Media Warfare Is the Middle East’s Latest Blood Sport—and the U.S. Is the Loser
Who owns the widespread and influential new Arab media, source of much of our news about the region?
As the Arab Spring unfolded, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were on opposing sides of many issues—the divisions between the two networks reflecting the opposing foreign policies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For instance, while Saudi Arabia was horrified that the Obama Administration turned its back on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the January 2011 uprising helped topple the longtime American ally. Al Jazeera English’s reporting from Tahrir Square also shaped American reporting of the event to the extent that the White House may have felt compelled to come out publicly against Mubarak almost immediately—which it did not, for instance, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In turn, the fierce fighting on the ground in Syria was matched on the airwaves and in the newspapers owned by the leading opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime. The Saudis had long had an uneasy relationship with Assad—and they were outraged when the Syrian regime was believed to be complicit in the 2005 murder of Rafiq Hariri, a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia who King Abdullah considered a son.
While Qatar had never had any problems with Assad—the emir considered Assad a colleague, and Assad’s wife Asma and the emir’s favorite wife Moza went shopping together—that changed as the Syrian death toll mounted. As Assad killed thousands and then tens of thousands of Sunnis, the sentiment of the region’s Sunni Arab majority turned against him. Accordingly, the Qatari emir dumped Assad, and Al Jazeera faithfully reflected the change in the tiny emirate’s foreign policy, putting the two Sunni satellite giants on the same side of the Syrian conflict. One Al Jazeera correspondent resigned from the station claiming that the Doha network’s coverage was biased: The indignant reporter was Ali Hashem, a columnist with Al-Monitor’s “Lebanon Pulse” who jumped to Al Mayadeen, the pro-Assad station.
Hashem of course was right in his criticism of Al Jazeera: The station is a platform to represent and advance Qatari interests. But the fact that Arab media shapes stories to benefit the states to which they are tied is hardly unusual—and hardly limited to the Arab world. Russia Today, the television station controlled by Vladimir Putin, serves exactly the same purpose as Qatari-owned Al Jazeera or Saudi-owned Al Arabiya. Like those stations, Russia Today boasts new studios and superior production values, which are much closer to those of CNN than Pravda. However, aside from 70-year-old Stalinists and New England college professors it’s unlikely that RT is going to have much luck in shaping any meaningful debates inside the United States.
Domestically, it’s a different story. The new generation of state-controlled media aims to consolidate domestic opinion by enhancing the prestige of what used to be understood—by outsiders and citizens alike—as propaganda. Many Russians believe the news and analysis on RT is legitimate if a program also features American talking heads. Similarly, many Arabs believe that Al Jazeera must be like real news, because the production values are similar to those of CNN. In this way, the production values of Western news reporting become a new kind of sugar-coating to help old-fashioned propaganda go down easier with consumers. If a satellite station or a newspaper or a website has high-paid American analysts and reporters and a bureau in Israel, then there must be something to its reporting from the Syrian battlefield or about internal corruption in Russia.
The rise of a new generation of state-controlled media outlets with Western production values would be less alarming if it didn’t also coincide with the demise of America’s own for-profit newspapers and television stations, which can no longer afford to maintain bureaus in the Middle East, for instance, or in Moscow. The absence of experienced correspondents who draw their paychecks from traditional news organizations means that the reporting we have from these places is being produced by outlets that are often owned by the people they are supposed to be reporting on—relationships that most Americans and many reporters are ignorant about. When it comes to foreign news, that means that American opinion-shapers and policymakers are often flying blind—or worse.
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