Archive for April 2003

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[eccr] TIME: What You See vs. What They See

Tue Apr 01 21:17:17 GMT 2003

Title: TIME: What You See vs. What They See

What You See vs. What They See

The Arab networks are not without bias, but they often fill in missing pictures from the war

By James Poniewozik

Posted Sunday, March 30, 2003; 2:31 p.m. EST
In this war, the mighty but merciful allies target bombs carefully and tend to the enemy's wounded. In that war, the allies blow up women and babies. In this war, Iraq is postponing certain defeat by cheating, killing civilians and using human shields. In that war, a weak nation is steadfastly defending itself using the only effective means available. This war, on American television, is alternately "the war in Iraq" or "Operation Iraqi Freedom." That war, broadcast by the media of the Arab and Muslim worlds, is "the invasion."

It is hardly unusual for two camps to see the same war differently. But in 1991, Western, Arab and Muslim audiences used their rooting interests to filter the same source: American TV. This time, Arab audiences and Muslims outside the Middle East have homegrown TV networks to reflect their perspectives and, sometimes, bias‹Qatar's widely known al-Jazeera, available on some U.S. satellite and cable systems; Al Arabia; Abu Dhabi TV; and more. (You probably watch them too‹American TV uses rebroadcast deals to pick up selected footage.) Arabs and Muslims distrustful of Western media‹like Turkish students and professors who burned a TV last week to protest CNN's "one-sided" coverage‹are happy to have their own alternatives. "We saw [Gulf War I] through the eyes of Peter Arnett," says Nabil El-Sharif, editor in chief of Jordan's Ad-Dustour newspaper, referring to a war correspondent for CNN in 1991. "Now we're seeing the war through Arab eyes."

Arab eyes were a crucial consideration in planning Gulf War II. Its targets and tactics were chosen to avoid stirring up anti-American sentiment. But that strategy has not led to friendly coverage on Arab and Muslim TV or a warm reception from its audiences. Like U.S. TV, the Arab networks show briefings, sound bites from George W. Bush and Tony Blair, allied advances and even interviews with coalition troops (al-Jazeera has a reporter embedded with U.S. forces). But they also show charred bodies lying beside gutted cars. Cameras linger over dead allied soldiers and bandaged Iraqi children. Mourning families wail, and hospitals choke with bleeding and burned civilians. If the war on American TV has been a splendid fireworks display and tank parade punctuated by press conferences, on al-Jazeera et al., war is hell.

For its grisly pictures and aggressive coverage of the coalition, al-Jazeera in particular has been treated as a fifth column in the West. U.S. and British officials condemned it for airing footage of allied POWs' corpses, and the New York Stock Exchange and nasdaq have ejected al-Jazeera reporters. Hackers attacked its English-language website, replacing it with a red-white-and-blue U.S. map and the slogan "Let Freedom Ring". What better motto for people who shut down a news outlet?

Arab media observers see some slant in the Arab networks' language and image choices, but they also see bias in Western TV, with its reliance on Administration and military talking heads and flag-waving features like MSNBC's pandering "America's Bravest" wall of G.I. photos. Arab networks play to their audience too, which in their case means skepticism of allied claims, lots of tear jerking, and talking heads who doubt American motives and prowess. "Arab commentators don't dare say Iraq will lose the war," says Musa Keilani, editor in chief of Jordan's Al-Urdon newspaper. But, says Abdullah Schleifer, a professor of TV journalism at the American University in Cairo, al-Jazeera has become "more detached and balanced" since the days after 9/11, when it portrayed Osama bin Laden as a noble Arab champion.

Indeed, straight news on the Arab networks in many ways offers viewers a more complete and inside look at the war than U.S. TV does. They are given greater access by Baghdad, which sees them‹as it saw CNN in 1991‹as a conduit to the outside world. With more reporters and cameras in Iraqi cities, Arab networks often have better camera positions on aerial attacks and show much more of what those pretty explosions wreak bloodily on the street. U.S. TV tends to treat civilian victims in the context of showing allied medics helping them, and some of its coverage of the war's effects on civilians is insultingly picturesque. ABC's Peter Jennings narrated a travelogue-like "portrait gallery" that included a still image of healthy Iraqi kids walking in the rubble. "Don't you always wonder," he intoned unctuously, "what the children are thinking?" On the Arab networks, there's little need to wonder. "Arab channels know [graphic] images address the co re consciousness of their viewers," says Issan Mousa, professor of media studies at Yarmouk University in Jordan. "For the Arab audience, these are the defining image of the war."

Political and cultural considerations aside, Arab viewers have other reasons to trust these networks. They have often had more accurate information. U.S. networks and the BBC reported a revolt against Iraqi troops by Shi‘ite Muslims in Basra last week, airing video of allied forces firing supportive artillery into the city. On Fox News, anchor Neil Cavuto crowed, "Don't look now, but the Shi‘ites have hit the fan!" But al-Jazeera had a correspondent inside Basra, which appeared relatively orderly‹quiet streets and groups chanting pro-Saddam slogans. Later the Western networks backpedaled. And for four days after U.S. TV said the allies had taken the port city of Umm Qasr, al-Jazeera correctly reported resistance there.

Though satellite dishes are common in Arab cities, many people watch TV at restaurants and cafés, where the communal mood takes shape. At the Ajyad restaurant in Amman one recent lunch hour, that mood was dark. On two 14-in. TVs, al-Jazeera carried video from a Baghdad market hit by missiles. As Iraqis pulled the mutilated dead from the rubble and the camera lingered on a boy with blood streaming from his head, waiters paused, holding their steaming plates of lamb stew. "This blood must be avenged," taxi driver Ata Ali said angrily. "We will see pictures of American children bleeding like that, God willing."

"God willing," responded his friends. The diners sniggered at American "softies" chafing at the desert conditions and disparaged White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer, who is Jewish. "This just proves the Jews are behind this war," said Nabil Abu Maazin, an electrician. Another man said he sometimes watches CNN. "It's very boring," he said. "They never seem to talk to real people, only experts. The Arab channels show you real people and how the war is affecting them."

In fact, Western and Arab media are driven by the same imperative‹to feed the hunger for human interest. Their interests are simply in different humans. On U.S. TV it means press conferences with soldiers who have hand and foot injuries and interviews with POWs' families, but little blood. On Arab and Muslim TV it means dead bodies and mourning. History will have to sort out many points on which Western and Middle Eastern TV differ: how effective the allied war effort is, how warmly Iraqis will receive its results and which media are most accurate and neutral. What we do know is that war is a horrible thing in which people die horribly. So far, there is no question which networks own that story.

‹Reported by Aparisim Ghosh/Amman, Amany Radwan/Cairo and Pelin Turgut/Istanbul

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