America’s Media Bubble

CAIRO (Oct. 19, 2006) — The United States no longer controls the script. That's a reality Democratic congressional leaders must digest as they seek to recast America's relationship with the world.

There used to be a time when the U.S. media wrote the global narrative. The world saw itself through a largely American camera lens. No more. The launch last week of Al Jazeera International, the English-speaking cousin to the channel the Bush administration loves to hate, is just the latest reminder of that.

U.S. foreign policy is being reflected through a blinding array of prisms. Yet America continues to pursue an analogue communications strategy in a digital age.

Just look at the satellite landscape. Here in the Middle East, we can watch more than 300 channels, from Hezbollah's Al Manar (labeled a terrorist organization by the United States) to Fox News (which, to borrow Fox's favorite line, "some people say" is the moral equivalent).

Turkey, India, Singapore - wherever you look overseas, all-news satellite channels are de rigueur. France 24 launches in a few weeks to bring "French values" to global coverage. China has a channel. Russia Today will soon broadcast in Arabic. Latin America has a continent-wide all-news channel. Africans are also talking about one. And then, of course, there's the Internet.

The perspective of these channels is different. So is the spin. The American election was a big story here in the Middle East, but cheering Democrats shared the screen with gut-wrenching images of blood-drenched Palestinian children torn to shreds by Israel tank shells as they lay asleep in their beds. More of those "birth pangs of a new Middle East" that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about last summer. Americans may be talking change, but Arabs, watching those scenes repeat endlessly through the day, saw business as usual.

Journalistic bias? Like terrorism, it's in the eye of the beholder. After five years of Sturm und Drang from the Bush administration about the evils of the Arab media, American officials still don't really get it. The genie is out of the lamp. News people abroad - whether Arabs, Irish, or Zimbabweans - do see the world, and U.S. policy, differently than their American counterparts. Their news organizations will report differently. It's a fact.

Even more important , every statement, every offhand comment is reported instantly. Live. 24/7. There is no place to hide. No such thing as Davos rules. Just ask the pope. Like politics, all policy is local. It's no longer just about how it plays in Peoria. There's also Peshawar and Pretoria.

American officials can no longer say one thing and do another. Television footage of babies killed with U.S. ordinance has far more influence on perceptions of policy than all the feel-good speeches aimed at the heartland. Ditto images of the president in front of a huge cross at a gathering of evangelical groups. Who says it's not a Christian war on Islam?

Don't underestimate the audience. They are media- savvy. Take the Thai cleric who said the Saddam Hussein verdict was timed to affect U.S. "domestic politics." And he's 2,000 miles from the Middle East. Imagine what Arabs were thinking.

Yet American officials who should know better still don't get it. A U.S. public diplomacy official involved in communicating with the Muslim world recently asked me if there were Arab blogs. Only hundreds - and they are changing the face of Arab politics.

The reality of the new digital world means that Americans may not like what they see. These channels will show the often yawning gap between words and deeds. "We are not there to be diplomatically correct," Al Jazeera's managing director, Wadah Khanfar, recently told me. "We are there to practice journalism."

Yes, some of the coverage - whether on Al Jazeera or other channels - will be biased, distorted and sensational. Deal with it. American officials must engage, not demonize. They must find a way to communicate, not preach. But most of all, they must be aware that their every word and deed is being viewed real-time, often in a split screen showing the reality for folks at the receiving end of U.S. policy.

As Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Western broadcasters last week, "To have a lack of communication between cultures at a time of such technological development is very sad and contradictory." The talk was carried live on satellite television. The question is, was anyone in Washington watching?

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