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The War of Ideas

Elizabeth DiNovella

As part of its four-part special series, "News War," PBS's Frontline tackles the role of the Arab media. "The War of Ideas [1]," the last episode of the series, looks at "the media revolution [2] sweeping the Arab world since the advent of Al Jazeera." The episode is eye opening for what it reveals and perhaps, more importantly, for what it leaves out.

Reporter Greg Barker [3] begins the story at the U.S. State Department's new Rapid Response Unit. This group, started by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and close Bush ally, Karen Hughes [4], monitors what the international media is saying about America. It writes briefing reports in real time and develops a reply, which is then sent out to State Department offices worldwide. Barker says the Rapid Response Unit is like a campaign war room. These efforts aim to counteract the negative image of the U.S., or so the thinking goes.

Barker then goes to the Arab world and examines the myriad satellite channels that have flourished since Al Jazeera started broadcasting in the mid-1990s. What was so revolutionary about Al Jazeera was that, for the first time, Arab journalists were shaping public opinion outside of the narrow parameters of the state. For too long the media landscape in the Middle East was dominated by government. All of that has changed.

"The War of Ideas" delivers interviews with news directors from several different Arabic-language stations, but much time is spent looking at Al Jazeera [5] .

The U.S. government is not alone in its criticisms [6] of this channel. In Iraq, Al Jazeera was able to film inside the insurgency, including footage of attacks against U.S. troops. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld [7] said that the channel was anti-American and in cahoots with the insurgents. Though the U.S. army twice bombed [8] Al Jazeera offices, once in Afghanistan and once in Iraq, it denied it was in retaliation for unfavorable coverage.

In 2004, the Iraqi government kicked Al Jazeera out of Iraq. But the documentary interviews one reporter who noted that Al Jazeera was not responsible for the increase in attacks. Just look at what happened after it left, the reporter says.

Al Jazeera's coverage [9] of the Israeli-Lebanese war of summer 2006 was criticized for being pro-Hezbollah. In response, an Al Jazeera correspondent said it was against the war itself. This point of view shaped coverage.<

What's missing here is the obvious correlation in the U.S. press. The American press [10] has finally admitted that its coverage in the run up to the Iraq War was not skeptical enough. Some stations were unabashedly pro-war.

A U.S. military spokesman based in the region says Al Jazeera is "like Fox News. It caters to its audience." Al Jazeera's Washington, D.C., bureau chief notes that the channel needs to reflect its audience, and that audience is getting more conservative.

Al Jazeera recently launched an English language channel. It broadcasts all over the world but is not available in the United States (though the State Department's Rapid Response Unit does monitor it). So why can't we see Al Jazeera English? Because a conservative group, Accuracy in Media [11], fought to keep Al Jazeera English out of our country. All satellite systems are refusing to carry the channel.

The U.S. military spokesmen in Dubai think it is "ludicrous" that Al Jazeera isn't available in United States. Americans are becoming more isolated, they say. They add that Al Jazeera needs to stand and fall on its on merits. Americans, these military men say, should not be afraid of ideas.

Too often the Bush Administration portrays the Iraq War as a war of ideas. That view leaves out the fact that it is a war of cluster bombs and white phosphate. It is a war of human casualties and maimed civilians. Just look at the ACLU's new database [12] of civilian casualties, culled from U.S. government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests with the Defense Department, to get an idea of the human costs of the war.

The State Department can fight a war of perceptions, but until the government stops bombing people, perceptions may never change.

"America is doing a charm offensive," says the Al Arabiya bureau chief in Dubai. It's an impossible job because, he says, "they are trying to sell an unsellable product."

Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine. She writes about activism, politics, music, books, and film.

© 2007 The Progressive

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