R. Baroud: How Can Arabs Influence Western Media?
How Can Arabs Influence Western Media?
By Ramzy Baroud
How can Arabs influence Western media, combat its inherent bias and grotesque misrepresentations of the Arab and Muslim world?
Despite the perpetual need to address this issue time and again, the apathy of the object of ridicule is equally relentless. Nothing noteworthy has been achieved on this front, particularly since the attacks of September 11, with the awesome, intellectual, social and cultural backlash unleashed thereafter.
Many of the attempts to bridge the gap between East and West have been crude at best. They facilitated the emergence of two groups of Arab intellectuals and media spokespeople.
One group was ‘uncompromising’. It refused to acknowledge that a Western audience has an entirely difference frame of reference and thus cannot subscribe to an Arab or a Muslim’s argument that simply conforms to what is accepted and what not in an Arab society.
The other group just wanted to ‘fit in’. Intellectuals of this type told the media what the media wanted to hear. They preferred to draw the audience’s applause, rather than risk its taunts and heckling.
Needless to say, both groups have failed miserably.
This is not to suggest that a common ground is far-fetched and that both an eloquent and courageous third voice is an impossibility.
For many years, Israeli and pro-Israeli officials, academics and the like have been swarming American news networks, talk radio programs and opinion pages of American newspapers, large and small.
But if one is to discern their approach, he’ll find an almost complete deviation from the issue at hand. It is noteworthy to mention that in their rhetoric, they scarcely reveal that their ultimate allegiance is to the thriving preservation of Israel. They come across as very much American. Thus, they justify the killings of Palestinian in Rafah by contrasting America’s need to uproot terrorism in Afghanistan, and explain the suffocating closure of the occupied territories by cross-referencing the US army’s occasional move to seal Iraqi borders in the face of ‘infiltrators.’
If you take a moment to listen to an Israel media expert talking to Fox News about democracy, liberty, freedom and so on, for a moment, it might slip your mind that the tacit goal of this expert-impostor, ironically is to justify the denial of real democracy, liberty and freedom to someone else.
I cannot think of better con men than Israeli and pro-Israeli ‘experts’ in the field of media packaging. There should be no surprises however, since the official Israeli institution invests colossal sums of money in media training, the construction and operation of media centers in Israel and the United States – and elsewhere. In short, Israel understands the impact of the media in the world, and takes this business very seriously.
On the other hand, Arabs trail far behind. Most Arab countries are nowhere close to Israel’s impressive media triumphs. Part of this is the uninterrupted corruption that plagues most Arab institutions.
In any given Arab country, chance are that those in charge of media and international relations are chosen based on anything but experience, wisdom and competence. Family affiliations play an important part, but also allegiances to the ruling party or close ties to men in charge. They lack fluency, persuasiveness and are “just too important” to submit to the notion of instruction or training of any sort.
Give them a perfectly honorable cause and watch them run it into the ground.
One must not mistake this critique with the absolving of much of the Western media’s deliberate bias. The reproachful tone used on CNN or Fox News to interrogate an Arab guest can hardly be discounted. It’s this precise approach - accusatory and indicting - that drove one of the most eloquent scholars, late Professor Edward Said to distance himself from mainstream media altogether.
That said, one should also be wary of the overuse of the term ‘bias’. Acknowledging bias must not justify the almost intrinsic ineptitude, and naturally ineffectiveness of the Arab voice in Western media. It does not explain why Arab officials with broken English constantly try to take on convoluted and multifaceted issues before American audiences.
The issue of bias and partiality must be raised continually, as a part of the ongoing debate on media ethics and fairness, not as a justification for faltering away from the media challenge. Sadly, the latter is the prevailing norm in the Arab world. It’s no surprise that Arab governments employ American PR firms, with total lack of knowledge regarding Arab affairs to revamp their image before Western audiences. One need not explain why such an approach is an utter failure.
Standalone, most Arab countries lack the resources to engage in this important undertaking. Real potential resides in collective action. Countries such as Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia possess the financial and infrastructural resources to sponsor serious media initiatives, making use of the remarkable wealth of brilliant Arab minds brimming all over the world. The goal should not be individually self-serving. The approach must not be apologetic, nor should it deviate from the heart of the matter.
This is not a matter of policy, far from it. It’s a cultural imperative, a response to the meddling media pundits, devout in their insistence to justify US government’ hardliner foreign policy by selling wars to the public as ‘moral’ and justifying torture chambers as essential for American freedom, security and democracy.
So how can Arabs influence the Western media? They must fill the void created by their absence. They must speak the language and learn how to relate to their audiences. They must understand that one may succeed at getting away with corruption in any field, but the field of media, where one’s incompetence cannot be hidden. As for ‘bias’, maybe those who haven’t done their part should hold on evoking it for a while. It’s becoming far too redundant and self-deceiving.