Al Jazeera and the Arab uprising

Each bit of information implies an ideology and is a form of advocacy.  This is true even of science.  The physics of Newton described a moral and political order, as well as a universe of mass and force.

With the news media, both ideology and advocacy are more apparent, though the impact on the public takes a different path than usually assumed.  Political bias can’t be avoided.  Liberal journalists flatter liberal causes, conservatives promote their own.  For anyone who has ever cheered for a baseball team, however, this should be a trivial truth, and an easily detectable pattern.

Far more powerful is existential bias – what the news content mavens at Media Tenor call “agenda cutting.”  In the hands of the media, the world shrinks to a handful of narratives.  A few actors and their stories – think Israel and the Palestinians – crowd the public stage.  These are the heroes and the villains, the people and places that matter.  The rest of humanity – including, for example, the brutal civil war in the Congo – scarcely exists.

With these observations in mind, we are ready for our subject:  Al Jazeera’s part in the great Arab uprising of 2011.

The universal opinion seems to be that the network has dominated coverage of the political earthquake in the Middle East.  Such unanimity often rests on herd instinct parsing surface impressions; but for what it’s worth, I’m with the herd on this one.  My take is that Al Jazeera not only has outcompeted its rivals in news coverage – it has become a leading actor in the struggle between Arab governments and their publics.

Compared to US and European newscasters, Al Jazeera’s political biases are refreshingly obvious.  It favors a Muslim Brotherhood brand of Islamism, and has looked kindly on Hamas and Hezbollah.  It loathes Israel, and regularly exploits Israeli military action to attack what it considers the cowardice of Arab regimes.  It’s anti-American, but probably less so than BBC.  It praises democracy, though the word is used mainly to express contempt for the region’s standing political arrangements.

In Tunisia, where the regime banned foreign journalists, Al Jazeera co-opted a local “human rights activist” to serve as its correspondent.  Whether the Tunisian opposition manipulated the network, or the network willfully assisted the opposition, is a distinction without a difference.  The combined informational firepower of Al Jazeera and a web-savvy public overwhelmed the resources of a modern national government.

That, I think, was a first.

Then came Egypt.  A large, relatively wide-open country with a bustling media market, Egypt became, during the uprising, a laboratory for information effects in the digital age.  These effects went beyond the news business – in which Al Jazeera easily outperformed the competition – and worked to transform the network into a political weapon.  Two non-journalistic aspects of Al Jazeera’s Egypt coverage appear to me significant.  One was the clarity of its advocacy.  The other I would describe as the unintended consequences of global attention.

With the Mubarak regime, Al Jazeera’s correspondents took up a quarrel of long standing.  Previous coverage of Egypt – during the Israeli incursion in Gaza, for example – often resembled an open campaign to de-legitimize the political establishment.  This pattern of advocacy was resumed during the uprising.  In the global debate whether the Egyptian government was a force for stability or tyranny, Al Jazeera’s reports and images weighed in heavily, and it may be decisively, in favor of the latter.

The government understood the game, but never found an effective way to counter it.  Al Jazeera’s offices in Cairo were shut down, its satellite signal was cut, its correspondents were arrested by the police and attacked by regime enforcers.  These measures elevated the network’s prestige, yet achieved nothing:  Al Jazeera video, in Arabic and English, continued flooding out to the world, and flowing back into the country.  The government failed to muzzle Al Jazeera in the same way that it failed to muzzle the public by shutting down the web – and for the same reason.  Too many people beyond the reach of political power possessed too many means of communication.

The protesters, like the government, never stood in doubt about which side the network was on.  They saluted an ally from Liberation Square, chanting “Long live Al Jazeera!”  In Egypt, the Al Jazeera brand shared in the triumph of the uprising.

As the spirit of revolt gripped other Arab publics, a more generic effect of TV news coverage became apparent.  News cameras meant attention.  International newscasters’ cameras meant global attention.  And in an environment in which information appeared to baffle brute force, global attention became the strategic heights for contending political forces.  Here was a revelation from the collapse of the old regimes in Tunisia and Egypt:  whoever commands attention controls the narrative, the story about a country’s government and its people.

In practice, only an rebellious public stood to gain from the conquest of global attention.  The ruling elites had controlled the narrative for a generation.  They wished to be left alone to enjoy the status quo, and they projected this wish on the population.  While Al Jazeera broadcast scenes of violent death in a morgue and of defiance in the streets, Egypt’s state-run TV showed citizens peacefully going about their business.  That was the regime’s story.  In front of non-regime cameras, a very different script played out.

Once demonstrations erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and elsewhere, protesters in each country and their sympathizers in the West clamored for the international news media to make an appearance.  They demanded attention.  They wanted government violence televised.  That was their story, and the media’s evident uncertainty because of the pace of events evoked their anger and condemnation.  My Twitter feed at the time was filled with bitter invective and conspiracy theories.

The heightened value of attention is a byproduct of an environment oversaturated with information – a structural feature of the moment we are living through, what I have termed the fifth wave.  Al Jazeera isn’t responsible.  Because it has attracted vastly more attention than its rivals, however, the the network has become identified with the effect.

Protesters everywhere wanted their Al Jazeera.  Being cut out of the media agenda, they feared, would mean defeat for their cause.  Following the Egyptian example, governments imposed extreme measures to keep the world’s attention at arm’s length.  Bahrain briefly suspended Al Jazeera’s operations “for breaching the professional media norms and the laws regulating the press.”  Libya jammed the network’s satellite signal.  While the effects of these measures have yet to be studied in detail, the big picture, in my opinion, is clear.

The authorities could arrest a journalist or block a signal, but they could not persuade the public, at home or abroad, of the credibility of the narratives which sustained them.  Even in Libya, most shuttered regime in the region, damning video continued to flow in and out of the country – demonstrated by the remarkable Libya Live Blog on Al Jazeera’s English-language website.

I began by observing that all information implies an ideology.  Video of a morgue filled with victims of government violence describes a different country from that depicted by TV news showing citizens shopping peacefully.  Both images may be factually accurate, but they flow from opposite ideological assumptions about what is normal, and they tell mutually exclusive narratives.

At the present moment in the Arab uprising of 2011, Al Jazeera has become the arbiter of credibility for the region’s political narratives.  It has earned the trust of Arab publics, paradoxically, because of its policy of undisguised advocacy and its ability to command attention.

Can a satellite TV network transform itself into a political power broker?  It’s unlikely.  Al Jazeera deals in images:  that is, in surface drama.  It can serve as an irritant and a precipitant, not as a system-builder or king-maker.  The evolution of power is largely invisible and thus nondramatic – the grinding and binding together of deep social, political, economic, and religious interests.  Political negotiations, as every elected Iraqi government has shown, frighten away the media by their dullness.  (One can only surmise what the TV news would have made of our constitutional convention.)

Al Jazeera’s business interest is to foster drama.  Because news cameras love excitement and hate explanations, the network’s success has made it the star performer in what is, in essence, a theater of instability.  To parlay such acclaim into lasting political influence, however, would require something like permanent revolution in the Middle East.

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