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The media-driven perception void grows between Americans and Arabs

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With the appearance of The War's Dark Side: Filling in the Blanks I thought it useful to bring current the comments made to a private list regarding Perceptions: Where Al-Jazeera & Co. Are Coming From that appeared almost a year earlier.

When you are raised near Mexico, and travel the third world, you are mindful that the 'gruesome and sensational' to an American readership are the informative norms of many other countries. I keenly remember being in Mexico during the run-up to a presidential election and reading a common newspaper that had large ads from the PRI candidate on one page and on the opposing page multiple unretouched photos and story of two teens that had been cut in two by a train and their remains had yet to be removed from the scene. The point I am after is that the PRI saw fit to advertise its candidate in solemn tones in a paper that a US candidate would have avoided.

Now inject the mounting Abu Ghraib photos into an Arab, perhaps even wider Muslim, culture that often uses imagery (to us sensational imagery) over text to deliver its message, is already inflamed against the US to a degree that is not appreciated by US readers, interprets those images through a subtext alien to US readers, and you will see that the Abu Ghraib photos extend and reinforce a belief system that rose with the Crusaders and continued through Western colonial occupation, Suez, all the Arab-Israeli wars, the Intifada, and now Iraq:

Americans and Israelis are barbaric, and these images prove it. Arabs are heroic in their asymmetrical victories (peasant posed next to a downed helicopter) and in their sufferings (massive grisly casualty images, and the more women and children the better). The only US, Israeli, or Coalition forces events shown are their setbacks. It is clear the Arabs watch a completely different war than do US nationals. Each is reinforced by the 'truth' that they see and become increasingly less willing to negotiate or offer any benefit of the doubt.

The format may resemble CNN but the news template being used is the Palestinian struggle against Israelis, with the US getting top line billing as the villain. Perceptions notes that:

"Here in the United States, we tend to think of images only in terms of cameras and television: Photography is separate from narrative. In the Arab world, language is full of images, which cannot be separated from narrative. Arabic is a metaphorical language, rich in shades of meaning. The image-based style of the Arabic language acts as an excellent interface with pictures. Thus television is terribly important. Consider the effect achieved, for example, when Majid Abdul Hadi, an al-Jazeera reporter in Baghdad, shows a picture of a coalition bomb landing while referring to Baghdad as the pulsing heart of the Muslim caliphate, a pulsing heart engulfed in flame."

You have to watch it to get the visceral impact. The Palestinian template emphasizes the asymmetrical war, the struggle of poorly armed against first world armies in which those whom we call insurgents are called resistance fighters by the Arab press, and our forces whom need to describe as either a peacekeeping or coalition force are described by them as invaders and occupiers. Is there no wonder that the US funded attempt to show a balanced, somewhat VOA style of broadcasting with al Hurra is seen as more state sponsored-speak by Arab readers?

In response to the question as to what all other Arab stations uncritically absorb the product of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the reply was that the staff now at these stations were "by and large recruited from state-owned television networks throughout the Arab world [and[ are reacting to their own past [and now] pushing the envelope." Now it is "political nudity" rather than belly dancing titillation that dominates the attention of Arab eyeballs.

Perceptions closes with an admonition that the Arab press was disgraced once before by its fanciful reporting in the 1967 war with Israel and took "almost 25 years for the Arab media to regain some credibility" and that their current reporting could cost them dearly again. Possibly, but US interests will suffer for decades confronting a generation that will grow up with these Arab images that we have helped create.

The War's Dark Side: Filling in the Blanks chronicles the film documentaries of Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim'a "Control Room" and Spaniard Esteban Uyarra's "War Feels Like War." The War's Dark Side drives home the lessons of Perceptions -- in images. "Control Room" examines al-Jazeera and Coalition Media Center, capturing the "immense hostility toward American actions in Iraq, anger that existed a year ago but is just now truly registering" in the US. The US PIO wisely notes that "no American connects" Palestine and Iraq while all Arabs see them as "the exact same thing."

The War's Dark Side nails it on the BBC as the "most valuable, accessible supplement to the hermetic American view." We listen to the beeb (audio) twice a day and it is often running while we work. It covers many more subjects that do US broadcasters save for PBS, its reports are pointed, and its journalists are anything but differential, to the point of often quite intrusive when they don't think that their interviewee is sufficiently forthcoming. No "Yes, Minister" obsequiousness for the beeb.

Perceptions: Where Al-Jazeera & Co. Are Coming From
By Mamoun Fandy
Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2003; Page B01

The War's Dark Side: Filling in the Blanks
By CARYN JAMES
May 21, 2004
New York Times

Gordon Housworth



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