The Media used as Weapons? Crossed views between East and West
To what extent can the East and the West inflict damage on one another through the media? And how much good can they do each other? A number of television producers – such as Al Jazeera in Arabic at a pan-Arab level, and like CNN, BBC World, and Sky, in English at a global level – have begun to provide information (as well as entertainment and all the rest) for supranational audiences. In places not covered by satellite TV there is always the internet. We need to address the consequences of this new situation, as well as initiatives that could be taken in this new era, to encourage the understanding of others and lower the risk of a radicalization of the images of others, to then worsen them in our own imagination and vice versa.
This is the text of the speech held by the author at the Doha International Conference, organised in Qatar by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations on February 26th 2008.
Could one summarize the subject we wish to debate in the following question: to what extent can the East and the West inflict damage on one another through the media? Could we also with greater optimism and in a more constructive sense ask ourselves how much good they could do each other? Television is a mass means of communication that throughout almost the whole second half of the twentieth century has had a typically national characteristic, for linguistic and cultural reasons, and for a very long time also for technological ones. Things changed with the advent of digital satellite technology, with satellite dishes, - and then also thanks to the internet – although in most cases television has maintained a basically national profile.
A number of television producers – such as Al Jazeera in Arabic at a pan-Arab level, and like CNN, BBC World, and Sky, in English at a global level – have begun to provide information (as well as entertainment and all the rest) for supranational audiences. When speaking on television, Italian, English or American politicians address their voters, because all politics are local and because politicians need the votes of their compatriots. This is what the editors-in-chief of news programmes believe. They rarely think of what is said and broadcast also considering those living on the other side of the world, in another cultural and political context. This happens only in particular circumstances (the Italian Prime Minister spoke on Al Jazeera after the very serious incident in Bengasi, caused in 2006 by a minister from La Lega party, but the disturbances were a protest resulting from his appearance on a normal Italian news program also broadcast later by Arab networks).
What we wish to emphasize here is this international dimension, also because this is a new era in which televised news production intentionally addresses other nationalities and cultures in their own languages. During World War II the radio was used in such a manner for political objectives, and then during the Cold War television was used too, but to a lesser extent. Technology now cheaply brings the channels from other countries everywhere. A number of western networks produce Arab language TV channels and Al Jazeera International produces programmes in English at a global level. In places not covered by satellite TV there is always the internet. And all this is normal, or is becoming normal. What we wish to address here are the consequences of this new situation, as well as initiatives that could be taken in this new era, to encourage the understanding of others and lower the risk of a radicalization of the images of others, to then worsen them in our own imagination and vice versa.
One example could be L. Pintak’s reconstruction of the episode involving Palestinians dancing for joy over 9/11 and the two urban legends resulting from this: on one hand the fact that Arab populations might be rejoicing over this event, on the other the fact that American television stations might have created false reports about these episodes to prepare for the war. The danger is not only that televisions channels could be used as weapons and used intentionally as such. More often there is the risk of finding oneself handling material that explodes accidentally and unintentionally; and this can be even more dangerous. Let us therefore address both the voluntary and desired effects as well as involuntary and undesired ones.
The aforementioned episode involving the 9/11 “jubilation dance”, also discussed by Pintak in his book (America, Islam and the War of Ideas), is an extremely important one, because it shows how choices made by television stations, with a brief sequence of images repeated many times, (in that specific case especially in America), increase misunderstandings and render conflict even more bitter. The story of two different tunnel visions of two “misperceptions based on fallacies”, both destined to structure “the relationship that was to follow, providing an early glimpse of the bloodshot lens through which Americans and the people of the Muslim world would view each other” began with those few seconds of images (Pintak). However much one publishes survey data (Pew) indicating that confidence in Bin Laden generally concerns a small minority within Arab countries, not differing greatly from those involved with extremist and violent movements in western countries (with the exception of those directly involved in the Middle Eastern conflict where the percentages are higher), the tendency to simplify and generalize is increased by the repetition of these images of small groups of people burning the American flag. On the other hand, the use of images portraying innocent victims of American bombardments in Afghanistan or reports on Guantanamo or Abu Graib result in effects in proportion to the televised screening of these extreme images, rather than the specific seriousness of events. Those involved in news production are well-aware of all this. When working on events with international characteristics and programmes broadcast all over the world, one’s professional responsibility is immense wherever one may be working.
Distance and cultural differences can intensify the problem. Taking Italy as an example, no one could, within this national context, manage to persuade us that the young men seen in clashes with the police in Italian or French cities actually represent Italian or French youth, while the optical effect added to geographical and cultural distance can result in identifications of this kind. I will leave the analysis of the most enlightening cases to a number of experts; how many people warmly welcomed Saddam during one of his last appearances in a square in Bagdad, when he still controlled the TV cameras? And how many instead celebrated the demolition of his statue after the American occupation? And how numerous did both these crowds appear to be on television? The manipulation of images by TV directors is no different to the system used all over the world during election campaigns. To precisely appreciate the manner, the context and the substance of judgment concerning episodes of terrorism or news reports that are very sensitive with regards to East-West relations and the West-versus the Muslim world, one needs very powerful comparative, linguistic, cultural and political skills that are also extremely rare.
Al Jazeera and terrorism
There are some situations that are singled out in the West, but also in many Arab countries, as being careless or complicit as far as terrorism is concerned, for example broadcasts of videos of Bin Laden or Al Zawahiri (and that in very tense periods resulted in people saying that Al Jazeera was an electronic podium or a “megaphone” provided to terrorists). From a different perspective, we also know that various Arab governments criticize Al Jazeera’s use of the subject of terrorism, but also because any uninhibited form of journalism disturbs constituted order and provides space that can be used to give voice to political opposition. One has to remember that the accusations of “acting as a megaphone” for terrorism should not appear so dramatic and exceptional. I would like to downsize the problem. It appears whenever terrorist criminals of any kind have succeeded in their objectives. It happened in Germany and in Italy during the Seventies and the Eighties, simply because the press reported the terrorists’ violent attacks or their threats, and especially when it published documents explaining the motivations inspiring the Red Brigades or the Rote Armee Faktion (RAF).
Italian journalists were arrested after interviews with terrorists on the run. I cannot remember any case in which the accusations were valid. The line drawn between freedom of information (and the citizens’ right to be informed) and complicity with criminals can at times become a thin one at all latitudes, just as at all latitudes security measures against terrorism risk to result in an intolerable restriction of individual freedom. The post-9/11 situation has also greatly worried American journalists and a large part of public opinion. Pressure exercised on television and the press resulted in people speaking of powerful conditioning by the administration as well as censorship. A cascading form of controlling opinions has also been mentioned (cascading, Robert Entman, Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy, University of Chicago Press, 2004), which explains as how baseless theses – such as a connection between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – managed to maintain high credibility at length among Americans.
Generally speaking, urban legends tend to worsen the portrayal of others. A strong, powerful and perverse image of the other as an enemy is always a good psychological base for politicians experiencing difficulties: the ideology of the enemy, the paranoid system of thinking-by-enemies is hence always a nearby trap. The “reduction of the identity” of others, of foreigners and immigrants, especially if they have a different culture and religion, is a temptation easily succumbed to for politicians wishing to speculate. Xenophobia works during certain periods and it brings in votes. Stereotypes do not help one observe “the chaos existing in the other” (Amos Oz), the multiplicity of his identities (Amartya Sen). And so as to avoid this taking root everyone must help. I was pleased to read in the Al-Ahram Weekly what Osama El-Ghazali Harb has written: Arabs and Muslims must also learn to shake off stereotypes, making sure that their condemnation of acts of violence carried out in the name of their religion, everywhere from Pakistan to Chechnya to the Middle East, is loudly heard. A bad image is created by two sides; our own defects are added to the deformation applied by others. Much depends on the mediation exercised by television, although of course, as suggested by a contemporary philosopher (Charles Taylor), we all have the “savages” in our own countries and the most effective commitment is for everyone to keep their own “savages” under control and not those of others.
One could object that we are addressing terrorism and violence excessively here. But this is no coincidence, because televised communication, in news programmes, is dominated by violence and terrorism for reasons intrinsic in their nature. Current selection criteria, the very nature of journalism leads to this for reasons that are perfectly understandable, and mainly the right ones, privileging the dramatic events in international news. Should one search for the criteria according to which news is produced, one would discover that it is in the nature of things to radicalize reality selecting the tragedies. The internal pulsion of televised news, and not only bad and partisan news, but also that of “good” news programmes, inevitably moves in the direction of bad news. This is the nature of things. Good news provides little news. Televised information is as presented in news programmes – I am obviously now speaking of Western news programmes – because dominated by the competition for conquering viewers. News is part of the commercial competition between television channels and networks just like the entertainment sector, with very few exceptions (the BBC).
Specific treatment must be used for the Arab TV-channels considering the analogies and differences they have compared to standard commercial Western TV. Competition for audiences increasingly conditions language, timing, and the manner in which information is organised. It has not always been like this. Commercial networks (American ones) initially had assessment criteria addressed at overall approval, rather than the number of viewers minute by minute, and public European networks had an institutional mission at the service of public opinion, a mission that underwent a crisis almost everywhere after the Eighties, due to competition within this same sector coming from the commercial networks. Furthermore, the commercialization of the number of viewers has over time increased, following an acceleration of rhythms, spectacularity, superficiality and sensationalism that is still ongoing. News programmes, especially the most important prime time ones, televised information, have now emphasized phenomena one can catalogue (using Lance Bennett’s specific system, News. The Politics of Illusion, New York 2005) as follows:
A) Personalization: News tends to discard all conceptual abstractions and concatenations: the party, the nation, the government, etc. are more and more exclusively identified with people. This simplification and this incarnation of facts in people result also in an inevitable tendency to superficiality. There is time to see the face and recognize the gestures, but not to appreciate and assess the arguments. Statements have become increasingly short: in American news programmes the average has been calculated at about ten seconds.
B) Fragmentation and segmentation: news is reduced to such brevity that it prevents the illustration of a context within which it can be placed and supporting elements for understanding it that would require more time. There is a lack of background information.
C) Dramatization: selection of the news to be used within the timeframe allowed, privileges violence and extreme events. This is the general characteristic of the principle of newsworthiness: it is obvious that a bomb in a market is more newsworthy than a day at the market with no bombs, however, the radicalisation of this principle ends up by excluding non-violent news, above all because violence makes the ratings go up. The result is a catastrophic portrayal of the world also when times are relatively quiet.
D) Prevalence of the disorder-order layout: also paying homage to the approval of governments that love to be approved of and supported, there is a very strong impulse to emphasize news threatening social and public order, so as to strengthen the reactions of public opinion in favour of order. Hence governments in general, especially when experiencing problems, greatly appreciate news causing great alarm (terrorist threats) and resulting in a desire for protection.
E) Indexing, the race for being among the first with breaking news: political power’s desire to condition televised information is seen through initiatives capable of conquering the highest possible attention, thereby putting less pleasant news in second place. Governments have various means for rendering events public with statements and the actions of their ministries, facts catching attention, and if possible also at a time suitable for achieving their objectives. The criteria leading governments to use this power are usually dominated by an internal agenda and pay very little attention to concerns addressing international order.
News trends therefore follow their own path. What we have seen in recent years, with the war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, has shown how the kind of information that reached American public opinion, and what reached the countries involved, and in general Muslim countries, resulted in different perceptions, distant and conflicting with facts, with significant consequences resulting in errors being made. The war in Iraq was experienced by Americans as if it had provided great relief, and without a perception, if not much later, of any of the elements that instead caused very negative reactions both in Iraq and in most of the countries in the area. Deformations in media portrayals of reality are hence not without consequences and can exasperate conflicts that are already by themselves extremely difficult.
What could one ask of the world of politics?
- To assess the criteria with which politicians decide what to communicate and how to do this, based on criteria that are not exclusively domestic ones, introducing into their agendas systematic attention to the effects of their own gestures on the global stage.
- To promote an investment in resources for a form of communication richer in background, capable of attracting attention but also of critically enriching public opinion. Wherever there is a public television network (such as everywhere in Europe), one must return honour to the institutional function, usually described perfectly in the public network’s deeds or in the service contracts between the company and the State (and never or very rarely implemented).
- To plan public initiatives and stimulate private initiatives addressed at developing satellite channels capable of crossing cultural and linguistic borders, dedicating programmes to high quality information and not only for their own original communities in their own languages (RAI International for Italians abroad, DW for Germans abroad etc), but also so as to reach different communities speaking different languages, such as Arabic, from the north to the south of the Mediterranean.
- To promote more intense intercultural relations in bilateral and multilateral forms.
- To encourage within Europe the training of a generation of journalists fluent in Arabic and in other languages, making national television stations more sensitive and competent when addressing subjects that concern countries with different cultures. Professional exchanges in every sense should be intensified between European and Arab countries.
Giancarlo Bosetti is editor-in-chief of the magazine Reset. His latest book is entitled: "Spin. Trucchi e tele-imbrogli della politica" (Marsilio 2007).