This is an important article by Tuvia Tenenbom on the role played by Al-Jazeera in fomenting these uprisings.
Al-Jazeera understands the power of pictures. It was a marvel to watch how it used this power after Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Al-Jazeera got its hands on a couple of soldiers who kissed demonstrators, plus two policemen who were seen crying -- or almost crying -- during the same demonstration. This video was shown again and again and again and again, creating the feeling that the "Army and Police are with you. Keep on going, Tunisians!" Once Al-Jazeera decided a situation was so, it could be made a reality. No one could argue: it was Democracy in the Making!
But in all the tumult, no one remembered to ask: "Why is Al-Jazeera not championing democracy in Qatar?" -- where Al-Jazeera is owned by the rulers there.
I don't entirely agree with her analysis: These events have paradoxically been contingent (in the sense that they were triggered by a series of coincidental events) and overdetermined (in the sense that the pressures on these regimes have been so enormous, for so long, that in conjunction with the growth of access to new media they were at some point bound to collapse.) Al-Jazeera is just one part of the story--demography, Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks, the spread of the ideal of democracy (for which we can take much credit, for good or ill), the age of the dictators in question and the youth of the populations of the countries in question; rising global food prices--these and many other factors are all part of the story. But yes, Al-Jazeera has been playing a very key role, and not necessarily a salubrious one.
Al-Jazeera should not be excoriated: It's a superb, highly professional news gathering organization without which we'd have almost no in-depth television news coverage of the Middle East. The problem is not that they exist, it's that they're the only ones who exist. No one else is offering an equally compelling, in-depth counter-narrative. American broadcasters have simply given up on covering the region in a serious way.
I've written about this with alarm before:
The disappearance of international news is a long-term trend in the U.S., dating back at least to the late 1960s and particularly marked since the end of the Cold War. A number of studies suggest a roughly 80 percent drop in foreign coverage in print and television media since then. But the trend seems to be accelerating, a fact that should alarm citizens of any country that aspires to global influence—or to survival, for that matter.
Received wisdom holds that covering international news costs too much in a recession. But it shouldn’t. The cost of living is generally lower overseas. What do you need to cover the news besides a journalist, a pen, a notebook, and a computer with an Internet connection? The explanation that professional foreign correspondents have been displaced by amateurs is likewise incomplete. Bloggers, it’s true, now report some domestic stories better than the mainstream media do. But in Turkey, most bloggers insist perversely on writing in Turkish, and consequently almost none of what they write enters American consciousness. So American news consumers haven’t substituted their consumption of professional reporting from Turkey with a better, cheaper product. The results of a recent Pew survey suggest what’s really putting foreign correspondents out of business: isolationism among Americans, the survey found, has reached its highest level in 40 years. Foreign coverage doesn’t sell because there’s no demand.
I don't have any good solutions to this problem. I believe in a free press and free markets, and if there's no market for foreign news coverage, I certainly don't think the government should step in to finance it--although I do note that if it doesn't, and if the government of Qatar does, it will be the Qatari government who decides how the world will perceive this region, not ours.
The media mediates, and right now everything Americans know about the rest of the world is being mediated through sources that simply don't have the best interests of Americans at heart, nor do they cherish the values Americans most hold dear. I watch Al-Jazeera because no other broadcaster comes close to providing this kind of coverage, but I'd be delighted to have a real alternative.
By the way, anyone understand Arabic? It would be very interesting to know exactly how Al-Jazeera's Arabic coverage differs from its English coverage.
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