Literature Review: "The Al-Jazeera Effect"
hey everyone, here's the literature review I wrote for this week. enjoy
The readings from this week both dealt with the relationship of power and media within the context of Middle Eastern politics of the past decade. Hugh Miles’ Al-Jazeera is fascinating in its account of Al-Jazeera’s ascent as an organization; the growth and dynamism of this organization is certainly amazing. However, it is naïve and unfounded to describe Al-Jazeera as an ideal in terms of its truth journalism. Al-Jazeera itself professes an agenda “to enhance the media revolution in the Arab media and to bring it up to standards with the Western media” (302). Ironically it is contrast to the Western media’s crass journalistic mediocrity that Miles has used throughout the book to establish Al-Jazeera’s virtues. Miles’ provide nuance to his account, but still errs on the side of idealizing Al-Jazeera as a bastion of objectivity, which leads him to overestimate the (persuasive) power of Al-Jazeera vis-à-vis other sources of information. Knightley’s chapter on the role of war correspondents in the Iraq invasion of 2003 deal with matter similar in time and place, but focusing on the relationship of media and state power. The chapter paints a dour picture (at least from the perspective of the journalist) of media at the subordinated by the powerful state, and illustrates with examples from the Iraq War.
Overall Miles’ book seems optimistic about the democratic changes introduced by Al-Jazeera in Arab societies, especially when compared to the state-controlled media of the past. Miles sees Al-Jazeera’s growth undermining authoritarian status quo regimes and providing a medium for criticism and activism. Meanwhile, as a global news organization available via satellite and over the internet, Miles also seems to think that Al-Jazeera is a fresh and different from the convention western media giants that shy away from criticizing powerful Western regimes. Miles commits much of the book to developing the idea that Al-Jazeera is either unbiased, much less biased than Western counterparts, or that its bias is negligible considering the enlightening service it provides in its news. Miles introduces several methods of arguing this point most of which do not make much of a point. One notable approach (also used in Control Room) is to point out that that opposing parties’ have contradictory notions of Al-Jazeera’s bias: “In the Middle East I was told time and again that it targets Arabs. In the West it is repeatedly alleged that Al-Jazeera spreads hate against Israel and America” (351). Attractive as it is, opposing views do not necessarily cancel each other out. Miles’ opinion seems to be that this confirms that no one is ever content with anything, even a gem like Al-Jazeera, however, one could also say (the argument is perhaps weaker) that it also corroborates the opinion that there’s something fishy about Al-Jazeera’s news. Another of Miles methods is to qualify accusations of bias not by disputing the grounds of the claim, but with ad hominem tangents about disingenuous politicians, right-wing loonies, etc. This is most evident in the treatment of the an instance in which documents surfaced claiming that Al-Jazeera had been infiltrated by members of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat in the late 1990s. Here Miles seems to insist that relevance of the documents is belittled by the fact that they were presented by Ahmad Chalabi who had an unrelated axe to grind with Al-Jazeera. Clearly this abstracts from the more important point that Miles does not refute the authenticity of the documents.
The glaring omission from the argument seems to be the fact that Al-Jazeera is clearly an organization that is essentially a wing of the Qatari government. Miles notes that Al-Jazeera, due to various constraints, has always operated at a loss. Commercial incentives do not justify its existence. The organization’s economic needs are only satisfied by bailouts by the Emir of Qatar (Al-Jazeera was originally established with capital provided by the Emir). Miles tries to insert some qualification here, saying that it is not clear whether these funds are those of the Qatari government or those of the Emir himself, as though there would be a difference (as far as I know, as an absolute monarch the Emir is the government). Miles cites the testimony of the Al Jazeera itself which says that “although it takes Qatari money, this has no impact whatsoever on its editorial policy”. Would one expect them to profess anything else? While Miles admits “there is probably an informal connection of some kind”, to him it is obvious that “this has a negligible effect on Am-Jazeera’s editorial policy”. Usually in order to deem an effect negligible one would have to know what that effect was in the first place. Miles seems to draw his conclusions from the fact that Al-Jazeera has criticized the Qatari government in the past and critical voices have not been barred from the air. While that is stronger evidence, it is not conclusive—could it not be possible that the Emirate cultivates the image of being liberal and benevolent? This would seem not impossible given that in the book’s opening Miles goes to some length to describe the Emir’s intentions to differentiate Qatar from other Arab states by making it an enlightened country (attracting Western universities, priorities on education, etc). An alternative explanation that the Emir has an affinity to democracy is strange because of the fact that he is an emir, but also by the opening of the book, the monarch expresses explicit disdain for democracy (“the concept seemed so ridiculous to him that he had to be led in hysterical laughter from the balcony of the House of Commons” 13). Miles’ analysis could use more insights into how Al Jazeera relates to the machinations and political considerations of its patrons and overlords. Miles’ book does not exclude mentioning these elements of the story, however, he treats them as marginal when they would seem to underpin the particulars and have a rightful place in the center.
Philllip Knightley’s chapter “No More Heroes March-April 2003” reflects on role of war correspondents in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During this campaign the state clearly viewed the instrumental strengths of the media—hoping to use its broad message to mold the unfolding combat. Knightley includes a correspondent’s observation that “if word comes out at Centcom that there’s an uprising against Saddam’s regime, [that is because] they [Centcom] can be thinking, planning and hoping that the information will be picked up and local people will build on that and an idea will become reality even if it never existed in the first place” (536). In other words the state not only displays the tendency to not only patronize the media to its own ends, but incorporate it as an appendage of the state itself. Knightley argues that coverage of the invasion of Iraq in spring of 2003 was largely a product of journalism operating under the cynical morality of the Bush administration: “You’re either with us or you’re against us”. War correspondents were faced with the choice of embedding with Coalition military units or pursuing their journalism “unilaterally”. In Iraq, journalists operating in enemy territory were liable to be targeted as enemies, and in many cases were. Knightley mentions the bombing of Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau as well as an instance in which an American tank was filmed aiming and opening fire on Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, a location known to be housing media. Although the details of this incident remain somewhat obscured, the military’s assertion that the tanks were drawing sniper fire from the hotel continue to baffle, considering that eye witness accounts and the empirical evidence of audio records contradict this claim. Knightley’s conclusion is that the 2003 Iraq campaign demonstrates that the new morality governing war correspondence is almost unilaterally defined by the state, and transgression is corrected by draconian means. State mastery over the dissemination of information has largely castrated the media, since alternative voices can forcibly silenced and affirmations are easily propagated. Knightley does not end on an optimistic note, but he is not without hope either (writing the chapter itself expresses this). He ponders the question of whether the audacity and courage of journalists will be enough to offset the monolith of the state, and essentially whether the sword is conclusively mightier than the pen.
While Miles’ book demonstrates that even those mediums identified as the bastions of objectivity and truth are invariably not that, it is not to say that one should forsake truth altogether and arbitrarily pick one position. While truth may be subjective and knowledge only instrumental, the soundest and most verifiable opinions are probably still preferable, and these will not be afforded by reliance on extrinsic authorities (Knightley’s anxiety about state-control, and my dissatisfaction with Miles’ portrayal of Al-Jazeera). Reason demands opinions that can encompass and account for numerous alternatives.