I am a man of falafel and apple pie; five prayers a day and a Mozart; reading from right and left of a page, and political spectra—a Muslim, a Middle Eastern, an Egyptian and an Arab. The four descriptors overlap but are never identical, and they melt into a dynamic deep within me that nourishes the very meaning of my being an American. I am not a journalist nor do I play one on TV. But my fantasy about a healthy interaction with the media is ongoing.
The talk is that we, in the United States, could do better in our propaganda war on terrorism. Three facts are clear to me: Propaganda and persuasive efforts require different postures; media are at the frontline of these efforts, and the overwhelming majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are at the center of both these efforts, oppose terrorism. Yet, we are not doing so well in getting our message through. How come?
That is when my fantasy kicks in. It usually starts with an innocent “what if” or two. What if televisions were like side mirrors of cars? If they were, we’d see a cautioning strip: “Objects and issues on this screen are actually much different than they appear.” And what if from time to time viewers were allowed to reach into the teleprompter to change the anchor’s script or press the cursor and insert a missing viewpoint or two into the story? What if TV viewers could be seen applauding in admiration for a piece well done, or heard whispering gently: “Snap out of it, please.”
Someone once defined moral dilemma as not paying equal attention to the humanity and equal worth of people who are at a distance. I believe that our efforts to inform during this crisis are more likely to succeed when we are willing to look wider and deeper into the current reporting on the crisis. This applies to media I hear and see coming from all the lands to which my roots, trunk and branches extend.
On my New England rooftop sit two adjacent satellite dishes, one feeding my television from Western media, the other from Arab satellites, including Al-Jazeera (The Peninsula). Currently, many in the media attribute Al-Jazeera’s success to a competitive advantage. The network had early access to Taliban sources and to the tapes of bin Laden. This thinking, while correct, is also truncated and could harm the media and efforts to reposition our image in the Middle East and related worlds.
I attribute my increasing attention to Al-Jazeera, the Egyptian Satellite Channel, and others to the thick description reporters use to portray and interpret events as well as to their ability to disrobe the comforts of their normal angle on issues and bring forth those of others. For me, the questions Al-Jazeera raises in reporting news reach beyond the predictable, and answers are often embedded in the complexities of our times. The best in Western news reporting does the same, but too much of it is less thickly layered, its content lessened. Time constraints are partly to blame but, frankly, when it comes to reporting about the Middle East or the third world, the U.S. media are often caught in the seductive practice of seeking excellent answers to very truncated questions.
In crafting questions and seeking answers, grades of excellence and exquisiteness apply. Once I heard a master violin maker in Stradivarius’s hometown say something that applies to how I think of news and analysis: “The challenge for me,” this violin maker said, “is to have my hands do what my eyes want to see. [Because] this doesn’t always happen…. I have to be honest with myself. I have to recognize my mistakes. And when I do this, I feel, I know, I am doing my best work.”
Whenever I interact with media, I find myself searching for the angles and degree of thickness with which stories are told. Often, I search for that pinch of exquisiteness with which a story is spiced; naturally, the yield ranges from the delicious to the bland.
For me, and for people rooted similarly, Al-Jazeera transmits news and translates its meaning across cultures. Are the reporters of Al-Jazeera’s and other Arab media heavy-handed in directing their microphones and cameras at times? Indeed. Do I find myself disagreeing with several views expressed on the Arab channel, from the political to the religious? Yes, and Al-Jazeera did air explicit criticism of its biased reporting for the Taliban by Sayyaf, a prominent leader of the Northern Alliance that now controls Kabul.
But Al-Jazeera does something else that suits how my human antennae work. When I watch, my eyes move in brain speed; first, deep from the central figure of the story to people sitting in the café in the background; then wider to span kids in the streets, their clothes and quality of shoes, if any; up to the second floor of the short building behind, to the teenage girl in the window and the undeliberate glance of the boy mechanic below; then into the family room to the scant table, if any, and the small kitchen behind; to the worn shoes under beds, near a few watermelons and copper pots, where homemade bread can be kept fresh; to what this family had or didn’t have for dinner the night before and when they last saw, much less tasted, meat; to the issues in their family disputes, besides money; then back to words of the central figure extracted with aching simplicity into an extended microphone. These thick images take me deep into lives and help me develop context for understanding.
Within the context of a thick and layered reality, I see that many people—particularly in the Middle East, Muslim and Arab worlds—find themselves caught in an inner and simultaneous bind: deeply grieving with the United States and also wishing that the powerful America does not interpret their ongoing disgruntlement with U.S. policies in their region of the world in ways that could deepen their suspicion and feelings of helplessness, sometimes despair. It is here where journalists have an ethical role to shuttle constantly between feelings on the street and decisions of policymakers in all involved nations.
Many who live in this part of the world also believe that U.S. media insist on not delving into what could help Americans to truly understand the root causes of many of these social and political issues. People in the streets aren’t diplomats, so many are able to discern the U.S. media’s explicit bias toward Israel, as well as its negligence of their daily feelings about these issues. This circumstance is pivotal to the gap of misunderstanding that exists among Americans, Muslims and Arabs, a gap that exists in the media and on the streets.
Take the eloquent Newsweek cover story of October 15, 2001 in which Fareed Zakaria tried to answer one of the few “why” questions that gained prominence in U.S. media after September 11: “Why do they hate us?” After more than 15 pages of mostly well documented reporting, Zakaria arrived at the Arab-Israeli intersection. Suddenly, “vroooom,” he sped up, as if caught in the middle of a yellow traffic signal. “Why is the focus of Arab anger on Israel not on [their] regimes?”, he asks, blaming instead of interpreting. He adds: “The disproportionate feelings of grievance directed at America have to be placed in the overall context of the sense of humiliation, decline and despair that sweeps the Arab world.” He wonders why many who live in Africa and China, who have reason to feel the same sense of disappointment and unfairness, don’t work themselves into rage against America.
“Stop it right there,” I want to say, as my whispering fantasy kicks in. Reasonable people who live in the Middle East, Arab and Muslim worlds would, very normally, want to insert here some of the exquisite reporting on “Nightline,” when novelist Arundhati Roy, of Indian origin like Zakaria, explained to Ted Koppel how many people of the world “can grieve with Americans and still feel discomforted by America’s power and arrogance.” Roy wondered if Americans truly appreciate that such discomfort exists and argued that mainstream media in the West—by its reluctance and/or inability to tackle such sensitive topics—shields Americans from taking in such a world view.
To improve effective communication and to persuade, U.S. media needs to better portray how people on the other side experience their reality. It is not a coincidence that the first item on Al-Jazeera these days has been from Afghanistan, followed closely by reports from the Middle East. Their counterpoint to Newsweek’s speeding up at the Arab-Israeli intersection is to show images of the bodies of Palestinians killed and wounded daily since the beginning of the last intifada in September 2000—more than 800 killed, 7,000 wounded—by the occupying force of Israel. Cut, and Al-Jazeera shows the Palestinian operations inside Israel, resulting in the killing of more than 150 Israelis during this same period. Cut, and look inside living rooms at the remains of those killed by rockets launched from helicopters made in the United States and given to Israel. Then, it’s on to coverage of the Security Council with countless American vetos preventing anything that sounds like criticism of Israel from being passed, no matter what the Israelis do.
Blend in footage of these occurrences happening continuously during the last 30 years and, drop by drop, it settles deep into the national conscience. Fade away. Try to understand. Remember that to persuade, one must be open to persuasion and willing to dispute answers that touch only the top rung of layered reality.
On November 4, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer invited Senator Carl Levin and Representative Henry Hyde to comment on why the United States is not doing as well on the propaganda front. By then, Al-Jazeera had aired bin Laden’s second tape and followed with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Ross responding in fluent Arabic. Levin was optimistic that the situation will change soon, saying that we will spend more money and added that bin Laden is losing the war because he is attacking the United Nations, which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Blitzer turned to Hyde, who said: “This is the country that invented Madison Avenue and Hollywood. So, if we cannot market our own image, then we are very poor.”
Images from “Wag the Dog” and these comments drift away, intertwined.
“Nightline’s” Koppel delved deeper by virtue of the questions he posed, the way he reasoned, and the guests he invited. Former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke insisted that the United States needs to beef up Voice of America and other methods of communication. Koppel’s other guests, Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri and Ghida Fakhry, New York bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, put forth a different angle, suggesting strongly that the most effective American message in the Middle East is its policy on the ground. Craftily, Koppel asked Holbrooke to comment on this view. The ambassador laughingly replied that this was not the topic of the day and, with that, the program ended.
I whispered to Holbrooke, hoping Koppel would hear me. “Policy and media persuasion will carry the new day, not propaganda. Even if we are able to table the question now, wag Hollywood or Madison Avenue, the two P’s—policy and persuasion—are the main dish on dinner tables in places far away.” And media’s role in serving both is crucial.
Abdelmagid Mazen is a professor of management at Suffolk University in Boston and consults on issues pertaining to defensiveness in negotiation, organizational learning, and quality management.