American soldier building a hospital in Iraq, the Arabs would still regard him as an American soldier in Iraq. The Arabs are upset about the presence of foreign forces in Iraq.”
This statement indicates the underlying problem because MacInnes, describing the opinion of Arabs and Muslims on the occupation of Iraq, used the word “upset” rather than “oppose” or “angry”. Of course, the official did not use the word “occupation”, which is also not used by Al Hurra Television or the program itself despite saying that it would assess the media war between the American government’s media and Arab media.
Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi analyzed the program in one his articles, but he became a party to the war of ideas as he stood against Arab journalists and criticized the program’s presenter for failing to directly criticize Arab journalists. There were a number of reasons behind Farhi’s criticisms of Arab television; firstly, for conducting interviews with terrorist figures such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri; secondly, because they air “ugly” scenes such as those of killed American soldiers; and thirdly, because they “exaggerate” or “lie”.
Firstly, the program presented a part of an Al Arabiya interview with an American general on bombings in Baghdad’s Sadr city that killed over 200 people. The Arab reporter asked the American general whether the explosions were an American “conspiracy”. This question angered the Washington Post reporter, who considered it part of the “lies” of Arab reporters. The explosions may or may not have been part of a conspiracy; however, it seems that American reporters do not understand that the underlying cause of the problem is the presence of American generals in Iraq, whether or not they conspired.
Secondly, the Washington Post reporter was angered because the program showed an interview with an Al Jazeera reporter in which he said that the American press coverage of the Israeli attack on Lebanon last year “was not balanced,” as if an Arab reporter should not state that the American media supports Israel more than it does the Arabs.
In the program, Brian Conniff from Al Hurra also criticized Arab reporters. “There are over 250 satellite television channels in the Middle East, but not one channel presents a true picture of America, its values and policies, or even a true picture of anything else,” he said. Mohammed Afif, the news director at Lebanon’s Al Manar TV, said “We, television of the resistance, are against the Zionist enemy.” It was as if he was responding to Farhi when Afif said, “We do have an issue and it is not easy to distinguish between the issue and a news item.” He asks, “Do you know any neutral television [network] in the world? Is the BBC neutral? Is CNN neutral?” However, Mohammed Afif insisted that “we are professional journalists.”
The program presented another example of the wide gap between American journalism and Arab journalism when it moved on to the offices of Al Hurra television in Beirut. Earlier, Muhammad Afif had stated that Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would deliver a speech that would be broadcast live by the channel. However, Al Hurra correspondent Claudia Abi Hanna told him, “We broadcast 30 seconds of Nasrallah’s speech.” [The statement was “The Lebanese government is not headed by the Lebanese prime minister but by the US ambassador to Lebanon”].
In ‘War of Ideas’, Bushra Abdul Samad from the Al Jazeera offices in Lebanon said, “It is hard to be neutral. After the war and on account of our position towards the war, people thought we were pro-Hezbollah and worked as part of it; however, we do not adopt a pro-Hezbollah stance. Rather, we are against the actions of Israel.” The presenter of the program visited the offices of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and the leadership of American troops. Al Jazeera official Waddah Khanfar told the presenter, “After the fall of Baghdad, the Americans accused us of provoking sentiments against the American soldiers. Undoubtedly, we did not.” Commenting on Al Jazeera’s expulsion from Iraq in 2004, he added, “It was a tense situation then. They thought that closing our office would mean that different images of Iraq would be broadcast. The deteriorating events over the last two years proved that what is happening in Iraq is not because of Al Jazeera.” However, the presenter argued, “the channel is responsible… for giving Bin Laden’s messages all such importance,” adding, “they are covered within a news context and analyzed at a later stage.” The program also featured Al Arabiya director Abdul Rahman al Rashed who said, “Politics and news are probably a type of entertainment in the West, but it is a matter of life or death here.” The program described Al Arabiya as being moderate in comparison to Al Jazeera, but this does not mean it is pro-America.
The final part of the four-part series stated that Al Jazeera is longer the leading channel and that Al Arabiya is working to surpass it. “We are winning without having to resort to Bin Laden tapes… I believe this in itself is a phenomenon and a challenge,” said al Rashed.
At the end of the program, an American official said: “I do not fear any thinking, whether American or foreign. We, the Americans, have to maintain our heritage and accept any thinking. Firstly, no thinking would kill us. Secondly, we must know the ideas of others.” It is evident that by presenting this non-hostile statement in the closing moments of the program that it hopes that American officials and Arab journalists would meet halfway, and it is probably for this reason that the Washington Post reporter said that the program complimented Arab journalists. However, reaching a halfway point is not easy, firstly because most American journalists have a certain view of Arab journalists, such as the aforementioned accusations of “lying” and “exaggeration”. Secondly, the American approach tends to be rational whilst the Arab approach tends to be sentimental, and thirdly the spirit of patriotism reflects upon American journalists.