Columbia Univ. Dart Center Interview

Columbia Univ. Dart Center Interview For Journalism and Trauma

(Feb. 1, 2011) A media scholar explains how Arab news professionals, under siege as governments seek to manage their message, see themselves as agents of change in a turbulent time.

Note: A media revolution unleashed 15 years ago with the launch of independent satellite network Al Jazeera is now playing out in the streets of the Arab world, as demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere protest against entrenched and autocratic regimes. In his timely new book, “The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil,” media scholar Lawrence Pintak examines how Arab news professionals, under siege as governments seek to manage their message, see themselves agents of change. Pintak, a longtime journalist and founding dean of Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, has shattered stereotypes with his research, shedding light on the media’s role in complex new political and social realities of the Mideast. He answers questions from the Dart Center’s Joan Connell.

You write that there’s a new town crier in the global village – one who speaks with an Arabic accent. How are independent satellite networks – along with print, Internet and social media – transforming the political and social landscape of the Arab world?

There is a direct line that connects the Arab media revolution and the current political upheaval. The launch of Al Jazeera in 1996 changed everything and injected a new sense of passion and commitment to Arab journalism. Today there are some 500 Arab satellite channels and a newly aggressive community of independent newspapers.

Political activists using the tools of social media have changed the very nature of dissent in the Arab world, but it is the partnership with satellite television that has given them the incredible power we are seeing in recent weeks.

The Egyptian government may have severed the Internet and cut most cell phone service, making it more difficult for the activists to organize, but the fact that Egyptians – and Arabs across the region – can watch events live on the streets of Egypt’s main cities means that the energy of the uprising continues to be galvanized.

Your research on this new generation of Arab journalists reveals a unique sense of mission, identity and professionalism. What did you find?

A survey my team conducted a few years ago found that three-quarters of Arab journalists believe their mission is that of driving political and social change. While the cliché might be that Palestine and U.S. policy trumps everything else in the Arab journalist’s worldview, that is not the case.

They are most concerned about “domestic” issues like political reform, education, human rights and the social good. But they are also frank about the state of their industry, ranking the lack of journalistic professionalism as the greatest threat to Arab journalism, but threats from governments also rank very high.

How do these journalists reconcile notions of national identity with their larger identities as Arabs and as Muslims? Is the western notion – however flawed – of detached, dispassionate newsgathering giving way to a different model?

Arab journalists have a strong sense of Arabness, thinking of themselves as Arabs or Muslims first and only then identifying with their nation of birth – and an increasing portion of them think of themselves as journalists above all. This tracks their strong commitment to the Arab people.

Arab journalists wear their Arabness on their sleeves and what is true of the individual reporters is equally true of their news organizations. Al Jazeera calls itself an “Arab media service with a global orientation” and rival Al Arabiya declares itself to be an “Arabic station, from the Arabs to the Arabs, delivering content that is relevant to the Arabs.”

That commitment to the people and the region has a direct impact on how Arab journalists approach their job. They see themselves as defenders of the Arab world and the Arab people; that breeds a crusading mentality in which commitment takes the place of detachment and passion replaces dispassion.

You call newsgatherers “border guards” of a new Arab community – one that transcends the arbitrary boundaries imposed on the Mideast by colonial and occupying powers. What does that community look like? What does it expect from its journalists?  Are they accomplishing the mission?

It is a new sense of identity in which the short-term goals of the region’s three powerful political movements – pan-Arab nationalism, nation-state nationalism and Islamism – converge to take on the region’s autocrats, to drive out foreign forces, to bolster human rights and to challenge Israel.

It is a new Arab consciousness that has been fueled by a sense of shared anger and humiliation, as viewed through the prism of Arab satellite television. It is an Arab version of what nationalism scholar Benedict Anderson called “the Imagined Community” that links a people. Arab journalists are at the forefront of this emerging identity. In many ways, they are its authors and certainly its defenders. It is a role in which they are extremely effective, as witnessed by events of recent weeks.

We’ve seen how some Arab governments respond to this newly energized media: Mubarak shut down the Internet and pulled the plug on Al-Jazeera last week; hours later the network was back on the air. Tunisia’s president left office without a fight. Yet Saudi Arabia is unmoved. Is it too soon to conclude that the new Arab journalists can help bring about real change?

Ben Ali resigned. He would not have done so without the kind of coverage that galvanized the opposition. Egypt is in turmoil; that was a direct result of Tunisian coverage. This is concrete evidence of the impact of Arab media on change. Will it continue to spread? Who knows. Can media alone create change? Absolutely not. But it can act as a catalyst, as we are seeing today.

For local and regional journalists in the Arab world, newsgathering remains a low-paying and dangerous pursuit. Tell us more about the challenges these journalists face: How do they acquire the skills they need to practice their craft? What keeps them resilient? What gives them hope?

The average Arab journalist makes a few hundred dollars a month. He – and most are men – is poorly educated and is likely to have had no journalistic training before joining a news organization. Journalists are constantly harassed, threatened, beaten and, too often, killed. They face pressures from the government, from extremist groups and from their own bosses [because] so many news organizations are owned by governments, political parties or politically connected businessmen. To be sure, some are cynical, corrupt or burnt out. But many are energized by the possibility of change, by the fact that they do have the potential to change things for their people.

Journalistically, I am a child of Watergate. When I went to journalism school, we all wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein and bring down a president. I see that among Arab journalists today. Even those in highly constrained, government-owned news organizations see what their colleagues at Al Jazeera and newspapers like Egypt’s Al Masri Al Youm are doing and they want to do the same.

They are also hungry for training. They recognize that their lack of professionalism is their Achilles heel and they anxiously grab any opportunity to bolster their skills, often funded by USAID and EEC governments.

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