Not car bombs this time, but the permanent incursion of Arab-language news into a Middle East that has always been news-starved and media-abusive. Al-Arabiya, joining al-Jazeera, each of them (relatively) new satellite and print media institutions, confirms a tendency toward open-ended information in a part of the world where what was going on was historically the most closely guarded of secrets.
Open-ended may not particularly mean absolutely accurate, without prejudice or certain subtle pressures of Arab governments, but what Western press or TV agencies can make that claim either?
According to Anthony Shadid, in a Washington Post article from May 1st of this year,
Nabil Khatib, the top guy at al-Arabiya, says ‘his ideal and mission for coverage is to report information so that viewers can form their own opinions. Compared with traditional news outlets in the Arab world, he says, "We are trying to redefine the news.’"
Just as the West is getting accustomed to al-Jazeera, with its Arab take on events in the Middle East, along has come al-Arabiya, with funding from the Saudi Royal Family. Shadid explains the al-Arabiya editor as occupying
a position that thrusts him into a maelstrom of the most powerful forces in the Arab world today: crusading media and their editorial perspectives, the power of Persian Gulf money and the political loyalties it demands, thin-skinned potentates and the religious currents that buffet them, decades-long traditions in submissive Arab journalism and vociferous critics who dismiss his station as a lackey of the Americans and Saudi Arabia.
Whenever you hear ‘lackey of the Americans,’ someone is taking you very seriously.
In any event, these two stations are very big news in the Middle East and perhaps the most earth-shaking of the events there since U.S. entry into the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields. Likely they are far more historically important. Accurate reporting of what’s going on is never available in dictatorships. There is life and then there is the official portrayal of life, with no third-party interpretation. This is the way it has been in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to one degree or another (depending upon the harshness of the regime) for decades.
The above-mentioned ‘powerful forces’ of money, political loyalties and religious currents are not without their own forms of interference, that’s for sure. But a very large cat has been let out of a very small bag and the power structures, such as they are, will most certainly never be the same.
It may be (and appears more so with each debilitating month in Iraq) that what America has brought to the Middle East is not liberation at the point of a gun, but an explosion of information in a formerly controlled environment. Not even our explosion, but a blast that arrived in order to criticize American Imperialism and (perhaps) over-stayed the host’s welcome and refused to leave the house.
Al-Jazeera, not exactly a newcomer, was created in 1996 and claims to be ‘the fastest growing network among Arab communities and Arabic speaking people around the world.’ Critics argue that 24-7 al Jazeera is overly sensational, with a bent on showing bloody footage from war zones as well as giving coverage to violent groups. Sounds like CNN or Fox News. Criticism from varied governments (according to its web page) ‘has helped the channel garner credibility from an audience that is used to government imposed censorship and biased coverage.’
Al-Arabiya advertises "With us, you are closer to the truth," which has come to be a sort of by-line, but raises a critical issue. How close is ‘closer?’
These channels "are more dangerous than nuclear bombs, and they radiate on a large scale," said Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, al-Arabiya’s general manager in the Shadid article. "It could push them to go into a war, or it could make the people believe in peace and change their lives. It is exactly what we’re in charge of today."
Al-Arabiya’s critics, including some in its own newsroom, say style has come to subsume substance — that redefining news has made it too timid and overly beholden to pressure from its Saudi benefactors.
All of which sounds incredibly like criticism of the Fox News-CNN competition. “The truth will make you free” may well be a biblical exhortation and we all know how difficult it is to know the truth when we think we see it. But until truth comes along, information competitively disseminated by satellite news in Arabic, broadcast by Arab owners in Qatar and Dubai, will have to do.
That seems to me to be the very big news from the Middle East.